Johnny Lee Interview

In 1980, Johnny Lee shot to the Top of the Country charts, with a recording of a song called “Lookin’ for Love”.

That song of course was featured in the soundtrack of the John Travolta/Debra Winger films – “Urban Cowboy”.

How did Johnny Lee come to record that song? How did it change his life? What’s he doing these days?

That’s what we wanted to find out.

Q – Johnny, you actually released a Christmas CD in July. That’s kind of strange isn’t it?
A – (Laughs). You know, the strange part of it is, the studio we started to do the rhythm tracks in was in Wisconsin at the President of the record cos. house. He got tired of messing around with a bunch of people in Nashville. He said the heck with it and had his own studio built. Usually in July in Wisconsin it’s hot and humid. It actually turned cold. (Laughs). That-----was kind of weird. But, I always wanted to do a Christmas CD my whole recording career. Nobody would ever do it. So, now that I’m not on a major label, we have our own independent label we can record whatever the heck we want. I tell you, I’m probably more proud of this Christmas CD than anything I’ve ever done in my career with the exception of “Lookin’ for Love”. I’m a co-writer on about 80% of the songs on there. Of course we did some classics. But, I always had hopes of doing an original Christmas song and maybe one day it becoming a standard. I believe, I don’t believe. I know we got some good stuff on there. So, time will tell on that. It just depends on the circulation of it and how many people play the Christmas songs, and whether or not it catches on with the public. There’s some good stuff on there. I’m awful proud of it.

Q – What is the name of your record label?
A – Its called Title Tunes. It’s an independent label.

Q – What do you do to get your material out there?
A – I just recently secured a deal with Select-O-Hits in Memphis, Tennessee for distributing. We also have my website Johnny Lee fan We had 5 Number One songs off this last CD we did called “The Thirteenth of July”. But, we hired independent promoters. All of the major stations, Billboard reporting stations, they are so tied up with the major labels it’s impossible to get anything played on these stations. That’s a shame but that’s the way the business has turned now. I remember when radio stations used to fight over being the radio station to break a new record. When a record came out they always wanted to be the first one to get on it. Other smaller stations we got it sent out-----and got a lot of airplay and got 5 Number one songs.

Q – Your first band was called Johnny Lee and the Roadrunners. What kind of material were you playing in that band?
A – We were playing 1950’s and 1960’s rock ‘n’ roll. It was formed in high school. The FFA wanted to enter a talent contest from our school, Sante Fe High School and they needed a singer. That was my secret ambition-----to be a singer. They put the word out and I auditioned and I’ve been singing ever since. We ended up winning all the talent contests. It was a high school band, man. We played for all the sock hops and a lot of school functions. That’s how I got my start.

Q – When did you decide you were going to pursue Country music?
A – After I got out of the service. I came back to Texas and I was going to be a Highway Patrolman in California. I took all my tests and everything and passed all that and changed my mind. I just came back from Vietnam and didn’t want to put on another uniform. One night I decided to put my old self in the back of a Chevy and come back to Texas. I was doing daytime jobs, until I could get my music thing going on again, and a band was looking for a singer. They heard I was back in town and got in touch with me. I went over to practice with them and they had a real lame drummer. So, I got to sit down with the drums and said, ‘Look, here’s what you do’. So, I was playing the drums and singing, so the guitar and bass player looked at each other. I ended up buying the guys drums and I was the drummer and singer in that band. There’s a club called the Cedar Oaks in Dickinson, Texas. It’s an after-hours club, back then. They hired us. The guy said, ‘my wife loves country music’. You gotta learn a couple of country songs. I said, ‘O.k. That’s cool with me’. First country song I ever sang in my life was ‘Statue of a Fool’. After that I learned a few other ones. But, I watched the reaction of people when I would sing that song and I said, hey man, this is some good stuff. I think growing up on the dairy farm; I was listening to the 50’s stuff-----Ricky Nelson, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, all the Doo Wop groups which I still dearly love. I wasn’t anti-country; I just didn’t know anything about it, man. Like my step grandparents at that time on the dairy farm they’d have country music playing in the stockyards and in the barns. Whenever they’d leave my cousin and I would flip it over to the rock ‘n’ roll stuff. So, it wasn’t an anti-rebellion against it, we was kids, man. I didn’t really get turned onto country until that first job and I realized there was some good stuff, man. Then later on when I went to work for Mickey Gilley of course I sang all kinds of stuff. I was singing country, rock ‘n’ roll, oldies but goodies, and what you want to call soul music and the blues. I sang all kinds of songs. Until I had a country hit, I was just a singer. Then after I had some hits, they said well, now you’re a country singer. I said o.k. I still sing all kinds of stuff. I just like good music.

Q – How did Dot Records discover you?
A – I was singing at Gilley’s, man. I’d been working with Mickey Gilley since the late 60’s and we had done a bunch of stuff and I was writing and producing our own television show. I was the band leader and the entertainer there at Gilley’s. Whenever the Urban Cowboy people came around to do the movie, I already had a few records out locally and regionally and they were doing quite well. A guy named Irving Azhoff who had a little group called the Eagles and a bunch of other groups, they heard me and they liked me and it led to my part in the ‘Urban Cowboy’ movie. They said I had to get 3 songs. I already had ‘Cherokee Fiddle Cut’. It was already a local and regional hit. They wanted to use that. I went to a hotel room and there were boxes of thousands of songs in ‘em. Everybody was hopin’ their song would get discovered and put in a movie. I started listening to the songs and I found ‘Feel like I Been Road Hard and Put up Wet’. I could relate to that. And then I found within the first 15-20 songs I pulled out of this box, a little ok demo tape of this song called ‘Lookin’ for Love’. I fell in love with it. I couldn’t believe I didn’t write it myself. I changed the music up to it, recorded it-----and the rest is history.

Q – So, you didn’t write “Lookin’ for Love”. Who did?
A – Patty Ryan and Wanda Millett. Two school teachers from Gulfport, Mississippi. They never had a song recorded before in their life. They got the idea from a classroom of 2 nd Grade kids. I had to make some changes to the music and did it my way.

Q – So, they wrote the lyrics. Did they also write the music?
A – There was some music on there, I just changed it up some and put it to the beat it has today. Mickey Gilley always told me the bands gonna play songs the people love to dance to or sit there and listen to. I just put a good dance beat to it and cut it.

Q – That line “Lookin’ for Love in all the Wrong Places” has almost became a catch phrase.
A – I know it.

Q – It’s incredible!
A – It is. (Laughs). Eddie Murphy even did it on Buckwheat’s Greatest Hits. He changed it to ‘Wookin’ for Love’ on Saturday Night Live! I got a big kick out of that man. (Laughs).

Q – That song, “Lookin’ for Love” went to Number One didn’t it?
A – Oh, yeah. It was Number One for awhile and it was also in the Top Three in the Pop charts for awhile.

Q – What happened with your career when that song took off the way it did?
A – It was like Night and Day. I was singing that song at Gilley’s before the movie got released. After the movie came out, I would be singing and the same people that had been listening to the song for 3 months prior to that, they would all gather around the front of the bandstand and stand there and watch me sing it, in kind of awe. It made my career, man. From a nightclub in Pasadena, Texas to coliseums all over the world. Literally. That’s a pretty big change.

Q – Were you headlining at these coliseums or part of a package tour?
A – Some of ‘em I headlined. We started out on like a tour, a package tour. Let me see, at the time, Alabama, myself, Mickey Gilley, Charlie Daniels; it was different package shows. We headlined some and some of ‘em were packaged. It wasn’t no one certain thing. We did all kinds of stuff. Literally went all over the world. I went to England, Ireland, Germany, France, Japan, everywhere.

Q – Was it hard to follow-up “Lookin’ for Love”? I think you followed it up with Pickin’ Up Strangers! Is that correct?
A – No. The next one was ‘One In A Million’. It went Number 1 too. “Pickin’ Up Strangers” came later. It was the third song that came out. It was also in a movie called ‘Coast to Coast’. But, the record co. ticked me off because on the “Lookin’ For Love” album, because at the time it was scary to do a follow-up because once you have such a huge hit-----Number one, what are the odds of having a huge hit to begin with? When you do have one of that stature, yeah I was very concerned about the next one. So, I told the record co., look I’ve got this song on the album and they knew I had it----- ‘Do You Love As Good As You Look’? To me that makes all the sense in the world. Let’s release that second. Well, there again, getting into political games and money games that the record co. was into at the time which I was dumb as a rock about. Oh, no let’s do this other song, which I still love to this day-----‘One In A Million’. It was a Number one song. But, because we didn’t do ‘Do You Love As Good As You Look’. The Bellamy Bros. came right up behind me, and they said oh, you’re not gonna release that as a single-----let’s release it on you guys. And they had a Number One cross over hit. Record cos. I’m glad to have my own thing going. I’m so sick of somebody trying to be my ears, trying to tell me the way I feel. I’m the only one that knows that kind of stuff. I went through a lot of producers a lot of money that I look back and think it was totally un-called for. I could’ve done it myself. That’s what I’m doing now. I could’ve done it then.

Q – Do you also do your own bookings and manage yourself these days?
A – I don’t have any management what-so-ever. Danker And Danker out of Nashville, Tennessee is a promotion co. that works for me. As far as bookings go, I’ve got about 3 different people that book me and sometimes I’ll book myself!! I say if an agent doesn’t get off his butt and do his job and get me the booking, if I got it, I’m not gonna pay him a commission. Some agents have simply turned into order takers. There are some agents that will go out and hustle and do what they’re supposed to do, which is make calls and get the acts work. There’s one agent in Nashville right now, I won’t mention his name that I won’t have anything to do with. He doesn’t even know how to turn a computer on. He comes in for a couple of hours a day. If he has any phone calls he returns ‘em. If he doesn’t-----he leaves. I don’t know how he stays in business. But-----that’s the way some agents are. But, there are some hard-working guys out there still. They’re just hard to find.

Q – Have you always been working even when the hit records weren’t there?
A – Yeah. I don’t sit around waiting for things to happen. If nothings happening I make some phone calls. I get some things happening myself. I’ve been on the phone this morning, working on some stuff, talking to an agent-friend of mine down in Texas, giving him some dates. I’ve talked to some other people in Oklahoma about working in a casino and doing stuff for them. I do all kinds of stuff. I don’t sit around and wait. You find out in life you can’t depend on a lot of people. Sometimes I gotta depend on myself to get things done. That’s just what I do. I’m not above it. I had one guy ask me, ‘Why are you calling me? Why isn’t your agent calling me’? I said, ‘Exactly. I ask you the same question. My agent’s not on the phone. I am. So, you want this date or not’? It’s just the way it is. But, I’ve made some calls and I’ve made some dates. So, good for me! I keep my guys working. I got guys that depend on me to feed their kids, pay their child support, pay their bills, whatever. I’m not gonna sit around.

Q – How many guys you got in your band?
A – Six.

Q – Do you have a bus driver?
A – You know what? We split that up ourselves. Occasionally, we have a driver. But, my piano player, myself, and my drummer-----we split the driving up ourself.

Q – Do you own your own bus?
A – Yeah. We have a bus that we own. I’m gonna tell you what, bus leasing is so expensive, that and fuel, and a driver, a driver will end up a lot of times making more than the band makes. I’m not going to have that! Having a good, safe driver is very important. Don’t get me wrong. But, we’re safe ourself. I tell the guys I’d rather put this money in your pocket than put it in somebody else’s pocket that’s not even playing. We’re a band. We don’t have a band leader. We all have certain jobs we do. We pitch in as a team. And-----I take care of everybody.

Q – How about a road crew?
A – That’s all put in my contracts. Wherever I go someplace to play I have sound and lights as part of my contract and I get stagehands to help load and unload our equipment.

Q – You never got ripped-off did you?
A – Mickey Gilley and I got ripped-off. You have no idea. That’s why we’re not with our manager anymore. It was horror scene. I tell you what; I went to buy a house when I was married to Charlene Tilton, that little girl in Dallas. I wanted to go get some money. I was gonna buy us a house after we got married. My manager looked me square in the face and said, ‘You ain’t got no fucking money’. That’s the only man, at that point in my life that I wanted to physically kill him. I really did, but I knew I’d spend the rest of my life in prison or I’d probably get the death sentence down in Texas. I was devastated. Totally devastated. That led to the demise of our relationship and shortly after that Mickey Gilley left him too. We got fucked so bad. But, you know what? You can’t dwell on the past. I’ve still got my God-given talent and I’ve still got my drive to go out and make things happen. I’m a good father. I try to look out for my sons and daughters future. I try to make things happen and make a good home life, and still do good shows. I’m not trying to be negative about any of this stuff we’ve talked about. I’m not saying it in a negative way. I’m just telling you like it is.

Q – And I appreciate that!
A – I don’t sit around and whine and moan and complain about it. A lot of stuff I wonder about. What the hell? Why? Music is my life. It’s what God put me on this earth to do. I’ve been doing it all my life. I’m so blessed to get to do it. I love it. I love the guys that I work with. They’re the backbone of my shows. They’re hard-working guys. I love the opportunities and the things I’ve been blessed to get to do in life and the people I’ve met. I wouldn’t trade if for the world. But, there’s a lot of things I wonder about it in the business. I doubt if they’ll ever get it all straight. They’ll be new guys coming along and music will continue to change. Faces will come and go. That’s just the way it is. Change is good. If you never had change how boring would that be for everybody? When ‘Urban Cowboy’ first came along that was a change. It was a change in a positive direction towards Country music. It opened the doors for a lot of other people. I just hope and pray that I can continue to do this until the day I die.

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