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In a world of pierced navels and rainbow-coiffed power forwards, no-nonsense performers like Stephen Lee tend to get shunted into the background. But the twenty-something singer-songwriter behind the solid new CD No Turnin' Back (on Denver's GMR Entertainment label) somehow managed to avoid that fate. "I just remember being asked to do some background singing," comments Lee, who first became known among area musicians as a bass player. "And the guys heard me sing, and they were just like, 'Oh, no--you've got to start singing lead.'"
Lee soon grew comfortable in this role, and before he knew it he was fronting such bands as Shy, Reaction and a current project called Backstreet. "But even before Backstreet," Lee notes, "I spent a lot of years with a group called Rare Moment," an internationally recognized show band and revue that performs the music of Motown and songs from other popular eras. "I answered an ad for that and went to an audition. Me and another guy sang a couple of tunes and they liked it, so the next thing you know, I was doing shows and traveling."
In between Rare Moment tours, Lee spent four years in Los Angeles, where he worked as a music-biz intern and struggled to secure a big break of his own. None came his way, however, and he eventually realized that the Left Coast was not for him. Today, he says, "I would recommend that you not really go out there unless it's a necessity--unless you've got some serious things going on where you need to be there. Otherwise, you don't need to be in L.A. to write a good tune." He adds, "People talked me into singing, saying, 'You really need to get out there and sing.' So I decided that I was going to come back here and focus on doing a CD."
Taking his own advice, Lee returned to his native Colorado and landed a job as an admissions specialist for the giant Kaiser Permanente concern. But his eyes remained on the recording prize. After spending eight-hour stretches dealing with the challenges of the health field, he would head to the studio and cut the numbers that wound up on No Turnin' Back. This was no easy task: He served as producer on the platter and played the majority of the guitar and bass tracks himself. Nevertheless, he's thrilled that he hasn't quit his day job--yet. After all, Kaiser staffers purchased nearly 500 copies of the disc the first day of its release. "When I got the CDs," Lee explains, "it just took off."
The enthusiasm of Lee's corporate co-workers is understandable. No Turnin' Back, engineered by Scott "Gusty" Christ-ensen, offers unabashedly commercial arrangements (courtesy of Lee) that place the performer's impressively soulful pipes front and center. Ambitious numbers such as "Jazzence" and the well-intentioned "Color Blind" miss their mark as often as they hit it, but compositionally speaking, the heart-on-his-sleeve balladry of Lee's "Love & Understanding" delivers more payoffs than a Teamsters trial.
"I kind of stumbled onto songwriting," Lee claims--and if that's true, he's certainly developed a knack for it. His work is so strong that it's often juxtaposed with hits from the past during Rare Moment gigs. Unfortunately, solo turns by Lee are rare moments, too. "When I'm doing my show," he reveals, "I try not to do the bar venues, just because it's a bigger show and it involves a lot of choreography and that type of thing." As such, he points out, his act lends itself to the bigger stages provided at the Capitol Hill People's Fair, the Taste of Colorado (he's already been asked to perform during this year's edition) and a recent fest sponsored by radio station KDKO-AM/1510. Even so, Lee affirms, "I actually have some fans out there. It's not a huge following, but it's kind of nice. There are definitely some people out there who follow me when they find out I'm singing with Backstreet" or at such local haunts as Josephina's, where Lee struts his stuff once or twice a month.
Judging by what he hears from his contacts in the industry, Lee concludes, "I think I've got a good shot at national success." But for the time being, he states, "The way I see it is that I'm probably Denver's best-kept secret. And people are starting to catch on to the secret.