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As you approach the Big Easy's front door, you can hear from within the concertina-sharp sounds of a wailing guitar shredding the night air. You immediately imagine an old African-American man, or a middle-aged white guy in a fedora and shades, jamming on stage. You open the door. You look through the smoky haze, and unless you're as cool as Harvey Keitel's character in Pulp Fiction, you do a double take.
There, in the middle of the dance floor, is Rick Lee on his knees, playing slide guitar. He's picked up a heavy chair and is sawing on the strings with one of the wooden legs. You can't help but notice that this bluesman is distinctly Chinese-American.
"People look at me funny," he sings on his signature tune, "Even a Chinese Man Can Play the Blues." "They don't know what to expect / They dis me before they know me / Lord, I don't get no respect."
Rick Lee fell in love with the blues as a teenager. After hearing the Bluesbreakers' version of "All Your Love" on a classic rock-blues show, Lee was intrigued enough to investigate the original by Otis Rush. Just one listen was all it took for Lee to know that he was to be a bluesman forevermore.
Lee was born in Houston, the son of Cantonese immigrants, and spent a good chunk of his childhood soaking up African-American culture at his parents' grocery store in Kashmere Gardens. "I didn't pick up anything musically from growing up there, but I did get a sense of community. There's a sense that people there aren't getting the same breaks there that people are getting in River Oaks. Though I would never be presumptuous to say I truly understand the blues, I was exposed to the social aspects that gave rise to the music."
"The blues is about life, all aspects of life," Lee says, choosing his words with the careful aplomb of the attorney that he is during the day. "You can express the whole feeling, the whole range of human emotions with the blues."
Lee's special hero is the late Guitar Slim, whose six-string readings of African-American gospel organs simultaneously electrified and sanctified the South in the mid- to late '50s. From reading about Slim, Lee learned not just his wildman antics, including walking on the tables, but also a whole philosophy of blues as a uniter of people from all races and walks of life. "Slim taught me that you should become part of the audience while you're playing, let the audience become a part of what you're doing."