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)

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