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Birth Place: Inverness, Mississippi
Current Residence: Jonesboro, Arkansas Joe Lee, Jazz and Blues legend, was born in Inverness, Mississippi. Joe Lee began performing professionally while still in High School. From touring with the Bill Black Combo in the fifties to owning one of the hottest little recording studios in the United States, Joe Lee has done it all.
------------------------------------- Joe Lee Performing at Blues Fest 95 -----
Papa Joe, as he is affectionately known, opened his studio in the early sixties in Jonesboro, Arkansas. He recorded and produced records on his Alley label throughout the sixties and seventies. One of the first hits on Alley was "Arkansas Twist" by Bobby Lee Trammell which enjoyed popularity in the sixties. Lee's own "Blackeyed Peas" and "Lazy Gal Blues" are some of the best bluesy Jazz ever released.
An Alley Records Reunion has been planned for Blues Fest 97 with many of the artists who recorded on the Alley label returning to Jonesboro to celebrate the unique artist and his life long dedication to music.
Tiny studio had sounds which are now history
by Mike Overall
As state-of-the-art recording studios go these days, it was slightly larger than a good-sized walk-in closet - a cramped space wired for sound and located at the end of a narrow, nondescript alley.
In fact, Variety Recording Studio was "the home of Alley Records," a label which recorded literally hundreds of artists, some of whom still bring excitement to the musical hearts of lovers of Missippippi Delta blues, the rockabilly style which currently claims legions of fans across Europe and the roots of what is now known as that old-time rock and roll.
From the inception in the early years of the late 1960s, when rock and roll had already established, for better or worse, a firm foothold on America's musical landscape, to well into the next decade, Alley Records cranked out everything from one really big hit to a garden variety of recordings representing virtually every kind of music imaginable.
Alley Record's first and only home, located at 213 East Monroe in downtown Jonesboeo, went up in flames last Sunday night when fire destroyed three downtown businesses at te intersection of South Church and East Monroe.
Jonesboro musician Joe Lee, who was at Alley's home from day one, first in the company of other investors and later as the sole operator, looked over the charred remains of his one time business Thursday afternoon, shaking his head at the sheer memory of it all.
"If only those wall could talk," said a friend standing nearby, himself a veteran of countless recording sessions in what for local and area musicians used to be known simply as "the studio" - a veritable hodgepodge of a place whose main concession to decor was cotton baling material draped on each wall to dampen the sound.
Lee reminded him that the walls still "talk," given the fact that he has, at home, hundreds upon hundreds of dusty reel-to-reel tapes which he packed up when the studio door was locked for the last time.
"During those years," Lee said, "we had 146 record releases on the Alley label, 21 on Jon-Ark, and five on the old Papa Joe's label." Add those tapes to the hundreds meore which resulted from "custom sessions" for specific individuals plus the ones Lee and his friends recorded just for the musical fun of it, and there is a prodigious body of recorded sounds preserved for posterity.
Some rather well-known musicians, a few even historic figures in the annals of American music, recorded at Variety.
Scotty Moore and Bill Black, once two-thirds of a musical triumvirate whose most famous member was Elvis Aaron Presley himself, squeezed into Variety's 20 by 20 foot studio area (which included a monstrous old upright piano) to put down some sounds for Lee, who presided over the knobs and levers in his 6 by 10 control booth.
Willie Bloom of Osceola, who had a profound influence on the legendary Delta bluesman Albert King, recorded an album there. "Willie also put down enough additional material for two more albums," Lee said Friday. "I still have those tapes."
Legendary Memphis guitarist Charlie Freeman also recorded at Variety.
Among the hundreds of other players who recorded there were Holly Farris, longtime trumpeteer with "the hardest-working man in show business," James Brown; drummer Sammy Creason of Jonesboro, who has been with singer/songwriter Kris Kristofferson for many years; drummer Paul Lovelace of Paragould, now a vice president of Capitol Records; veteran guitarist Ronnie Coletta of Memphis; bassist Ben Brogdon of Blytheville, a jazz and country specialist whose credits include stints with Chet Atkins, Dolly Parton and the Broadway stage for the hit musical "Best Little Whorehouse in Texas"; early area rocker Billy Lee Riley; well-known Jonesboro entertainer Larry Donn Gillihan; Memphis bassist Tommy McClure, who has backed Willie Nelson and numerous other country and pop music figures; and a core group of Jonesboro and area jazz musicians, many of whom worked at one time or another with the Joe Lee combo.
Many of Variety's one time session players went on to pursue professional careers in music - in symphony orchestras, Las Vegas shows and lounge groups, Broadway pit bands, jazz groups, road bands, rock and show groups, military bands and as advanced music students at such noted schools as Berklee in Boston, North Texas State University, Eastman and others.
Lee was the Trumann High School band director when he, retired Jonesboro physician Dr. Bill Keisker, Dr. Ed Cooper and the late Jonesboro optometrist Dr. Charles Moyers opened Variety and its production namesake, Alley Records.
Keisker, something of an electronics whiz, built the "control board" himself, Lee recalled. "It was transistorized (no vacuum tubes)," which was quite a rarity in those far-off days of American technology.
Lee, who had previously worked as A&R (artist and Repertoire) man for the old Fernwood studio in Memphis, knew how to get a big sound out of a small studio.
"I got a call on night back then from Sam Phillips (Mr. Sun Records himself, whose first and biggest recording star in Memphis was a very young Elvis Presley)," Lee recalled. "He wanted to know how in the hell I got such a good sound from such a small studio."
Although Presley never recorded at Variety, Lee can be heard playing piano on a couple of tracks, cut at Fernwood, from the "Elvis is Back" album, recorded shortly after the pop icon's return from his tour of duty with Uncle Sam.
About Variety's really big hit. Even before the studio was fully equipped and ready to operate, in walked Jonesboro resident Bobby Lee Trammell (he still resides in the city) with two tunes, "Arkansas Twist" (Chubby Checker's "The Twist" had already topped the pop charts, inaugurating a new dance craze) and "It's All Your Fault."
"I kept telling Bobby we didn't have all our equipment installed," Lee said, "But he said he wanted to go ahead and record the tunes before he forgot them."
Trammell's two tunes were recorded - on a home Voice of Music recorder. Since the necessary sound baffles had not been installed in the studio area, Lee spotted an old cost tree in one corner. He fastened coat hangers to the "branches" of the coat tree, threw several coats over the instant wire sculpture, and presto! Trammell had himself a homemade singer's booth.
What ensued after the tunes were recorded - all in the space of the next day - had Lee and the rest of the Variety crew dizzy with a brand of success they had hardly expected in such a short time.
By the end of the next day, Lee had orders for approximately 4,000 records - all before one single disc was pressed!
"It's the only record I know of that got such incredible play before it was ever played on the radio." Lee said.
"Arkansas Twist" "took off," as they say in the pop music industry, skyrocketing to number one in numerous metropolitan areas.
"I'd say it sold right at a million records," Lee said. Unfortunately, he added, a great many pirated copies were pressed and sold to the financial benefit of - well it's still anybody's guess."
In those days, Lee said, small recording studios could go head to head with the big boys, sometimes even ahead of them, with their "hot" records.
Not so today. "Nowadyas you gotta have a promotional video, all kinds of expensive stuff. I just don't believe a small company can make it anymore - not unless they have a lot of money."
The studio's other notable sellers were Lee's own "Blackeyed Peas" and "Sweet and Lovely."
Lee, whose daughter Carole Anne also did her share of engineering at Variety; said all involved got a kick out of pushing Trammell's record. He also said he derived much satisfaction and enjoyment from recording many different styles of music, some of it "laid down" by extremely talented musicians. But he has no qualms when it comes to pinpointing what hours in the studio were, for him, the most rewarding and enjoyable.
"It's when I'd get the jazz guys together," he recalled. "I'd put on a long tape, start her up and we'd play, play, play - hour after hour, into the wee hours of the morning."
The old Alley Studio may be nothing but a charred mess these days, but its soul lives on in the hearts of many a musician who still remembers what it was like to, in the vernacular, "lock" into a musical groove in the elbow to elbow confine of "the studio."
by Mike Overall Originally published in the Jonesboro Sun
Mike Overall is a jazz drummer as well as a journalist and he was there with Joe Lee during the sessions described above.
Joe recorded many of his own tunes on Alley. This is "Black Eyed Peas" one of his best instrumentals.
It Sounds Great
The Alley Record Reunion has become an important part of Blues Fest. Joe always keeps tabs on all the people who were part of Alley's long history. They come to Jonesboro on Labor Day weekend to play with and for Joe. He always says "It Sounds Great"
Joe Lee at the piano
Black Eyed Peas,
copyright by Joe Lee (2:08, 1 Meg)