After John's father, William Sanders was named head of Operations, of State Farm Insurance, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, The Sanders family moved in 1968, to Monroe Louisiana, where John learned the Saxophone, joined the Neville High School Jazz and Marching band, and learned horn arranging by transcribing the horn sections of Blood Sweat & Tears, and Chicago.
He won a scholarship to Northeast Louisiana University, and performed in the Jazz Ensemble, Orchestra, concert band, and Marching Band.
Monroe is in Northeast Louisiana, still considered part of the Mississippi Delta, very conservative Bible Belt, but the area produced such great musicians, as Jerry Lee Lewis, Tim McGraw, Jazz Trombonist Carl Fontana, Tony Joe White, John Lee's longtime friend Kenny Bill Stinson, who John Performed several times at the New Orleans Jazz fest, they also worked with Elvis music director James Burton. John was introduced to Louisiana Soul Horn bands in Monroe, such as "The Boogie Kings". Too young to get in the clubs, John would hang by the stage door and listen to the baddest tenor sax player in the south, Jon Smith, (Edgar Winter's White Trash, Albert Collins)
American Musical theater
John's mother, Gladys was a generous supporter and donor of the Performing Arts, especially American Broadway musicals, and often took John to the local productions, and was largely responsible for expanding his musical horizons.
John performed in a 1968 local Monroe production of “Oliver”, written by Lionel Bart, who a close friend of Long John Baldry. Long John arranged for John Lee to speak by phone to Lionel, shortly before his death of brain cancer. Many years later beginning 2009, John's work with the ASCAP foundation, gave him the chance of working with great Tony award winning Broadway composers, such as Stephen Schwartz, (Wicked, Godspell, Hunchback of Notre Dame) and Charles Strouse, (Annie, Bye Bye Birdie) and Hal David (Promises Promises
John became the bassist and guitarist of the Phares Corder Orchestra, contractor of the Louisiana Musicians Union, and performed high profile society events in the mid south. John arranged the pit Orchestras for the Miss Louisiana Pageant, and the Memphis Maid of Cotton Pageant. Phares Corder often booked the horn and string sections of concerts, and theater productions traveling through Louisiana, which led to John's first meeting of his childhood hero, Stevie Wonder, during the orchestra rehearsal of Stevie's Monroe concert in 1970.
(John was commissioned to arrange Micky Newberry's acoustic "American Trilogy" for the sold out show at the Memphis Colleseum, Maid of Cotton pageant, 1971, for a 22 piece orchestra, which received a standing ovation
In 1972, Elvis Presley recorded a very strikingly similar version, which became his iconic signature Vegas persona. The pageant runner up, coincidently happened to be Linda Thomson, girlfriend of Elvis, after divorcing Pricilla Presley)
In the Summer of 1970, John enrolled at the Downbeat Jazz Camp, at the University of Illinois, where he studied with Jamey Abersold, Marian McPartland, Lou Marini, of the Blues Brothers, Blood Sweat and Tears, and Jazz arranger, Wes Hensel.
Many years later, in Monroe, LA, The sprawling State Farm regional office of his deceased father closed in 2005, due to downsizing. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, September 2005, during a tour of Europe, John connected and brokered a deal with the Louisiana Red Cross, and State Farm friends of his family in Monroe, and helped set up the use of the State Farm building, to house the homeless victims of New Orleans, stranded in the Superdome.
Denton & Dallas Texas 1972
In 1972, John transferred to The University of North Texas, in Denton Texas, where he played Bass and Saxophone in the North Texas Lab Band. He studied composition with Dr. Merrill Ellis, and piano from 11 time Grammy award winner, Lyle Mays.
European Education, Rome Italy
In the Summer of 1973, John studied Art, Italian language at Louisiana Tech Rome, and broadened his musical influence of Italian Opera, and European Culture.
On a side train trip to Vienna, John sneaked in a few licks on Beethoven's piano, while the security guard stepped out for a smoke, at Ludwig's apartment.
On a weekend trip to the Montreaux Switzerland Jazz festival, John Lee met Dr. John and Professor Longhair, which led to a lifetime study and performance of New Orleans Jazz and Blues piano.
In 2018, John recently became friends with Professor Longhair's daughter in New Orleans, Pat Byrd, who has just released John's painting of her dad, in commemoration of Fess' 100th Birthday. Here's Dr John signing the painting for a raffle to benefit Music in the New Orleans public schools
John later recorded with Dr. John and his friend Zigaboo Modeliste, in 2003, California, with John Lee doing horns, background vocals and Clarinet on this track with Dr. John
John studied electronic music at North Texas, and discovered the sounds of one of the early Moog Synthesizers, similar to Walter Carlos usage on "Switched on Bach"
During the enrollment at the University of North Texas, John started a band with Keyboardist composer, Peter Schless, (On the Wings of Love-Grammy nominee) who taught John how to bend the notes like a Duane Allman slide guitar on a minimoog synth, similar to the techniques used by George Duke, Jan Hammer, Keith Emerson, and other synth pioneers. In a Benefit concert in Kelowna British Columbia, many years later, John Lee performed on a double bill with Keith Emerson of Emerson Lake and Palmer, in 2010, where John sang lead vocals on the ELP hits, and traded synth solos along with his keyboard legendary Keyboard superstar Keith.
After seeing a house rental on the Music school bulletin board, John met NTSU composer in residence, Dika Newlin
Dr Newlin was a doctoral student of Arnold Schoenberg, Roger Sessions, and Rudof Serkin. She wrote the definitive biography of Gustav Mahler, She left many of her diaries and papers at the house John was renting, that described many personal encounters, with these legendary classical music composers, and her studies in Paris and Vienna
John arranged to rent the Home of Dr. Newlin in Denton, for $200 per month, in the 1973-74 Semester, with 2 other roomates, Buster Brown Drummer, Eric Stuer, and the great musician and composer Tony Taboada, whose family had left Cuba during the Communist Castro Revolution.
The house became a hub of activity and jam sessions from some of the top musicians at UNT, including pianist Pat Coil, and others. To make extra cash, John began playing country music at nights, at one of the local honkey Tonks, and studying Bach and Beethoven during the day. During this time, he was an accomplished bass player and began playing local gigs with the top pianist at North Texas, Jim Milne
Tony introduced John to the great salsa and latin music of Cuba, including artists such as Tito Puente, and other Cuban music.
This was during the time of the Viet Nam War, and to stay out of the draft, John was required to take on a full time academic course load, and not enough time for music. He also studied acoustical engineering, Psychology, (around the time Dr. Phil was a fellow student), Horseback riding, Electronic music, Geology, Astronomy, and Political Science. It was a great school with notable alumni, such as Norah Jones, Roy Orbison, and Don Henley.
John took a hiatus from North Texas University in 1974. He joined a Funk Rock group called The Buster Brown Band,from the Texas Panhandle, which performed in the Black clubs of Dallas,and East Texas, and a regular house gig at Mother Blues The band entered a management contract, with Angus Wynne III, from a prominent Texas family. Angus was the organizer of the Texas International pop music festival, .
Dallas Texas, 1970s
The diverse Dallas music scene was a musical education every night, as John became friends with local Dallas music icons, Freddie King, David “Fathead Newman”, Music biographer, and music journalist and biographer, David Ritz, who John would later co-write gospel Songs. (David co-wrote "Sexual Healing" with Marvin Gaye, and wrote the liner notes for John's CD, Bucket Full of Blues") On a ill fated cancelled show at Austin Texas, World Armadillo Headquarters, after an equipment truck broke down, John and the band met Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan, when they lacked the funds for a hotel room, and Stevie and Jimmie invited the band stay at their home In 1975-76, John Lee performed briefly with an all black group called the "Last Band" with Soul/Funk performers, Robert "Goodie" Whitfield, Cavin Yarbrough and Smokin' Joe Kubek With only one semester to go, In 1976, John returned to Monroe, and finished his Bachelor of Arts degree, at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. In December, of 1976, before the Christmas holiday, John met his Dallas friend Freddie King, at a soundcheck before the show in West Monroe, LA. Freddie invited John to perform with the band at the show, on saxophone. Pleased with John's performance, Freddie asked John to join him on a tour of Japan, beginning February, 1977. Freddie died a few weeks later, after a blood clot. John stayed in contact with Freddie's Organist, Deacon Jones, and later collaborated with him in California, a few years later, on many blues recordings, including John Lee Hooker's "Chill Out"
John credits Narada for teaching him much about pop album production, and recently performed with him at the Library of Congress, in Washington, recreating the Clarence Clemmon's tenor sax solo of Narada's smash hit for nklin "Freeway Of Love"