The Thrill Is Not Gone for Rick Lee & the Night Owls

Rick Lee
David Rozycki

Houston’s Rick Lee cites blues guitarist and singer Otis Rush as a major influence and the reason he started playing the blues. Lee heard a song called “All Your Love (I Miss Loving),” which Rush wrote back in the '50s and was later covered by John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers while Eric Clapton was with the band. “It was such an interesting-sounding song — it's 12-bar blues but it has kind of a little mambo beat, and it goes from a mid-tempo minor key to a shuffle in the middle, and I liked it a lot but I wanted to hear the original version, by Otis Rush,” Lee explains.

“I found an album that had the original version on it and when I heard it, even though it lacked the perfection of the clinical aspects of the Mayall with Clapton recording, it had a rawness — there’s some mistakes on there and the quality of the recording wasn’t as good — but the rawness really made the emotion come through," continues the guitarist. "I was just kind of overwhelmed emotionally when I heard it and it just hit me deeply, and I thought any kind of music that would affect me like that is the music I should be playing. So I really got interested in playing the blues and then I was told by a friend about a blues jam at Pearl’s Cotton Club [in Houston], and that’s when I started going out and playing blues with other like-minded musicians.”

That was back in 1989-1990, and Lee has been playing and singing the blues around Houston ever since. Last Friday night at The Hideaway on Dunvale, he was back at it with the current version of The Night Owls: Thurman Robinson on bass and Robert Mason on drums; Robinson also sings a fair number of songs, sharing vocal duties with Lee.

Last Friday, the Night Owls started out playing a blues instrumental song about 9:05 p.m. after doing some last-minute sound checks and guitar tuning; before they started, Lee welcomed the crowd and thanked them for coming out. The band played an impressive 35 songs throughout the night by my count, stopping only for a break of about half an hour that probably lasted longer than usual only because I spoke with Lee during that break, asking him some questions about his musical history. The show ended around 1 a.m.; Night Owls indeed.

I have been a fan of Lee's for a decade or more, and have always been impressed not only by his vocals and guitar work but also his showmanship. He always plays the guitar with his teeth, tongue and the leg of a raised chair during at least one or two songs when he performs, and last Friday night was no exception.

Rick Lee playing guitar with his tongue, a feat inspired by the late, great Little Joe WashingtonEXPAND
Rick Lee playing guitar with his tongue, a feat inspired by the late, great Little Joe Washington
David Rozycki

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“Back in the days when I started at Pearl’s Cotton Club [in Houston], I was coming out to the jams and learning how to play with other musicians, and I felt so intimidated by the other guitarists who were way ahead of me, so I thought I need to do something to set myself apart,” Lee explains. “I knew that Jimi Hendrix played with his teeth, so I just went at it. It’s not something you practice; you just do it. But I’ve learned how to do it a lot better over the years, and I’m pretty consistent playing with my teeth.

“The tongue thing came a little bit later after I saw Little Joe Washington do it,” Lee continues. “And I thought if I’m going to steal his shtick, I’ve gotta take it further. Little Joe — bless his soul — he used to slide his tongue on the strings, but I thought if I fooled around with it enough, maybe I can pick with my tongue, and so I learned to do that because I wanted to take it a little bit further. But the credit for that goes to Little Joe Washington. From watching him do it, he inspired me to do it.”

Lee says he doesn’t remember how playing with a chair came about, but says he did start doing it early on; certain pieces of furniture lend themselves better than others, he adds, so he has to choose wisely “to not look like an idiot.” Trying to pick up something too heavy could lead to disaster, but Lee has always pulled it off in a cool manner when I have seen him perform, including last week.

I don’t wish to mislead anyone into thinking that Lee is not a solid blues musician. The stage antics are a part of the show, but the main focus is the music. At the Hideaway, the band played some classic blues songs originally recorded by B.B. King, Freddie King, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Stevie Ray Vaughan and others, as well as several Lee originals, such as “(I’m a) Lover Man,” “Baby, Please,” “Something Smells Fishy” and most notably “If the Blues Is Playing What You’re Feeling (Even a Chinese Man Can Play the Blues).”

“I’ve never been and never will be a flashy guitar player, but that never really was my impetus for playing the blues,” Lee explains. “I’ve always thought the blues was a storytelling medium. So I’ve tried to make sure that I understand the words, the feeling and emotion being conveyed through the lyrics and try to present that through my singing.”

Rick Lee performing with the leg of a chairEXPAND
Rick Lee performing with the leg of a chair
David Rozycki

On drums Mason is a hard hitter who provides the feel and tempo, while Robinson locks in and backs up Lee’s guitar, all while sitting on a stool and providing some great lead vocals himself on several numbers.

The Night Owls are a must-see Houston live act for all music fans; this is good stuff, minus any pretentiousness. Last Friday night, Lee did a good job interacting with the audience as usual, and the band got a positive reaction back from the crowd. Several fans in attendance hit the dance floor out in front of the stage throughout the show.

Reflecting on his early performing days in Houston as well as the present, Lee says, “growing up and coming from an Asian-American family, going to bars and clubs to perform was kind of looked down upon, so for me to do that was kind of breaking free from a lot of my own inhibitions. When I picked up a guitar, I never thought that I would stand up in front of a room full of strangers and play and sing and get a positive response. It’s still fun for me; it’s still an exciting experience for me to keep being able to do this.

“Learning to play music helped me grow a lot as a person. It brought me out of an insular shell of shyness and I gained confidence from going out and doing it, performing in public,” Lee concludes. “I made a lot of friends through playing music, met a lot of musicians and audience members as well; it opened up avenues of creativity and expression for me through my performing and writing. I met my wife because of it! The blues is the style that I can express myself most sincerely and deeply with.”

From left to right: Thurman Robinson, Robert Mason, Rick LeeEXPAND
From left to right: Thurman Robinson, Robert Mason, Rick Lee
David Rozycki

Rick Lee & The Night Owls host the “Big-Ass Blues Jam!” 9 p.m. every Tuesday at The Hideaway on Dunvale, 3122 Dunvale.  Local musicians are invited to join the band onstage (it’s also steak night). The band is also performing this Sunday, October 9 at The Hideaway's 25th Birthday & Blues Party, which starts at 3 p.m. The Night Owls are scheduled to play at  5:40 p.m.

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