Living Blues #218 April/May 2012 : Page 18

Lee Gates performing at the Taj Mahal Fishin’ Blues, Playa Zancudo, Costa Rica, 2003. “There was 11 in my family, so she didn’t have time to teach me or show me—she had to wash and cook for all the kids. So, we didn’t have a guitar for the whole family. My dad used to borrow a guitar from a friend and they would leave it around there while they go to work and I would try to play it. So, I’d break a string and he’d beat me. ‘Boy, I told you don’t bother that guitar!’ But I kept going. That’s how I learned to play when I was in Mississippi. “I wanted to be a star all my life. I told my mother, ‘I’m going to be a star.’ Now, my daddy used to beat me up because I’d stay up all night long playing my guitar. The next day he wanted me to work but I’d be sleeping. I’d get in the field and I’d slip down and go to sleep. [laughs] And he’d catch me and he’d beat me up. See, where we lived, it was like this—I lived in this side, my daddy and mother and sisters lived on that side. There was a hall between us and I’d play all night long.” The family wasn’t able to afford a pho-nograph, so Gates would listen to the radio to hear the new blues and early rock ’n’ roll records. “[I’d listen to] Nashville, Tennessee— WLAC. We used to have one of those radios that had batteries about that long. When the battery would go down we’d put it by the stove and warm that battery back up and bring the battery back up again.” [laughs] Gates continued playing guitar despite the regular beatings. “[I played] in school and with some of my white friends in the neigh-borhood. I’d go to their house and they’d try to play like me. So I played in school and sometimes I’d go in back of a little café. The café would be selling sandwiches in the front and my brother would be back there. I bought him a little toy set of drums and we’d be in the back trying to play. All my brothers played. I have four brothers. One is down south, his name is George—George Gates. He plays church music. And my baby brother, Bobby, he died of a brain tumor. He was another Jimi Hendrix. [Milwaukee–based gui-tarist Bobby Gates played on Robert Taylor’s I’ll Catch You on the Way Down , which was covered by Little Milton.] “I wanted to play like B.B. King. And as far as rock ’n’ roll, I used to play like Chuck Berry. [laughs] And then, the next guy was Ray Charles. He was playing a record [called] What’d I Say . I used to like that and I liked this guy [sings], ‘Come on over, there’s a whole lotta shaking going on.’ Yeah, Jerry Lee Lewis—I liked him. They were the guys I liked. I liked Hubert [Sumlin] when he was playing with Howlin’ Wolf.” Like many impoverished black children in Mississippi, Gates left school at a very early age to help support the family. “Down south I worked in a logging company. Then I worked in a lumber mill and I cut lumber. I worked in the logging woods and I cut timber with a power saw. I used to drive log trucks and I’d haul five cords a day by myself. [I’d] load it and unload it when the train come by. Then I quit doin’ that and I was the train foreman and made sure it didn’t stick out too far and keep it lined up when it go under them un-derpasses and things. I made foreman and my daddy was a foreman. He also was a preacher, you know. They taught me to love everybody and not hate nobody. My daddy, he used to play [guitar], but he moved to Milwaukee and started preaching, so he didn’t play then.” Strong physical activity came naturally for Gates. Besides music, he also developed a passion for boxing. “I wanted to be a boxer. My mother’s brother, he was a boxer. He always taught us how to box. So what r oger s tephenson courtesy M usic M aker Lee Gates performing with Frank Marbutt, bass, Gary Harbison, guitar, and Ardie Dean on drums at Phelan Park, Birmingham, Alabama, April 2011. 18 • LIVING BLUES • April 2012

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