This is an interview with Lee McBee from December 1999, just before he left Mike Morgan and The Crawl.
Lee McBee, No Longer Crawling
as told to Don O.
Lee McBee has long been a part of one of the DFW area's favorite bands, Mike Morgan and The Crawl. As of January 1, that has changed. Lee has returned home to Lawrence, Kansas where he will team up with guitarist Bill Dye in a duo format. Mike is starting a new band, which at least for now, will be a two guitar band with Robin Syler. After more than 10 years together and 6 successful albums for Blacktop Records, McBee and Morgan have gone their separate ways.
This is not the first time these two local favorites have taken their own road. Mike Morgan took a brief hiatus from music in the early 90's. Lee left the band in late 1993, pursued a solo career based in Kansas, and recorded an excellent CD for Red Hot Records. Unfortunately, in the almost 3 years he was out of The Crawl, Lee only made it back down to the DFW area one time. Mike continued with The Crawl, recording one CD with Chris Whynaught in the band and a separate CD with Jim Suhler. When Lee finally rejoined The Crawl in 1996 there was much rejoicing.
Over the last three years things have been business as usual for The Crawl with constant touring, a fine new CD for Blacktop Records, trips to Europe, and gigs ranging from small clubs to major festivals. However even in a successful band, there are pressures that most fans never imagine. Lee was commuting long distances from Kansas to a band based in Dallas. Local gigs for the band were road trips for him. The years take their toll, especially when you're away from the woman you love and sleeping in strange bed every night to make your living. Eventually, Lee decided it was time to move on and that time has come.
Before he left, Southwest Blues had to give him a proper send-off with a cover feature. What follows is Lee McBee's story in his own words.
I was born in Kansas City, Missouri. My family is actually from the Fort Worth area. There are a ton of McBees over there. I used to come down to Fort Worth for our family reunion when I was a little boy. I guess I'm a Texan by proxy. My father was a country doctor in Rich Hill, Missouri in the Ozarks. I think there were some problems with the birth so they decided to take my mom to Kansas City to a hospital. Being a country doctor my father usually took care of everything. My brother was born at home. That's the way they did it back in the early 50's, especially in those back woods places. My father worked for people who had no electricity living up in the hills. Dirt poor.
I first started singing in church at about age 3 or 4. I also played drums in the school band. My first memories of singing and my first real memory of deciding I was interested in music was about the time Elvis came out. My brother was really into Elvis. I was always a big fan of my brother. He was into music and I kind of followed him around like little brothers do. When I was about 4 or 5 I used to get payed 25 cents to sing Hound Dog. When I was 5 or 6 we lived in this old hotel from the 1860's on the main street of Lincoln, Missouri. I can remember the place I was standing out front when music started coming into my head.
I was about 12 when The Beatles came out and I was really into that stuff. My father died in 1960, my mom remarried, and we moved to Kansas. My mama worked in honky tonks. Because of her lack of education there were not a lot of job opportunities for her. She did what she could do being a widowed mother of two. I was sneaking around going to bars. I was hearing music all along but it was mostly the real hard core country stuff. There was this place called Chet's Tavern. I used to have to hide underneath this shuffleboard/pool table/bowling machine, between that and the juke box. The club owner said I could hide there and listen to the band, as long as I wasn't seen. In a way it was good for me because to this day I have an undying love of hardcore country music. I just love that stuff from the 50's. I think it is because I grew up listening to it during some real formative years. About age 11 to 14 I was hearing that on a daily basis, even though I was also into The Beatles and the Stones.
Right around the time The Beatles came out, I sat in with my first country band called The Blue Notes. There were 2 singers, one of them did the Buck Owens stuff and the other did the Johnny Cash stuff. They wouldn't let me play drums, which I was doing at that time, but they let me sing a couple of songs. Jimmy played drums and was the brother of Donny who played guitar and did most of the singing in the band. When the drummer left town, Donny asked me to play drums. I started playing a snare drum and did that about two years or so. I wasn't real good. I was always too busy. I was trying to do stuff I couldn't do and that didn't fit. They were always fussing at me to quit doing that kind of stuff. You know how kids are. Harold Lewis used to set me down and have me sing and he'd bring people over and tell them to listen to me. Harold was the first guy who really took me seriously. I have a real soft spot in my heart for Harold. He was the rockabilly guy. He did all the Jerry Lee Lewis stuff. He was wonderful. After that, at about age 14, I started singing in a band called The Bedside Manner doing The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, and that kind of stuff. I was into the edgier stuff. We played around Jefferson, Osage, and Jackson counties in Kansas.
I was about 17 in school in Osage City when I heard a kid named Jimmy Bond playing a harmonica. I was really impressed with the way it sounded and what the guy was doing on it. The town was so small you couldn't find any harmonicas there, so I talked him into selling me the one that he had. It had a couple of notes gone on it. I think I paid $2 for the worn out thing and I think he had paid $1.50 new. I think that guy is rich today. I started messing around and played a couple of songs on it the first day. It kind of came to me naturally. I didn't have anything to listen to or anyone to learn from. The Yardbirds were the only thing I had, but their harp player wasn't the most proficient harmonica player to go by. They were cool, though. I really liked those guys a lot. They did a neat version of I'm a Man where he goes off into this extended space harmonica solo at the end. I messed around with that probably 2 years.
I had been listening to John Mayall around the time Turning Point came out and was really into that. We were living the hippy lifestyle at that time. There was a guy living behind us who was from San Francisco. He came over and we were listening to that record and I was tooting on my harp trying to figure out what Mayall was doing. I told him I thought John Mayall was the best harmonica player in the world. This guy looked at me and said "Son, you don't know nothing!" He took me over to his house and put on George Harmonica Smith's 'Of the Blues' album on Bluesway. When that juicy harmonica started, it changed my life. Within about 4 bars of that song I became a different person. I just couldn't believe a harmonica could sound like that. I went home and literally threw my John Mayall record out the window. From that point on I've been into the Chicago or southern guys the most.
At that time I was drinking and it was that era of self abuse and overindulgence. I didn't get serious with harmonica for almost 10 years. I played and tooted on it, learned the songs, but as far as tongue blocking, technique, and stuff I never got real serious until several years later. I was 18 or 19 then but I didn't get into another band until I was about 24. I went through a real bad time in my life when I really couldn't get anything together. I'd go to practice once, they wouldn't see me again and they'd get someone else and that would be the end of it. People wanted me to play with them, but I just couldn't get it together. At 24 I started playing with country rock bands and stuff like that. I knew that wasn't what I wanted to do, but it was working and playing. I made a little bit of money, I was getting better, plus I was getting to sing some.
It must have been around 1979 or 80 I heard The Fabulous Thunderbirds. That was another real enlightening experience. Kim and those guys came along and just blew my mind. I couldn't believe how wonderful they were. It was at that point that I decided I was really going to try to learn how to play. I was going to do this, this was my calling, this was my life. Just get real hard at it. I got together with a guy named Bill Lynch. We did a lot of blues but we also did a lot of other kinds of music. He was a real good jazz ballad singer. Billie Holiday stuff. I played harp for that .
I first got a call from Mike Morgan while I was with a band called The Rhythm Kings. Mike was up around Lawrence, Kansas playing with Darrell Nulisch in the band. Darrell had gotten a offer from Ronnie Earl in the middle of the tour so Mike was asking around about harp players in the area. Back then I was one of the only ones. I had been playing around there quite a bit up through Lincoln, Wichita, Kansas City, Lawrence, all around. He would ask in each of those places and my name kept coming up. So he called me up and we talked about it but I was real into the band I was in. We were real serious about playing blues and we were taking about doing a record. The first time he called I told him I wanted to stick with what I was doing because I had dedicated myself to it, but I appreciated the call. Well he kept in touch with me for about a year. Later on, Anson saw me play with that band at a festival in Wichita and told Mike he should get ahold of me. At that point Mike started calling me quite often.
Eventually The Rhythm Kings thing started turning into more of a soul band because of the lead singer. I was kind of losing interest just about the time Mike called again and said he was going to be in Kansas City. We weren't playing so I decided to go see him. I think he played halfway through one instrumental and the growth factor I heard from the tape he had sent me one year earlier was so fast. I just got a feeling this was THE guy. At that particular time there wasn't really anybody left for me to play with in that area. I needed to look in a different direction. After I heard him I knew he was into playing with a harmonica and I could really tell that. In July 1988 I decided I need to team up with Mike. Reagan was still President. On September 12, 1988 I moved down to Dallas and I've been with the band pretty steady ever since, except for the couple of years I took off. Being in this band I came across material, players, and things that have been so important in my learning process.
Mike left the band for awhile back in the early 90's and left us in a tough spot. When a band goes through a change like that, where the guy who's name is on the band leaves, it makes it pretty difficult. Jimmy G came in and did a really good job for us on guitar and we toured as just The Crawl. There were gigs we would play where they loved the live show but we couldn't sell a CD because Jimmy wasn't on 'em. There were other times when folks were real bummed because Mike wasn't there and weren't even listening to what Jimmy was doing. When you make a change like that, it's really tough. People in Europe were pretty miffed about it.
They went through some similar things when I left the band myself between late 1993 and August 1996. I didn't believe it, though, because they sounded so good with Chris. Some of the songs I used to sing, it was as if I was hearing them for the first time they sounded so good. They were so strong. It sort of ran it's course though and I was really happy to come back. I was able to go home on that break and make a solo record and keep myself established in the larger scale rather than just playing regionally.
When I was home last time I found guys that I didn't even know were there. Guys like Little Hatch. I didn't know anything about him because he wasn't really playing around much before that time. There's a bunch of people I just discovered up there last time I was home that were great players. Henry Hart is a great harmonica player and a real good showman. Kurt Crandall is another great harmonica player. They've got a real strong blues society. There are lots of places to play. Maybe not quite as much as down here because it's been going on here steadily for so many more years. There is an unbelievable jazz scene there. World class guys. I don't claim to know a lot about jazz but I do know a musician when I hear one and there are some truly awesome jazz players in Kansas City. It's close to home, I have a pretty strong fan base there and there are plenty of clubs to play in, club owners who know me and who I dearly love. There's B.B.s Lawnside BBQ, Grand Emporium, and a bunch of other places to play. Plus I can sleep in my own bed. The scene in Kansas City is really starting to grow.
While I was back on a break from the band I went out to see Little Hatch one night. He had a guitar player with him named Bill Dye. I was just amazed at the depth and what a tasteful player the guy was. He played a bunch of steel slide stuff with Hatch. I wanted to play with him then, but his deal at the time was basically the same as when I was in The Rhythm Kings. He was into the band, doing their record, touring, and wanted to stick with that. I started working with other people around the area until Bill became available. The blues stuff he listens to is another wonderful lowdown, soulful type of blues stuff I wasn't even familiar with. A whole new genre for me. He listens to gospel steel players. To this day Bill keeps flashing all this stuff on me that just makes me holler. Probably 3/4 of the tunes we put together for the new duo is stuff that he has brought to the table. Country fingerpicking blues style stuff, but a little more raw. All kinds of real neat stuff I wasn't familiar with. He is into the west coast style but I feel like he is going to bring his own personality to it. I think everybody is like that. You learn other peoples' stuff then slowly wean yourself off of learning it note for note and developing who you are going to be. Dye has the best work ethic. He practices hours a day. It is his life. His versatility and ability to read me is really nice.
Bill and I are going to try to get out on the road more this time. We want to make the Summer festival circuit and try to make some club gigs down here as well. Bill loves Texas too. He lived in Austin during the 70's. We have been writing a lot of new stuff and planning to do a CD. Creating keeps you young and keeps your heart into it. I'm always going to need to be able to write. I love doing other peoples' material, but only to be able to add to what I write.
Mike and I are two very different people and see a lot of things very differently. But music can bring two very different people together and keep them together for many years. Different as we are, we've always had this spot where we always come down exactly the same. I think we're probably at a fork in the road at this point. Mike has decided he wants to sing and you have to respect him doing what he wants to do. I feel good about getting back home and being to spend more time with my wife and less time out on the road. So I guess it is about the right time. There's no animosity or anything here. There's always frustrations with people when you work with them. Everybody in this band commutes except Mike. Johnny Bradley lives in Austin, Wes Starr commutes from Nashville, and I'm in Kansas. There's always frustrations. I just love playing with Wes and Johnny. Man, I think back on all the other great people I've played with in this band, like Rhandy Simmons Frankie J. Myer, Marc Wilson, Bobby Baranowski. I keep in touch with every one of them and we will be friends for life.
I will miss Texas. Make no mistake about it. I get a little misty sometimes when I think about leaving here. This area has done so much for me. I get choked up thinking about it. There were a few times I'd drive down here and cross the border and sometimes the clouds would break and the sun would shine right when I crossed the Red River into Texas. Sometimes it was tough. I would miss my wife and the drive was long but there was always something to come along and tell me I was doing the right thing. It was a good thing for me and there were constant reminders. Like the time Mike and I backed up B.B. king. Stuff like that. Things that will last me for the rest of my life. Things that will just warm my heart when I look back. I will always love this place. I just want everybody in this area to know how much I love 'em. To be able to tell them right I'd have to be Shakespeare.