Life hasn't always been sweet for Lee Clark Allen. Born Patrick Lee Clark, Allen grew up in Arkansas without much money, and his parents parted ways when he was only four. The now-33-year-old teacher and singer-songwriter, whose stage name includes the surnames of both of his parents, was raised by his single mother and early on turned to the church for spiritual support.
"My mother is a strong retired school bus driver. She raised two boys and a girl. We were tough on her and she was tough on us," shares Allen, whose star as an R&B and neo-soul artist is rising in Denver. "My dad lost his father early and didn't know how to be a present parent after the divorce, but fortunately we've been able to restore our relationship."
At a recent Friday night gig at the intimate Tennyson's Tap in Highland, Allen and his band did what they do best: They connected with their audience on an emotional level. Allen's music draws on his gospel roots, and it shows.
"We packed the place," he relates enthusiastically. "It was a good night. We had 100-plus people come to see us. I had individuals coming up and saying, 'I'm sorry I was crying, but your music just moved me.' I think this is the 'Jesus' year for me. I'm a believer, and I think Jesus was the most influential when he turned 33. I'm humbled to be having some success and to be able to impact people. I'm comfortable with who I am, and people are watching and being inspired. I've got a great community of supporters who encourage me, so it's my 'go for it' year."
Allen works full-time as a sixth-grade teacher at DSST during the week and also puts in time teaching English at the Community College of Aurora in the evening. He moved to the Mile High City in 2014 from New Mexico and impressively still finds time to fit in his musical calling. Hearing his story, it's not hard to understand why people would empathize with him. His artistic tenacity and dedication to improving society for those without privilege is obvious after just one conversation.
"I was a college professor at the community college in Las Cruces for about a minute, and then I did some work at New Mexico State University," Allen explains. "When classes were cut back during the recession, I struggled, and I took a job at Home Depot, where I worked my way up to get full-time employment and eventually I was able to transfer to a Home Depot in Westminster. My little brother was an engineer in Denver, so I took the opportunity to reset. I didn't want to leave New Mexico, because I had just become a feature artist in El Paso, but I felt that I should go somewhere with even more opportunity to market myself and support my art.
"I formed my band in Denver," Allen continues. "I was told that if you can get musicians to believe in your vision that it's a blessing. Between 2014 and 2016, I worked diligently on my craft to win musicians [over], and some of the guys I met in 2016 are still with me. As an educator, I've been on a journey. I became a professor because I thought I might be able to make things more equitable for students from similar economic backgrounds as mine, but teaching at colleges wasn't moving the needle. I made some impact, but my mentor said to go for middle school, because you can really inspire those students and get them excited about education and their opportunities. My students get excited about the fact that I'm Lee Clark Allen the performer."
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The musical educator, who cites the work of Sam Cooke as an inspiration and is sometimes compared to artists including Leon Bridges, Daniel Caesar and John Legend, says Denver has been a boon for his artistic vision as well as his work life. His debut six-song EP, Little Rock, drops on Friday, March 29, and he and his band will mark the event with a show at the Savoy at Curtis Park.
The EP kicks off with a short but engaging cut, a 32-second cover of "This Little Light of Mine" that sets the mood for the engaging and soulful tracks that follow.
"Yeah, we take it back to church on that short cut," says Allen. "Some of that gospel music gets deep down in you. I love Sam Cooke. I listened to the actual gospel tune and then the Sam Cooke version and came up with my own take on it. I get compared to different singers, but I'm between vintage and new soul."