One of the scariest things in the world for singers is to face surgery on their vocal chords. It's an instrument that cannot be replaced and is usually the most recognizable facet on their work. Don Lee faced such a procedure in the past few months after releasing his fourth solo record since the breakup of Red-Headed Boogie Child. Ironically, the new release is entitled Who's Talkin' Out There?
Don first noticed a problem during the summer. He's had vocal strains in the past and recalls throat infections that lasted up to a month, but this felt different. There was a strangeness in which he was unable to hit notes that should have been easy to hit. But every time he thought it was bad enough that he had to see a doctor, the voice would improve a bit. He wound up having the voice feel bad, get better, and then feel bad again enough times that by the end of the summer he decided to have it checked out.
He was referred to an ENT (Ear, Nose, Throat specialist) who discovered that Don had a polyp on his right vocal chord. The ENT was concerned enough to schedule an appointment for Don with NYU Voice Center in Manhattan. After consulting with them, he decided to have the polyp removed by laser, which took place on October 7.
"The first thing you're thinking is if they nick the vocal chords, I won't be able to sing," recalled Lee. "But it was a very quick procedure. The surgical procedure itself was very simple and very routine. It was the healing process that takes a long time. I couldn't talk for a few days at all and when I began to talk I had to talk very softly. They told me I couldn't sing for 4-6 weeks, so of course I did my first gig 4 weeks out. If its rock and roll you have to push it a little!"
Don kept performing throughout this period, but didn't sing. He's done shows with The Wag (a band he filled in for a few years ago and became a permanent member) and did shows of his own in support of the new CD. So who did the singing? Well, one night he had several people handle the vocals for him.
"It was really a heartwarming thing," said Lee. "All of these people were playing the part of me and I didn't have a strained voice at the end of the night!"
Who's Talkin' Out There? continues Don Lee's unique musical style. His songs twist and turn; they frequently start and stop, never seeming to follow normal musical progressions — at least not compared to the songs that one would typically hear today on the radio. To Lee though, the songs embody the influences of artists like Squeeze, Steely Dan, Elton John, Billy Joel, Joe Jackson, and the Beatles who inspired him. He thinks people sometimes give him too much credit for using a lot of chord changes. He doesn't see his music as something different at all.
"I probably have a verse melody, a chorus melody, and a bridge melody," explained Lee. "That's three basic melodies. I'm not going to say it's overly simply, but it's not overly complicated. In the history of music you do hear this quite a lot, but at this point in time maybe not. I always come from the school of thought that you do the best thing you can as opposed to sound like everyone else. I want to have my own sound. If you do what's big on the radio right now you're already behind the curve."
Lee lives in Freehold where he has spent most of his life. While 90% of the musicians from New Jersey are often compared to Freehold's favorite son, Lee's vocals do not sound anything like Springsteen's. He is, however, a dead ringer for Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze.
"When my voice was just developing as far as becoming a lead singer, I tried to sing like John Lennon and Paul McCartney," recalled Lee. "I tried to imitate their voices but for some reason I sound a lot more like Tilbrook. I actually want to sound like Robert Plant, but I don't sound like Plant when I sing. It's funny because most people probably don't hear the influence in my music but a singer that I wish I could sound like is Lou Gramm of Foreigner. I wish I could sound like that.
"Then, of course, there's the guitar side too," he continued. "When I was a kid listening to pop radio I liked the guitar songs a lot better but it wasn't until I was in 8th grade when I heard ‘Heartbreaker' by Led Zeppelin for the first time. I don't think any song has ever blown me away as much as that song. Every time I hear it, I get the same feeling. I became a huge Jimmy Page fan. Some people hear that in my music, some don't, but I think I have a lot of Jimmy Page influence."
If these influences don't sound like your typical singer-songwriter it's because Don Lee isn't a typical singer-songwriter. His full band-like sound stands out in the coffee houses he frequently plays. Red Headed Boogie Child often played the clubs one normally associates with rock bands, but when that band broke up Don was forced to find new places to play as a solo artist. In coffee houses, Don's music becomes even more eclectic when contrasted with the normal folkie-based coffee house performers.
The future is entirely unwritten for Lee because, unlike most musicians, he's confident that he will get his shot to do music full-time someday. While many musicians go from job to job, earning just enough to keep going, Lee made the commitment to hold on to a good job in the government for years. It's a decision that will ultimately provide him with a pension that offers him the opportunity to pursue his dream.
"I learned long ago that the second you think you're going to be a rock star and quit your job something wrong happens," said Lee. "I know that I'm not going to be America's Next Teen Idol, but I'm always going to be a songwriter, and I'm going to perform as long as I can and keep recording."
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.