Swinging a wrench and singing the Blues

Ernest Lee 1952 – 2019

Principle Curator Ian Harvey wrote this piece about Ernest before his death in September 2019 and updated it on his passing.

By IAN HARVEY

Ernest Lee’s life was etched on his face and hands.
He was a Bluesman through and through. He lived it. He sang it. He felt the pain, the joy, through good times and the bad times.

I only knew him briefly when he moved in to the house across the street and was invited over to our neighbours for a few drinks and a get to know you session.

It didn’t take long for the guitar to come out and for me to grab my acoustic bass and try to keep up with him.

You could say Ernest – aka Ernest Lee Herring – was a little rough around the edges. He’d spent a lifetime swinging a wrench working on cars and singing the blues and though the stage lights have long faded and still his legend lives on.

Ernest Lee

Over the next couple of years I got to know him and the lovely Georgia better. For Ernest it was always two things: the music and the cars.
He was happiest with both.
Whether it was playing his telecaster and crooning in that pitch perfect voice with just a hint of rasp or taking apart a ’65 Ford Mustang Convertible at his Old School Mechanic’s shop in Scarborough, converting the motor to a high performance version and updating the  disc brakes on the front. Or maybe it was that ’81 Firebird TransAm sitting in the second of two slots, waiting for a new motor with more horsepower.
Not matter what Ernest wanted to squeeze more out of the cars and more out of the music. That was his thing.

I had the privilege of sitting in with Ernest and few other musicians when he announced he was having a backyard jam the first summer he moved in.
Suddenly there was a crush of musicians packed into his yard, drums, guitars, bass, keys and PA going and music ringing out.
I was so impressed with the idea I stole it and started my own backyard jam, the Dammit Jammit sessions, for musicians, by musicians.
This wasn’t a show. If you came you had to get up a play and no, you can’t get up with your regular band. Mix it up and kick it.

I played a few of those backyard jams over the years, either there across the street, at my place – where Principal Curator Keith Beckles also joined in – at he next place he moved to or at his his collaborator Robert Winter’s place, also in South Scarborough. I was in awe of the talent.

And then Ernest asked me to fill in for his regular bass player Russell Noseworthy at a booze can. Russell had to work the next day and so wasn’t interested in starting a 2 a.m. and playing until 4 a.m.
Me? I jumped at it. What the heck. I’d been tricked into playing a booze can 20 years before at a place above Helen’s Hash House on Queen Street East with the crazy Michael Chin and Bill Vigars. But that’s another story for another time.
We ran through the set list in his living room. Most of the tunes were standards or easy enough progressions. And on the night we loaded my truck and headed down around midnight.

Turns out the booze can, on Ossington, at Queen St. Westright in the middle of hipsterville was run by my former band mate, work colleague and friend’s sister. His cousin was on the door. We were jammed like sardines into the corner, me, Robert Winter and Mark Hundevad on drums and just as we’re gonna start up this tall, skinny dude with impossibly long fingers arrived with a sax. It was Jim Heineman, a Toronto legend.

Ernest and Georgia

Jim just asked what key we were and then started playing. Wow. I started listening until I realized I was missing change cues and had to smarten up.

What a pleasure to play with such pro. By 3 a.m. the kids were whooping it up to the groove of the old school sound. The joint was packed and the illegal beer was flowing like the Niagara River.
By the time we finished the last encore of the third set I was toast. But Ernest? 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 <em>céilidhs</em> – 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 stint with stunt showman Ken Campbell, aka the Mad Canadian, which is where he first hurt his back.

Jammit Dammit!

“Loved the demolition derby and I also raced short oval tracks,” he said.

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. His new CD of songs was out just in in time for him to hear it before he died, Rhythm & Rhyme.

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.”

Ernest. Wished you could have stuck around longer. I have so much to learn.

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