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.”