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Known for his lightning-speed steel playing, Roosevelt Collier was a Guitar Center King of the Blues finalist in 2009. Photo by Nathan Rodriguez
“Come on, man—I was freaked out,” says pedal-steel guru Roosevelt Collier of “hard rock gospel” band the Lee Boys. “I was, like, ‘John Scofield just left his coffee cup on my table. Nobody better touch it!’” Such are the pleasures of life when the incredible players from the sacred-steel circuit step beyond hallowed halls and into the gentile world. “I had the pleasure of him coming in my room for about an hour and talking about my background. We played together and, dude—it was sick.”
Lee Boys consists exclusively of family members: brothers Alvin (guitar), Derrick, and Keith Lee (vocals), and their nephews Alvin Cordy Jr. (bass), Earl Walker (drums), and Collier (pedal steel guitar). From about age 7, they all learned to play multiple instruments and grew up performing sacred-steel music at the House of God Church in Perrine, Florida. In 2000, they lost two family members who were significant musical influences—Reverend Robert E. Lee and Glenn Lee—and from that point, they decided to move beyond the walls of the church. “The torch was passed on,” Collier says. “That was my cue and signal that it’s time for me to take this to a whole ’nother level. Everybody felt the same way, and that’s when we went full-fledged onto the scene.”
In 2003, the Lee Boys had their first big tour playing the Blues to Bop Festival in France and Switzerland. “We were fresh on the scene, and we went overseas first. That was really big for us—I was nervous, nervous as dirt,” Collier recalls. “But the crowd went crazy. They were up dancing and praising.” By that time, other sacred-steel acts like Robert Randolph and the Campbell Brothers had already made their mark, but the Lee Boys hit the festival circuit with a vengeance and quickly developed a reputation for their frenetic shows. In 2008, after performing at Bonnaroo, the band debuted on national TV with a killer performance on Conan O’Brien. “That year was a turning point for us,” Alvin says.
Alvin Lee (left) and Roosevelt Collier (right) jam with Warren Haynes on his Man in Motion tour at Atlanta’s Tabernacle in 2011. Photo by Lisa Keel/peachtreeimages.com
Not surprisingly, the Lee Boys’ high-energy, improv-laden live shows have made them a favorite of the jam-band scene, too. In addition to trading licks with Sco, they’ve shared the stage with some of that genre’s brightest stars including Victor Wooten, Soulive’s Eric Krasno, and Warren Haynes. The latter, in particular, was instrumental in getting the band into the spotlight. “He let us jam on his sets with Gov’t Mule, gave us an opportunity to play with the Allman Brothers Band, and also let us open up for his band,” notes Alvin.
Haynes also signed the Lee Boys to Evil Teen, a label he co-owns, and made a guest appearance on Testify, the band’s latest release. Virtuoso guitarist Jimmy Herring was also enlisted to play on a few tracks and turned up the heat with his finger-twisting lines. “There’s a saying that if you want to be good, play with people that are better than you,” says Collier. “To play with Jimmy on the same tracks—that upped my game. Because of the stuff that Jimmy was laying down, I had to almost prove myself, you know? I had to play my heart out.” Collier is referring to tracks like “Always by My Side” and the title track “Testify,” which showcases an incendiary display of friendly fire, with Herring’s country-fied lines answered by Collier’s chromatically ascending patterns.