Biography: Johnny Lee

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With twelve Top 10 Billboard Country hits, five of which went to #1, Johnny Lee is one of the biggest names in country music to come out of the Texas gulf coast.


Johnny Lee: one of the kings of '80s country music.


Born on July 3rd, 1946, in Texas City, Texas, John Lee Ham was raised on a dairy farm in the nearby community of Alta Loma.  Music was always his primary interest as a young man and he formed his first band, Johnny Lee and the Roadrunners, as a teenager.  The rock group did well for itself, but fizzled out when Johnny enlisted into the US Navy for a time where he served on the USS Chicago.  After leaving the Navy, Lee hit the Texas honky-tonk scene and played at bars and dives across the state.  He had his first real break in 1968 when he began a working relationship with the now legendary Mickey Gilley.  Gilley, who had been living in the shadow of his cousin Jerry Lee Lewis, performed for years with only modest success.  By the end of the '60s, he found an opportunity to become part-owner of a bar in Pasadena, Texas.  The infamous Gilley's Club was opened in 1970 and Lee found himself performing there every chance he got.  Little did either man know at the time how important that bar would be for both of their futures.


Johnny Lee, Johnny Paycheck, and Mickey Gilley in front of Gilley's Club in Pasadena.


Gilley hit it big in 1974 with his hit song "Room Full of Roses" which became the first of many.  Lee benefited by proximity and saw his own name on the Billboard Country Charts at #59 with a song called "Sometimes" in 1976.  The following year he would not only break into the Top 20 with his "Country Party" single, he had his first TV appearance on the "This Is the Life" series as a character named David.  Although things were shaping up for Lee, who was now in his early thirties, 1980 would see everything change.  The release of the hit movie Urban Cowboy, starring John Travolta and Debra Winger, catapulted Lee not only to the top of the Country Chart, but to the top of the Top 200 as well!  Gilley's Club served as one of the primary shooting locations for the film and both Lee and Gilley had their music featured prominently; Lee's "Lookin' for Love" hit #1 on the Country Chart and #5 on the Billboard Top 200.  His album Lookin' for Love was certified gold and peaked at #8 on the Country Albums Chart, making it the best selling and highest ranking album of his career.  Besides the title track, that album included three more Top 10 hits: "Pickin' Up Strangers", "Prisoner of Hope", and "One in a Million".


Besides Lee and Gilley, the Urban Cowboy soundtrack featured big names in country like the Kenny Rogers, Anne Murray, and the Charlie Daniels Band.


Coming off of the success of Lookin' for Love, Lee's next album Bet Your Heart on Me would peak at #9 and would feature two more Top 10 hits: "Be There for Me Baby" at #10 and "Bet Your Heart on Me" at #1.  Lee was making regular TV appearances at this point, even showing up on the Fantasy Island TV series in 1982, Hee Haw in 1982, and CHiPs in 1983.  Meanwhile, he married actress Charlene Tilton, who played Lucy in the hit TV series Dallas.  His 1982 Sounds Like Love album would have two more Top 10 hits, "Cherokee Fiddle" at #10 and "Sounds Like Love" at #6, and his 1983 Hey Bartender would see its title track shoot up to #2.  On his next studio album, called 'Til the Bars Burn Down, he would team up with singer Lane Brody for another #1 hit single called "The Yellow Rose".  Lee would see his last #1 hit the following year with "You Could've Had a Heart Break" from his Workin' for a Livin' album.


He's still on the road!  You can catch Johnny Lee performing country wide.


Lee would divorce Charlene Tilton in 1985 and his career began to slow down afterwards.  He would only release a handful of singles until the release of his uncharted 1989 New Directions album which did not chart higher than #50.  In fact, Lee would put aside any studio work after he covered "Lady in Red" in 1991 until 2003 when he would record The 13th of July and a Christmas album called Santa Claus Is Lookin' for Love.  Since then, he has released another studio album called Country Candy Store, but has actually taken things in another direction with the release of his own cook book called Chef Boy 'R Lee.  With the success of his book, he has been working on his own food line while still touring and performing all across the country.  Lee's career has cemented him as one of the biggest acts of the 1980s in any genre and Texas is proud to call him its native son.


Songs on KBEC 1390:

"Bet Your Heart on Me" - #1

"Cherokee Fiddle" - #10

"Lookin' for Love" - #1

"One in a Million" - #1

"Pickin' Up Strangers" - #3

"Prisoner of Hope" - #3

"Sounds Like Love" - #6

"The Yellow Rose of Texas" - #1

"You Could've Heard a Heart Break" - #1