He played guitar and sang folk, rhythm and blues, even some Calypso and gospel and for the last five decades. Pervis Lee performed his music at country clubs, private parties and festivals throughout the Southeast.
Lee recorded three albums when music was spun on vinyl and two CDs years later. In the late 1960s, he even went to New York to tape a “Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” episode that his family is not sure ever aired.
But what many people who knew Lee’s music probably didn’t know about Lee: He was Hugh McColl’s driver at the bank.
On July 4, Pervis Lee Sr. died at 81 after battling prostate cancer. Musicians he knew will pay tribute to the man some friends called “Mule” and his family called “Pappy” on Friday from 1 to 2 p.m. during a visitation at New Emmanuel Congregational United Church of Christ, where Lee was a member. A funeral will follow.
His daughters say he grew up in west Charlotte, playing football and running track at West Charlotte High. He was a boy when his father died. On his deathbed, his father gave Pervis a guitar.
“He started putting chords together, one, two, three at a time, and started forming his own tunes and own beats,” daughter Sonya Lee of Charlotte said. “That started my dad’s career in music.”
Lee ran so fast at West Charlotte, “nobody could catch him on the football field,” said daughter Sheryl Lee Vann of Charlotte. He was a sprinter at Winston-Salem State, earning a scholarship.
Moving back to Charlotte after college, Lee went to work in the early 1960s at North Carolina National Bank, a predecessor of Bank of America. He drove first for CEO Addison Reese, then Reese’s successor, Tom Storrs and finally McColl when he became CEO in 1983. Lee retired in 1994.
“He was a great driver,” McColl said Thursday. “Everything was always calm when Pervis was behind the wheel.”
Yet one time, they were stopped at a light and a driver behind them laid on his horn when Lee wasn’t quick to move after the light turned green. At the next light, McColl shouted something to the man, who continued to get more angry. Lee prepared to defend his boss.
The light turned green, so he didn’t have to. “Mr. McColl,” he said, pulling away, “I’m your chauffeur, not your body guard.”
All the while, Lee was playing his music. He and daughter Sonya were regulars at the annual Festival in the Park and played at country clubs and private parties all around the Carolinas.
In the early 1960s, Pervis was the one. Everywhere you went, there was Pervis Lee. He had a great voice.
Smitty Flynn, longtime Charlotte band leader
In 1968, journalist Harry Golden of Charlotte wrote the “Tonight Show” booking department about a singer in Charlotte “who belongs in the big time.” Golden sent along recordings of some of Lee’s songs.
“My dad went and did the taping,” said Sonya, 10 at the time. “We just never heard if the show was on TV.”
He was a street singer in the 1993 movie “Scattered Dreams” with Tyne Daly and Gerald McRaney.
A promoter wanted Lee to take his show in the road, but Lee declined: “If I can make it in Charlotte, I can make it anywhere,” he’d tell his children.
Another daughter, Cecilia Lee, said her father never liked to be gone from home for more than a day. “Whether he was singing, or visiting an aunt, after a day he’d say: ‘I’ve got to get back to Charlotte to my wife and family,’” she said.
McColl said Lee owned a club uptown and he and his wife, Jane, would go to listen to Lee play his music. Lee performed at McColl’s retirement party in 2001.
“He wrote a song for me,” McColl said. “It was called: ‘He Did it His Way.’ Pervis was a wonderful fellow.”