Joe Lee, proprietor of a record paradise, dies at 76


Joe Lee, an internationally recognized dealer in obscure blues, rock and jazz recordings and whose Montgomery County shop, Joe’s Record Paradise, became an informal center of the D.C. music scene, died July 4 at a hospice center in Rockville. He was 76.

He had throat cancer, said his son, Johnson Lee.

Mr. Lee was the admitted black sheep of a distinguished Maryland family, with two ancestors who signed the Declaration of Independence. His father, Blair Lee III, was a Maryland state legislator and lieutenant governor who served as acting governor in the 1970s.

Other members of the Blair-Lee family were senators, governors, presidential advisers and military leaders, including Robert E. Lee. The Blair House, across from the White House, was named for another relative.

This highbrow legacy held little interest for the charismatic but irascible Mr. Lee, who was kicked out of prep school in his teens. His political involvement ended when he received two weeks of detention for telling dirty jokes while nominating a high school friend for class treasurer.

“Joe’s always marched to a different drumbeat, in fact, to a whole different orchestra,” his brother Blair Lee IV told the Washington Times in 1990. “He provides a lot of spark to our family. … Joe helps us take ourselves not too seriously.”

After studying art and working in a Los Angeles record store, Mr. Lee returned to Maryland and opened Joe’s Record Paradise in Takoma Park in 1974. The shop has moved to several other locations in Montgomery County over the years and is now operated by his son in Silver Spring.

In every location, Joe’s Record Paradise was a cluttered hodgepodge of music memorabilia, posters and books, but mostly an eclectic collection of vinyl LPs, compact discs, tapes and videos of every description: country and hip-hop; Tejano and comedy; alt-rock and punk; jazz, including from pianist and composer Thelonious Monk.

At the center of it, as resident raconteur, impresario and all-around music maven, was Mr. Lee, a nonstop talker who knew where each of the 100,000-odd titles in his shop could be found.

“A lot of your record store owners are crazy,” he told The Washington Post in 1988. “They can’t tell you their kids’ names, but they can tell you the sidemen on some blues guy’s first 78 rpm record.”

From the beginning, musicians, writers, obsessive collectors and rebel teens began to drop by. Some went to work for Mr. Lee; others met like-minded souls and formed bands together. Music fans from Britain and Japan sometimes bought hundreds of albums at a time.

“There was a whole community around that man and that store,” Zev Feldman, a producer and record label executive who grew up in Montgomery County, said in an interview. “It was a barbershop sort of environment. I went there several times a week. I got an education in music by hanging around that place.”

Mr. Lee began to book music acts at the Psyche Delly, a club in Bethesda, and Friendship Station in the District. Always drawn to performers on the fringes of respectability, he managed the career of Foster MacKenzie III, a Yale graduate better known as wild-man singer Root Boy Slim.

During the late 1970s and early ’80s, Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band — often backed by the Rootettes — drew enthusiastic crowds to their shows, with Root Boy wearing capes and collapsing onstage, as fans sang along to “My Wig Fell Off” and “Boogie Till You Puke.”

Mr. Lee helped arrange a major-label deal with Warner Bros., which released one album by Root Boy Slim, then paid him $40,000 not to record a second album. He died in 1993.

Many of Mr. Lee’s other ventures into music management included concerts, reunion gatherings and fundraisers for ailing musicians. In 1984, he brought together several eccentric performers at the Psyche Delly for a concert billed as — thanks to a misspelling by a designer — “Primative Night.”

In 1989, after new corporate ownership fired longtime DJ Damian Einstein of WHFS-FM, Mr. Lee organized an all-star concert that drew some 8,000 listeners to a parking lot in Silver Spring and won a reprieve for Einstein. He promoted a performer he dubbed “Blelvis” — for Black Elvis — who knew every song recorded by Elvis Presley.

Mr. Lee spearheaded a revival of the Orioles, a doo-wop group from the 1950s, and coordinated the reunion of the British Walkers, a group from Arlington, Va., who adopted fake English accents during the height of the 1960s British Invasion, led by the Beatles and Rolling Stones.

Mr. Lee made one of his greatest discoveries in the late 1990s, when a friend told him about Leon Kagarise, who had amassed thousands of records at his home in Towson, Md. While sorting through the collection — “You walk like a crab to get to one room” — Mr. Lee saw a tape recording labeled “Johnny Cash, Maryland 1962.”

The sound was pristine. Kagarise was a reclusive recording engineer who had made thousands of hours of tapes of live country music shows and broadcasts throughout the 1960s.

“Here was an unreleased recording of Johnny Cash in his prime, sounding as if it was recorded yesterday,” Mr. Lee told the New York Times in 2001. “I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing.”

Mr. Lee spent about two years cataloguing Kagarise’s music and helping arrange for its commercial release. Several albums have been produced, and others are on the way.

Joseph Wilson Lee was born Aug. 17, 1947, in Silver Spring. His mother, the daughter of a diplomat, managed a household of eight children.

His father was first elected to the Maryland legislature in 1954 and to the state senate in 1966. He was elected lieutenant governor in 1970 and again four years later as the running mate of Gov. Marvin Mandel (D). Blair Lee III was acting governor from June 1977 to January 1979, when Mandel was recovering from a stroke and on trial for corruption.

After being expelled from Georgetown Prep, Joe Lee graduated from Springbrook High School in Silver Spring. He later graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. He celebrated his 22nd birthday at the Woodstock music festival in 1969.

In high school and college, Mr. Lee played drums in bands before moving to Los Angeles, where he worked for about two years in a record shop. He occasionally acted in music videos and underground films that were not widely distributed.

His marriage to Mary Catherine Pepper ended in divorce. In addition to his son — whose full name is Robert Johnson Lee, after the Delta blues musician — of Aspen Hill, Md., survivors include a daughter, Matilda Lee of Chevy Chase, Md.; six siblings; and four grandchildren.

Mr. Lee lived in Mount Airy, Md., before settling on a mountaintop near Moorefield, W.Va. He turned Joe’s Record Paradise over to his son in 2008.

He briefly opened a branch of the store in Baltimore but closed it after the fire department demanded payments for “highly flammable” items. Content with just one location, Mr. Lee refused all offers to launch a chain of franchises.

“You’d lose that thing we have,” he told Billboard magazine in 1991. “You spread out, pretty soon you’re hiring the typical know-nothing, dysfunctional minimum-wager. No, I don’t want that.”

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