Interview -- Henry Lee Summer (Singer/Songwriter)

"I just always have played music.  For better  
or worse, I banked my whole life on it."
~ Henry Lee Summer ~    

It's strange how music lets you travel through time as if there truly was no time.  I played the shit out of this album growing up.  Nothing deep or complicated.  Nothing outta bounds.  Nothing to get hung about.  It's deceptively simple.  But here's the thing...Henry Lee Summer is serving aces all over this heartland square.

This is the 35th anniversary of Henry Lee Summer's self-titled album and this one falls under that sweet spot between raucous and chill.  It's a large cup of iced coffee with a nice soulful blend.  Not usually my type of go-to and yet this album easily fills a void I didn't know I had.  Let this spin be your own private Idaho.  "Check it out, Leroy!"  Henry Lee Summer...Go get you some.

Henry Lee Summer Interview -- August 2023
Henry Lee Summer

Casey Chambers:  Well, this is the 35th anniversary of your self-titled album.  Time flies and that's a good one.  Take me back.

Henry Lee Summer:  Well, that was on my first national label.  I was on CBS Records.  Sony/Epic.  And we went to New York City to record the album.  I'm from a small town in Indiana, I mean, like...real small, so that was all kind of a culture shock.  I got to record in this big studio with all these famous, talented people.  Just being there was amazing.  It was like living in a dream or something.  Just so exciting.  We recorded right in downtown Manhattan.  I thought I was gonna die the first time I went there 'cause of the way people drive.  It was crazy. (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  "I Wish I Had a Girl" was the opening track and that song's just so easy to warm up to.  That turned out to be the breakout song for you.

Henry Lee Summer:  I wrote that song while in Louisville, Kentucky.  Me and a guitar player were coming to practice at this club where we played at.  And right down from the club, there was a stripper bar with go-go girls.  And a couple of them came out in front of us and they were doing that kind of walk they do. (laughs)  And that's where I got the idea for the song.

Casey Chambers:  It's a great song.  Some fans may not realize it, but that was actually the second time that song was put on an album.

Henry Lee Summer:  Correct, yes. It had already been on an album that was released locally around Indiana called, "Time for Big Fun." (1986)  And it has pretty much the same arrangement, very similar.  But the version I recorded in New York sounds a lot better 'cause it had some of the best musicians playing on it.

Casey Chambers:  For sure.  I noticed Graham Maby played bass on your album.  I recognize his name from the Joe Jackson band.

Henry Lee Summer:  Oh yeah, and the keyboard player, what was his name?  Oh, Ed Roynesdal!  He played with Joe Jackson, too.  The drummer was Anton Fig from the David Letterman show.  And Jimmy Rip on guitar.  Yeah, a bunch of great guys.  And we almost had Keith Richards come in to play on "I Wish I Had a Girl" because the guy that was recording me (Michael Frondelli) had worked with another who had done a Keith Richards thing with Chuck Berry.  That was how they had the connection.  And he was recording too.  But some kind of contract dispute with publishing held it up.  So we missed out on that.  But that would've been something else.

Casey Chambers:  Oh man, you'd never forget that!

Henry Lee Summer:  Yeah, and the same thing happened when I did a remake of "Fooled Around and Fell In Love" for a movie. ("Queen's Logic" -1991)   Jeff Beck and I were on the same label at the time.  And Jeff was supposed to do a song too, but at the last minute, he had to cancel because he had a race coming up or something.  I mean I'd go to these parties and all your favorite artists and players are there...just walking around...just being normal people and everything.  It was almost unbelievable.

Casey Chambers:  You made a wonderfully silly, fun music video for the song.  It was like you were made for the camera.

Henry Lee Summer:  Oh, thank you.  We shot the video in Los Angeles.  There were producers and directors and people lined right up the chain.  I'm sure they were giving input.  But I was having a lot of fun and pretty much just doing what I was told.  Guns N' Roses happened to be there, too.  And I knew Axl from way back in Indiana.  'Cause that's where he's from.  And they were all sitting around watching and just making fun of me. (laughs)

"I Wish I Had a Girl" - Henry Lee Summer - "Henry Lee Summer" (1988)

Casey Chambers:  Axl was from Indiana, too?  Small world, big place.

Henry Lee Summer:  Yeah.  When I knew him in Indiana, his name was Bob Bailey.  He was from Lafayette.

Casey Chambers:  So when the video reached MTV, the VJs were giving it plenty of airplay.

Henry Lee Summer:  Oh, yeah.  I knew the guys back home at the radio stations in Indianapolis were just amazed.  People would call out and say, 'Man, we just heard Henry's song on TV.' (laughs)  'Cause you have to understand, I'm from a real, real, really small town.  And I just got very lucky.  It was very much a fun and interesting ride that I had.

Casey Chambers:  Small-town pride is cool.  "I Wish I Had a Girl" became the lead single from a pretty strong album.  The song really garnered a lot of fans for you and the album as well, didn't it?

Henry Lee Summer:  Yeah, it was a number-one hit on rock radio.  And I think it was a Top 10 on the pop charts.  And was also in the Top Five on MTV...the video was.  So the song was getting played a lot.  I didn't realize at the time just how lucky I was.  'Cause that was my first national record.  I just thought, well, maybe this is how it always is.  Not! (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  When did you learn that..."I Wish I Had a Girl"...had reached number one on Billboard?  That had to be a mind-blow.

Henry Lee Summer:  Yeah, I was in Los Angeles. I was with my manager and I about had a heart attack. (laughs) 'Cause you have to know me.  I went out on the boulevard yelling at people...'Hey! Me! I got a number-one song!' (laughs)  My manager had such a hard time with my shenanigans. (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  Did you start hitting the roads right away?

Henry Lee Summer:  Oh yeah, we toured, Casey.  We toured with just about everybody in the business, I think.  We were on tour with Cheap Trick.  Chicago.  Richard Marx.  Eddie Money.  Allman Brothers.  I mean we just played with everybody.  The Doobie Brothers.  Stevie Ray.  We did a lot of one-offs, too.  Like, maybe do a couple of concerts here.  A couple of concerts there.  But many times, we'd go out for months at a time with the same guy or group.  Then we'd switch and go play shows with somebody else.

It was a lot of work, but we had so much fun, too.  I'd be out on stage and I'd get to know some of the other bands and I'd sometimes come up front for the last song and play with them.  I remember being on stage with these guys and thinking to myself...'Man, I used to play these songs back when I was in the bars.' (laughs). 

"Hands On The Radio" - Henry Lee Summer -  / "Henry Lee Summer" (1988) 

Casey Chambers:  Those are great memories to carry around.  You were doing it, man.  Just awesome.  And you mentioned touring with Chicago.  This would've been shortly after Peter Cetera left, right?

Henry Lee Summer:  Right, and the bass player that they brought in was Jason Scheff.  His dad...Jerry Scheff...was once the bass player for Elvis.  And I'll tell you something about the Chicago band.  I toured with all the hardcore, heavy rock bands.  But I kid you not, Chicago was the hardest partying band I ever toured with. (laughs)  Those guys were partying every single night. (laughs)  Just crazy!  And they're some of the best musicians too. Their horn section...oh, man!  We'd sit there every night and watch their whole set.  In one of my first bands, we had horns and we played all this stuff like "25 or 6 to 4."  "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?"   I'm trying to think.  We did "Saturday In the Park."  We played all those songs.  So to actually do shows with them and hear them play live was unbelievable.  

And at the end of the night, they'd let me come up and sing with them.  Just for the fun of it.  And I was lucky because all the groups we played with were really nice.  None of them tried to make us look bad or cut off the sound or anything.  They gave us whatever we wanted, you know?  And I did what I was supposed to do.  I didn't misbehave.  I'd get the crowd warmed up.  I didn't try to make it look like I was trying to upstage anybody.  They appreciated that.  We had some good opportunities and it was really fun.

Casey Chambers:  Another song from your break-out album is "Hands On the Radio." And that sounds like a personal one.  And that hits home for me, 'cause growing up I was constantly tuned into my radio.

Henry Lee Summer:  I was definitely a radio geek.  At nighttime, we could get WLS outta Chicago.  And I'd sit there every week and write down the Top 40 songs. The positions of them and everything.   I'd have them all written down.  And the local station was WBOW.  And I'd call in all the time. I never would get through.  But yeah, I knew all the positions of the songs.  Every week.  I had a scrapbook of all my favorite artists and I cut out pictures and stuff.  Definitely a big rock and roll fan.  I've always loved rock and roll.  When I wrote "Hands On the Radio,"  I was thinking about how much music influenced me throughout my whole life.  I mean, I never learned how to do anything else but play music.  And I never had a job.  I just always have played music.  For better or worse, I banked my whole life on it.

Casey Chambers:  What was it like growing up in small-town Indiana?

Henry Lee Summer:  Brazil, Indiana had a population of about 4,000 people.  But we probably had 12 bands playing.  Back then it was really popular.  The bands loved to play out there.  Every football game.  Every basketball game.  Sock hops.  The YMCA.  I mean there was really a culture there.  They had Battle of the Bands.  And back then, we'd buy records from the G.C. Murphy's department store.  I bought singles.  My older brother bought albums.  So I got the best of both worlds.  The Beatles were, by far...I saw The Beatles like everybody else on "Ed Sullivan" in 1964.  That's when my world went from black and white to color as a lot of people say.  All in one night.  Just like that.  I knew what I wanted to do.  

Casey Chambers:  What was the first record you remember buying with your own money?

Henry Lee Summer:  From my paper route, the very first album that I bought was the Led Zeppelin album that had a guy with sticks on his back.  And it had "Stairway To Heaven" on it.

Casey Chambers:  "Led Zeppelin IV." 

Henry Lee Summer:  Yeah. Yeah. That's the first album that I bought with my own money.  And the first single I bought was "Israelites" by Desmond Dekker.  You remember that song?

Casey Chambers:  I'm not familiar with that one.

Henry Lee Summer:  It's probably one of the first reggae ska songs to ever hit the radio.  If you heard it, you'd probably know it. (singing)  'Get up in the morning, slaving for bread sir / so that every mouth can be fed.  Poor me Israelites.'  I'm not doing a very good job.  But it's a funky beat and I just love that song.  

"Israelites" by Desmond Dekker (1968)

Casey Chambers:  Were you going to many concerts growing up?

Henry Lee Summer:  I wasn't allowed to go to rock concerts 'cause I grew up in the Nazarene church.  Although my folks were very forgiving about me listening to it and playing it.  But they didn't allow going to rock concerts until I got outta the house.  Our church ...we weren't supposed to be listening to that.  But my parents didn't enforce that with us.  They knew that the more they tried to keep it from us, the more we were going to figure out how to get it. (laughs). The Nazarene Church is like the Pentecostals, but they usually don't speak in tongues.  I'm not saying anything blasphemous.  I'm not making fun or anything.  But it's definitely a church where people are very spirited.  They testify and are shouting.  It was very exciting.  

Casey Chambers:   How about recommending a few albums you enjoy from other artists?

Henry Lee Summer:  One of my favorite all-time records is the album by Free called, "Fire and Water."  It has "All Right Now" on it.  And "Mr. Big."   Now to me, "All Right Now" is the best rock and roll single ever.  It's a perfect rock and roll pop single, in my opinion.  Paul Rodgers is such a good singer.  It doesn't matter what he sings, 'cause his voice's right there!  That's my favorite one.  And the guitar player, Paul Kossoff ...he was just in there, man.

But Paul Rodgers was a big influence.  If I styled myself after anybody, it'd probably be him.  And I had all the Otis Redding records.  All of'em.  And of course, the Beatles.  I mean even to this day, if you played an album of theirs, I could tell you what the next song's gonna be.  I listened to them so many times.

Casey Chambers:  Just for grits and shins...would you say you're more of a Lennon fan or a McCartney fan?  

Henry Lee Summer:  It's cool to say that you're a Lennon fan, but I've always been a McCartney fan.  I mean, I like John Lennon.  But for me,  Paul McCartney was....he wasn't cynical, ya know?  And that's how I am.  I mean, of course, John would be more artistic, right?  Because he is the more cynical one.  But they both are just complete geniuses.  I saw Paul McCartney in concert.  I just about had a heart attack.  Half the time I was crying and the other half I was hyperventilating. (laughs).  He was still with Wings when I saw him so they were doing a lot of Wings.  

Casey Chambers:  You saw Mac early on!  That's very cool.  Off the top of your head, what's one or two of your favorite McCartney songs?

Henry Lee Summer:  One of my favorites is "Oh, Darling'' from the "Abbey Road" album.  My favorite one he did with Wings might be "Band On the Run."  He's got a million of them.  And I know every one of'em.  He puts on a great show.

Casey Chambers:  Jumping back again to your self-titled album, another single was the power ballad..."Darlin' Danielle Don't."  Honestly, this album was one I found myself playing all summer long.  And as for power ballads, in the 80s...everybody had one. 

"Darlin' Danielle Don't" - Henry Lee Summer - "Henry Lee Summer" (1988) 

Henry Lee Summer:  It was about a combination of things.  One of my friends had a niece whose life was going in the wrong direction and the song was kind of a reminder that things aren't always what they appear to be.  When that song got released...the places that gave it some did really well.  Unfortunately, like it is with a lot of things, the song didn't get to enough radio stations.  But most every place where the song was being heard, it was becoming a top hit for them.

Casey Chambers:  And you have some new music coming out soon.

Henry Lee Summer:  We're getting ready to release a new record probably in the next few weeks.  It will be available to stream, and then later...who knows?   The new record is called, "Live It Up."  It's all-new original rock material and if you like Creedence and Mellencamp and Allman Brothers, "Live It Up" is going to bring that straight-ahead rock you're gonna want to crank. along with some of the familiar sounds from my earlier albums.  I do think this is the best record I've done in a long time. 

Casey Chambers:  Well Mr. Henry Lee Summer,  I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me today and for all the good music you've laid on us. I'll drop a link below for fans to check out.  Stay well and be safe.

Henry Lee Summer:  Thank you, Casey.  Glad to have the chance to talk with you, too.


Good stuff.

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Anonymous said…
Good job
Trisha Allen said…
Grew up listening to Henry Lee (mid 80s) and wishing I could listen to him live at the Vogue. Was still in awe when the Alligator brothers and Henry Lee performed at my office Holiday party in the 2000's. I still love his music and him!
Casey said…
Hi Trisha, that would have been so cool! It was a blast talking with him. Thanks for dropping by.
Anonymous said…
Back in the '80s saw HLS play Bentley's (south of) Indianapolis and (West) Lafayette Nick's. Stood right by the stage next to his band's tower speakers (my ears would ring for hours) and stood next to that tall dude by the stage once before he went to perform. HLS has charisma like few others. He would have such audience rapport, he just made you feel so involved listening and watching his band play and him work the stage. At Bentley's, he'd even run and jump off the stage into the crowd! I have a copy of his locally released album before he went national, and although he downplays it, I like that earlier music because it sounds so natural and raw as if a live concert, just like analog LP records are vs digital CD. I have seen him play a few years ago locally outdoors and he still has the mojo! I found out about his new album "Live It Up" on YouTube today, so will look to download it from streaming in its entirety. HLS is a gem!

BTW, back in the day, he had a reputation for inviting the audience back to his Broad Ripple area honme for milk and cookies, and was known to be seen at the Steak'n Shake restaurant drive thru. A real local guy!
Casey said…
Fantastic! Thanks for the memories. (as Bob Hope would say.) Henry Lee Summer is easy to like. And from all I've read, HLS performs on stage like it REALLY matters that the fans have a good time. And with his "down-home charm" can you not pull for the guy. I have a copy of "Live It Up" and it's a fun one to spin. Thanks for taking time out to share. Much appreciated. ~casey

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