Lee Gates was born and raised in Mississippi, moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, while in his late teens, and except for a few sojourns to places such as Kansas and California, has made Milwaukee his home.
He plays many shades of blues, but to me his style is mostly a distillation of the homegrown Delta blues and Chicago blues. He’s played live in venues all over the American Midwest, with brief stints on tour in various other American venues, as well as in Europe and Central America.
This interview was recorded at Lee’s home in Milwaukee on 20 June 2006.
Tell us about yourself, Lee.
Well, down through the years, I started the blues at about 7-8 years old. I came up when BB King was a DJ in Memphis, Tennessee.
Did you listen to his station, his show?
I listened to his station and I also listened to Muddy Waters. I listened to BB King, he was on ten or fifteen minutes, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, different guys. I had influence from a lot of different guys. I finally ended up with BB King, then I found my own style. I always wanted to be a professional player.
Was it a 24-hour station?
I don’t know, I can’t remember, but I used to listen to Randy’s Record Shop, too, you know, down there. At night, late at night, they played blues. Also, my Dad used to play the blues, but who really got me started playing the blues was my Mother. Cuz my Dad, he never did play too much, and when I got big enough to know what a guitar was, my mother was playing. She got me started and I never stopped. I’m still going, you know.
Now, she played the guitar, did she play any other instruments?
No, just guitar.
How about your father?
He played harmonica and guitar.
Did he try to teach you the harmonica?
Well, he liked to play Sonny Boy Williamson and different people. I don’t remember, I was very small when he was playing, but I do know he tried to play Sonny Boy Williamson. I had a chance to play something with Sonny Boy Williamson, I guess it was back in the early 70s or 80s when I met him on 10th and Center, here in Milwaukee.
Oh, really? What was he doing up here?
Playing a show at a place there on 10th and Center, I think it was called the 77th Strip. They tore the building down, 77th Strip. I played some with Muddy Waters band. Played some with Hubert Sumlin’s. Me, Kenny Neal, I played some with Kenny Neal. I played some with Magic Slim and the Teardrops. I just been movin’ around with different guys.
Now, which style would you say you play?
Well, my style … Some of it’s BB King, but it’s a little different. I didn’t want to play just like him, but I liked the way he made his guitar sound. I got a style similar to his, but not like him. I can play close to him, you know, but I mostly want my own style. Since I started recording, I backed off other guys’ style. I have my own style.
Do you have a name for your style?
Well, not really, uh … I just like Chicago style, you know.
So, we’ll call it Lee’s Style?
Yeah, I think the more I record, I’m just doin’ different styles every time I play. I think that might be on down the road recording. Not sounding like the same person all the time. That’s why I change my style when I record.
So where were you born, exactly?
Pontotoc, Mississippi, P-O-N-T-O-T-O-C.
Tell us about Pontotoc.
Down there they have quite a few guys that played. You know, they played the old Country Style, and a lot of hillbilly music. I grew up playing a little hillbilly, little country and western, like cowboy songs.
Now, let me ask you, was it white guys playing the hillbilly?
Yeah, white guys.
Yeah, lot of white guys … players down there, they played … So we hung out together late at night, play all night sometime.
Now, how old were you then?
I was probably around 13, 14 years old. I never quit playing, I just want to keep playing, you know?
That’s when you started, when you were about 13, 14?
I started at eight, and I started playing around school around 10, 11, and they used to pay to hear me play in school.
That’s when I made money to go to basketball games. There, I got like 18 years old, my cousin came down South, he say, “I’m coming back to get you, take you to Milwaukee and we can perform a band, so they come and got me. We played up here in Milwaukee for a long time. After this, I went to California, played out there, in California.
Now before you go on, who was your cousin?
Hugh West Sutter.
Is he still around?
Yeah, he plays music, he play piano, he plays horns, he play guitar. Albert Collins. I never played with him, but I met him here in Milwaukee. Great player, I think the world of his playing when he was living. Other guys, they played a little of his changes. Not all the way, but they remind me a little of him when they played.
How long did you hang around here before you moved on to California?
We played here in Milwaukee … oh, I’d say ‘bout 6, 7 years. I moved to California, going out there, but they want me to sign a contract to play and I wouldn’t do it, cuz he didn’t want me to look at the contract!
Now who was this?
I don’t even know his name. He owned a steelyard out in California. I didn’t even get his name. He told me to sign a contract now or never, so I wasn’t goin’ sign it just like that. I was going to look over the contract, you know?
Sure. Now did he bring you out to California, or how is it you got to California?
No, I went out there, my girlfriend lives out there, so I went out where she was, started working, playing my guitar out there. That’s how I met this guy, you know.
Now what was she doing out there?
She was working for ATMA TV company, making parts for the TV company.
Where’d you meet her?
In Racine. After we got back here, we went to work in the foundry in Racine.
Okay, wait a second. After the contract that you wouldn’t sign, what happened to you in California? Did you do anything out there?
I just played around, jam sessions, played, you know, in clubs.
What area was this?
Was around Compton and Watts.
How long did you stay out there?
Two years, then I came back here to Milwaukee, played about a year, I moved to Wichita, Kansas, and went to work at Copeland plant, making refrigeration parts.
What got you to Copeland, what brought you to Kansas?
Well, I just wanted to go to a place I have never been and try my music, see if I could get something going, but it didn’t work out so good. They like more Country and Western out there. I was playing blues and it didn’t go over too big, so I came back here. I came back and I just kept on playing the clubs, different areas. I played in Hartford, I played up in Green Bay and Oconomowoc. Just going in different areas, you know, and playing, trying to get known, you know. Hoping that somebody discover me one day.
It didn’t happen like that. I had a couple friends who went down to Memphis. When they came back, they brought this little magazine back with a lot of agents numbers in there, so I thought, call ‘em up and try to get hooked up. The guy told me they got too many guys already, and they wasn’t interested in some more players. I didn’t quit, I just kept calling him. I told him the last time we talked, I told him “if you don’t give me some consideration, let me let you hear me. I’m coming out there and he told me, “No, don’t come. I got a guy comin’ to Milwaukee, got a girlfriend and I’ll have him interview you when he gets there, so I was playing this particular time for a cancer benefit on Water Street, so he came down and interviewed me, and the next couple weeks I was going down to do a CD.
To Be Continued
Learn more about an event Lee is participating in called “Capitol Blues Night”.
A review of Lee's latest CD can be found here.
Another informative article on Lee Gates can be obtained by emailing that article’s author, Brenda Owen, at the Pontotoc Progress, the newspaper published in Pontotoc, Mississippi. The title of the article is, “Pontotoc County native making mark on Milwaukee blues scene,” and was published on 3 February 2010.