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By IAN HARVEY
Ernest Lee’s life is etched on his face and hands.
He’s spent a lifetime swinging a wrench working on cars and singing the blues and though the stage lights have long faded on the stages he played across Canada, classics are still, in his heart, whether singing and playing guitar or working on a hunk of Detroit Iron.
Today, he’s working on a ’65 Ford Mustang Convertible his Old School Mechanic’s shop in Scarborough converting the motor to a high performance version and updating the disc brakes on the front. An ’81 Firebird TransAm sits in the second of two slots, waiting for a new motor with more horsepower.
Until now he’s been working out of a north Scarborough storage and workshop complex and in September moved to a service station and garage on Kingston Road in south Scarborough which permits workshops. Then there’s the ‘64 Corvair Monza Lee is nursing back to the road. Over there a 25th Anniversary Corvette waiting on new actuator motors for the swing up headlights and a 66 Olds Toronado which needs carb rebuild and tune up.
The classics and their owners are lined up to get work done.
“I just don’t have the space,” Lee laughs as his wife Georgia works the phones to track down parts. “It rains it pours. They all want to drive their cars because its summer so I’m busy.”
Bob Taverner met Lee when his 1972 Cutlass convertible refused to start last fall out in Scarborough.
“I literally started Googling for a shop, looking for classic cars and came across Old School Mechanics,” said. “It was a Saturday and I called and Ernest said no problem and came out and met me and the CAA tow truck at the shop.”
Like most classic car owners, there’s a nostalgic connection to his red rag top: “I bought the car with my dad when I was 18 and had it ever since.”
Taverner was happy to find someone who understood classic cars and once back on the road, returned to get the cylinder heads refurbished and some other work done.
“You just keep putting it off and putting it off,” he said. “Because you want to drive it but then you don’t drive it as much because it needs work.”
The Blues, cars and life
Some of the Detroit Iron has seen better days, much like Lee himself. He’s from a hardscrabble Nova Scotia small town and a residential school survivor, though he doesn’t like to talk about it much.
Put a guitar in his hands, however, and he’ll sing the blues all night long.
“I think the stage is my home,” he says. “I’ve been doing it so long.”
Both parents were pickers – a term for country and bluegrass style guitar players – and as a three or four year-old started performing at céilidhs – Maritime kitchen parties. Later he’d make the rounds of pubs with a ukulele or tenor banjo, performing for loose change, enough to buys his father a drink.
“I grew up poor, many of the places didn’t have indoor plumbing even,” he said. “You learned to fix things. Boat engines, farm equipment. It’s what you did.”
Being around engines led to racing cars and demolition derbies and for a while that’s what drove him. Buying up cars, fixing them up and selling them to earn a living, moving from town to town.
He even did a sting with stunt showman Ken Campbell, aka the Mad Canadian, which is where he first hurt his back.
“Loved the demolition derby and I also raced short oval tracks,” he said.
Hitting the road to Toronto
Music was never too far away, however.
“I got a grant because I was a ward of the Crown because they had this program to get us jobs as we turned 21 in Nova Scotia,” he said.
The money allowed him to put together a band, get some equipment and start touring across the province in an era where live music was booming.
“We had a panels-sided Vega and we played mental institutions, hospitals, you name it,” he laughed. “And we played some side gigs in bars.”
After a couple of years he drifted to Toronto and started playing wherever he could, still buying and fixing up cars on the side. The gigs followed, the Jarvis House, Nickelodon, Peaches on Pears. Toronto had a wealth of live venues.
“Guys like Dutch Mason were huge for me,” he said. “Big acts would come to Canada and they’d send their songs and you’d learn them and play. I played with Etta James, Coco Taylor, Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Chuck Berry. I even played with Hank Snow Jr. “
Cars and guitars in perfect tune
All along there have always been the cars. The classics. The Vettes, the Lincolns, Oldsmobiles, MGs, Fords. It’s not the kind of work you take to your local mechanic where they want to plug in a computer and diagnose the problem.
Old cars, like old bluesmen, are finicky: they cough when they start, they limp sometimes and they’re prone to parts just wearing out.
It’s a life in parallel and that’s Ernest Lee. You don’t just play the blues, you live the life.
These days singing songs of heartbreak have turned to nursing a bad heart and bad back. But he’ll get out to Grossman’s or some other club to perform any chance he can. All they have to do is call. There’s a new CD of songs in post-production too.
Despite the hours on the road, a CD and talent, he never broke out so he returned to the cars of his youth he knew so well.
“I had a moving company for a while, not that I did a lot of lifting but I reinjured my back which I originally hurt in a stunt show accident. That was that.”
Old cars, like old loves, he says with an understanding nod, can be temperamental.
“Sometimes those bolts don’t want to come out, so you have to put some heat to them but you can’t use too much and you can use power tools too much because they’ll snap right off and then you’re in real trouble,” he said. “Around the engine you have to be careful heat because you can warp the heads. It can days to get one of those suckers out sometimes if you use a good penetrating oil.”
Still, those vintage cars are like old tunes he’s played over the years, each one a special memory;
“I’ve owned 300 or more cars over the years I guess, wish I’d kept some of them,” he said. “A ’66 Belvedere rag top, the 59 MGB racer. I like American cars but I like British cars too, 65, 66, 67 Ramblers, Chargers.”