Doug "Joe Lee" Bush
by Shelley Lowenstein,writer and blues historian
Born in Atlanta,Georgia, 1938. Joe Lee Bush was raised with the blues in Atlanta's West End section of town.
Playing harmonica from age 3, he started playing for money at age 15 in the segregated black taverns and clubs scattered over the southside of the city. Age requirements were somewhat relaxed for an entertainer but the age for buying liquor (21) remained in force for everyone. The rules of a segregated south were also winked at when whites came into black clubs..but blacks were not permitted to go to white clubs.
"I was quite a novelty back then...a skinny white kid singing and blowing those blues in all those black joints. It wasnt easy either, I was warned by a bigot high school teacher that if he found out I was in those places he'd have me expelled from school", Joe Lee says. "If you crossed the color line back then, you had to keep it on the quiet. The KKK was no problem. Hell, all they did was get drunk and make a lot of noise...it was the teachers and "socialites" who could do you in. And that all seems so silly today (just as it was then, really)"
Blazing a path of wild terror with his amplified harmonica, he followed in the footsteps of his idol Little Walter Jacobs and is one of the last players alive today to have been coached personally on the instrument by Walter himself.
Joe Lee says.."this is all well documented in Ward Gaines, Scott Dirks, and Tony Glover's book on the Little Walter story entitled "Blues With A Feeling. Walter showed me a lot about 3rd position right there on the street corner outside the Magnolia Ballroom on Sunset Avenue as well as backstage on intermissions back in 1953. I was getting free lessons from a recording professional anytime for 3 months at the age of 15..never even dreaming that he'd become the legend he is today. I don't think he had any idea of it himself."
"But those stories of him becoming a sonovabitch sure didnt apply then..he was polished, very little foul language, and he had an interest in how I was playing. In addition to the usual tongue blocking, I also curled my tongue inside the mouth to get an air channel directly into the holes, making for a much more powerful attack. He was doing the same thing and asked me "did you work that out yourself" and I said "yes, I was so little when I started playing that my tongue was too small to do the usual tongue blocking" and he said he did the same thing too. After 1955, I never saw Little Walter again."
Playing the blues in the alleys and black neighborhoods from the age of 9, Joe Lee says..."it was never hard for me. It was a gift or a curse depending on how you looked at it. Don't misunderstand me though, I still had to work memorizing and learning the passages, but getting those sounds was pretty easy. I've tried to help guys with it who have struggled for years and they just don't seem to get anywhere much. They try hard and they work hard but they still come up short on the tone and the vocabulary of licks and passages."
"I don't think its a "lack of soul" thing, I don't know what it is most are doing wrong. It's especially frustrating to me since I'd like so desperately to transfer the knowledge to them because they want it so bad."
Asked about his favorite players today, he's outspoken and doesn't back off. He says, "Rod Piazza, Rick Estrin, Jerry Portnoy, and Steve Guyger, in my opinion are the best out there..they have it all. The play, the vocals, the showmanship, and the style. I know the Kim Wilson and Charlie Musselwhite fans will hit the ceiling over these remarks, but thats the way I feel about the four I named...they have the whole package"
Joe Lee continues..."the fat recording contracts have always seemed to just pass me by or I was never in the right place at the right time. And then there was a 25 year layoff from 1965 to 1990 when I didnt pick up a harmonica at all, except when some new guy would show up on the scene, I'd test what he was doing. Then back into the closet they'd go. I was off into playing bass in various bands where I could make some money..nobody cared about that harp. But I hold no grudges, I am happy, in great health, exercise regularly, and I play wherever I can get us booked. Even for what others would call "chump change"...after 50 years I am still out there wailing. I'd still do a tour to Europe if the price was right. Life has been very good to me and with Jesus as my personal savior, then the afterlife looks pretty good too"
(It's in him.....and it got to come out)