Henry Lee Summer: Part 2

In the piece I wrote about Henry Lee that appears in NUVO’s 20th Anniversary issue (read on this blog  and online at nuvo.net) Henry Lee Summer was playing at Moon Dog’s in Fishers the night I saw him for the first time in a long time. It certainly seemed like a moment early in his journey back from the bottom. The story I wrote was way too long for print. So I saved it for the web…

When I saw him, he was backed by the Zanna Doo spinoff band 4 on the Floor and they were churning out classic rock, with each bandmember taking a turn singing. Some songs worked better than others. But it was a nice and loud classic rockin’ band, so when Henry Lee Summer ‘s turn came to sing, I smiled. It was no hat-pulled-low, going-through-the-motions performance. He was engaged. The band’s energy forced Henry to bring it.

Though he didn’t do any of his own music when I was there, the fire and the spirit resurfaced in an oddly fitting place. In the midst of an old bubble gum tune from Crazy Elephant called “Gimme Gimme Good Lovin” , Henry Lee reached down into his soul, like the old days, to take the band higher; helped them lock into a rock groove and turn a silly little song into a reason to believe. It made me believe Henry Lee Summer can recapture some of what he lost.

Could it turn out he hasn’t really lost anything – just that his light has been dimmed the better part of 10 years? America loves a reclamation project.

Right now, in Indianapolis, Henry Lee Summer could be that project.

***

Let me tell a story. It was the summer of 1988 in southern Michigan. A thunderstorm was rumbling and light flashed in the distance. I know because you can hear crackling in the tape I have of the radio that night. It was a Sunday night. I was living in an upstairs apartment, in a two-room space . Cardboard boxes were stacked around the living room, because I was going to have to move again the next month. Nobody was living in the apartment below. That proved important, because as a radio jock from 6pm to midnight, I usually stayed up until 3 or 4am, drinking a couple beers and playing more music – kinda loud.

I owned an old jambox stereo, with two big speakers, a radio and cassette player. The radio that night was tuned to Q106 in Jackson, Michigan. Though I’d started chasing the goal of being a radio dude, earning my beer money playing whatever the hell I wanted at the local station each night, I was off work every Sunday. On this particular stormy Sunday, the radio station played the Superstar Concert Series. Henry Lee was recorded live at Manchester College, here in Indiana. What came to me that night was 35 minutes of roaring, joyful, spiritual, loud, crazy, rock and roll. I had heard “Wish I Had a Girl” (how could you miss it?) and knew Henry Lee Summer was a heartland rocker – a John Cougar, Bryan Adams, Bob Seger thing – and it was the type of music I wanted to hear in 1988.

This was all before the internet, back when we depended on radio for our music and band info. And all I knew about Henry Lee Summer was his one hit song and ubiquitous companion video on MTV. I wasn’t yet living in Indiana – that would come ten years later, so I didn’t know the backstory of his time spent paying dues in the Indiana bars. Or his self-released music. Or his show. My education about Henry came through the radio that night.

Hey, I can be jaded. I’ll dismiss a band as wannabe rockers quicker than you can say Daughtry. But if you knew your shit about live music and rock and roll, you couldn’t miss it; this was a guy who had the gift of being able to connect with the audience and have that magic come through the radio speakers too.

Perceptive enough to drop in a gray TDK cassette tape and record the show, I still have the tape and recently converted it to an MP3 – it’s now on my iPod. And it still rocks. There’s still palpable energy and magic with “Hands on the Radio”, “Down on the Farm”, “Hey Baby” and the hit. It sounded perfect to my rock ears, coming through those two speakers.

It would be another year before I would see Henry Lee Summer live for myself, opening for Eddie Money in Louisville. Henry blew him away that night. Charmingly bombastic, full of preacher fire, flying hair and jumping feet, this one guy from Indiana commanded his rock and roll band, and another performer’s crowd, and won the night. Poor Eddie. He had no fuckin’ chance.

And that’s why, or at least one reason, I cheer for Henry Lee Summer to find his peace, his sobriety, and his passion. He’s a guy who had – and may still have – the spark and gift to inspire a concert audience to be a little nicer and each person a little more empathetic as they go about their daily life. That’s what I always felt walking out after one of his shows. There’s still a need for that, right?

“Hey Baby” (LIVE)

Henry Lee Summer: Then and Now

A recent cold winter night, with snow falling, Henry Lee Summer was on stage at a northside bar, there to sing a few songs, play some guitar, have a bit of fun. Continue to get himself into musical fighting shape. Just another gig, and a bit more than that, too.

“What I am trying to do is go back to square one,” Summer says, talking about his career today. “First and foremost, I am taking care of myself and my family. Musically, I am writing and using the past few years’ experiences for material to write about. My goal in one year is to have a full time band that can play my old and new music and sustain my living and support my family.”

When NUVO interviewed Henry Lee Summer 20 years ago, for our debut issue, his story came across as that of a Hoosier homeboy – all blue jeans and cafeteria food (the first interview was at an MCL Cafeteria). The talk at the time was a new album and what he believed bands needed to do to succeed.

“I prefer to hear originals,” he said at the time. “When a band is playing their own stuff, they are much more alive.”

“In Indy there were places to play (back then) if you were a musician of any caliber,” he now remembers. “Starting out, I got to play six nights a week for several hours. There were lots of opportunities back then that aren’t there now. There were battle of bands, Ramada Inn, Holiday Inn, sock hops – it was great.

Has it really been more than 20 years since Henry Lee Summer broke big? “I Wish I Had a Girl,”, “Hands on the Radio” and “Darlin’ Danielle Don’t” come 1-2-3 on the debut record. An anthem, a pop-rocker and a power ballad with some grit. It is late 80’s rock and roll, filtered through Top 40 AM radio and smoky bars. It is the sound of the Midwest.

“‘I Wish I Had a Girl’ was a number one record for a few weeks,” Summer remembers. “I always wanted to have a hit record, so I was lucky and thankful. It was in heavy rotation and saturated MTV and the radio so people remembered it. ‘Hey Baby’ was a big hit, but ‘Wish I Had a Girl’ was everywhere.”

Way Past Midnight (1990) and Slamdunk (1993) were his last two major label releases, as the business was changing and grunge had arrived. With 1999’s Smoke and Mirrors and then a live album, Summer released records to a regional audience. Two of his cover bands, the Alligator Brothers and Candybomber, took much of his time.

Then, a pair of well-documented arrests brought Henry Lee Summer to where is today. First was a 2006 drunk driving charge and then a methamphetamine arrest in 2009. After that, he went into rehab.

If that was the end of the story, then it would be like hundreds of other musicians who burned brightly and then faded away. But there has always been a little more to like with Summer. Legendary show, full of energy and passion; great heartland rock made better live. Seeing him was an event. We loved Henry Lee Summer. And that’s why it’s been has been tough — though more for him than us.

It’s early in this new chapter of his life, but the story seems to be unfolding as a hopeful tale. His support has come from his family, and he says he feels the fans’ influence too.

“Most people have been very forgiving in general. They know that I am working hard to stay on track,” he says. Summer says he’s touched by the support. “Mom and Dad, my wife and immediate family, Mike Denton and Jimmy Ryser at Methodist Hospital in the Substance Abuse Recovery Program. It means a lot that my family has stood by me through all of it.”

His career is again being managed by Blonde Entertainment’s Lisa Sauce, and she says Henry is more engaged in his life and career than he has been in a long time.

“We have had some very real conversations since his sobriety,” Sauce says. “In the past, I felt like he was distant and closed off from me and others. I think that it’s ‘one day at a time’ for him right now. He needs to keep building up his stamina and health. If he continues to do that, then he will do great. I can see him getting a new record done and performing original shows and tapping into his loyal fan base. I do think that his fans are aching for his original music and shows,” Sauce says.

“I feel no pressure with a timeline,” Summer says. “I didn’t write for a while. Everything feels fresh to me again. I have been writing more than I ever have, and I want to put out a record that captures some of the experiences that I have had over the last 10 years. Lately it has been really good to write. It is hard to raise your bar high and write good songs. I am enjoying the process now.

“I am very hopeful. I don’t need a big house on the hill. I want to stay on the recovery side of my addiction,” he says. “There is no room for error with me now.”