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

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

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

He had throat cancer, said his son Johnson Lee.

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

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

This intellectual legacy held little interest for the charismatic but irascible Mr. Lee, who was expelled from private school as a teenager. His political involvement ended when he received two weeks of detention for telling dirty jokes when he nominated a high school friend for class treasurer.

“Joe always marched to a different tune, a different orchestra, actually,” his brother Blair Lee IV told the Washington Times in 1990. “He brings a lot of energy to our family. … Joe helps us not to take ourselves too seriously.”

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

At each location, Joe’s Record Paradise was a crowded hodgepodge of music memorabilia, posters and books, but most of all, an eclectic collection of vinyl records, CDs, cassettes and videos of all kinds: country and hip-hop; Tejano and comedy; alternative rock and punk; jazz, including by pianist and composer Thelonious Monk.

At the center was Mr. Lee, who was always talking and knew where to find each of the 100,000 or so titles in his store, as resident raconteur, impresario and all-round music expert.

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

From the beginning, musicians, writers, obsessive collectors and rebellious teenagers stopped by. Some worked for Mr Lee, others met like-minded people and formed bands together. Music fans from Britain and Japan sometimes bought hundreds of albums at once.

“There was a whole community around this man and this shop,” Zev Feldman, a producer and record label executive who grew up in Montgomery County, said in an interview. “It was kind of like a barbershop. I went there several times a week. I got a musical education by hanging out there.”

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

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band – often with the Rootettes as backing band – drew enthusiastic crowds to their performances. Root Boy wore capes and collapsed on stage while 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 Root Boy Slim album and then paid him $40,000 not to record a second album. He died in 1993.

Lee’s other ventures into music management included concerts, reunions and benefits for ailing musicians. In 1984, he brought together several eccentric artists at Psyche Delly for a concert called “Primative Night” – thanks to a designer’s misspelling.

In 1989, after longtime WHFS-FM DJ Damian Einstein was fired by a new owner, Lee organized an all-star concert that drew some 8,000 listeners to a Silver Spring parking lot and gave Einstein a reprieve, promoting an artist he called “Blelvis” — for Black Elvis — who knew every song Elvis Presley had recorded.

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

One of Lee’s greatest discoveries came in the late 1990s, when a friend told him about Leon Kagarise, who had amassed thousands of records in his home in Towson, Maryland. While going through the collection—”you have to walk like a crab to get into a room”—Lee saw a tape labeled “Johnny Cash, Maryland 1962.”

The sound was flawless. Kagarise was a reclusive sound engineer who had recorded thousands of hours of tapes of live country music shows and broadcasts in the 1960s.

“Here was an unreleased recording of Johnny Cash in his prime that sounded like it had been 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 cataloging Kagarise’s music and arranging its commercial release. Several albums have already been produced and more are in the pipeline.

Joseph Wilson Lee was born on August 17, 1947 in Silver Spring. His mother, the daughter of a diplomat, ran a household with eight children.

His father was first elected to the Maryland legislature in 1954 and to the Senate in 1966. He was elected lieutenant governor in 1970 and again four years later as the vice presidential running mate of Governor Marvin Mandel (D). Blair Lee III served as 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 completed his studies at 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 in a record store for about two years. He occasionally appeared in music videos and underground films that did not receive wide distribution.

His marriage to Mary Catherine Pepper ended in divorce. In addition to his son – whose full name is Robert Johnson Lee, named after the Delta blues musician – of Aspen Hill, Maryland, he leaves behind a daughter, Matilda Lee of Chevy Chase, Maryland, six siblings and four grandchildren.

Mr. Lee lived in Mount Airy, Maryland, before settling on a mountaintop near Moorefield, West Virginia. In 2008, he turned Joe’s Record Paradise over to his son.

He briefly opened a branch of the store in Baltimore, but closed it after the fire department demanded payment for “highly flammable” items. Satisfied with just one location, Mr. Lee turned down all offers to open a franchise chain.

“You’d lose what we have,” he told Billboard magazine in 1991. “If you expand, you’ll soon be hiring the typical, ignorant, dysfunctional minimum wage earner. No, I don’t want that.”