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.