SUN CITY CENTER — Technically, Richard Lee of Sun City Center became a professional singer at the age of three. He made his world debut while traveling on a train in the 1940s singing “Pistol Packin’ Mama.” The train conductor gave him a dollar to stop singing. It was his first and only paid engagement.
After high school, Lee joined the U.S. Navy and began playing the guitar. When his hitch in the Navy ended, he joined a band called “Ricky and the Rebels.” Just before the group was to play warm up for the Everly Brothers at a concert in Fargo, Lee left the band, choosing his marriage over music. Ricky and the Rebels became T.C. Atlantic, one of the biggest bands in 1960s Minneapolis, making a hit of Bo Diddley’s song “Mona.” Lee went on to build a highly successful plumbing company.
Music, however, was never far from his heart or his mind.
On April 6, Richard “Dick” Lee will take to the stage again at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater as part of the final competition for the Bright House 2011 Senior Idol program. Twelve seniors will compete in the final, three each from Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Manatee counties. Remarkably, all three finalists from Hillsborough are from Sun City Center.
As a retiree, Lee has had the opportunity to immerse himself in music once again. He spends hours with his guitar, a Fender Stratocaster, learning new songs. He also sings in his church and occasionally takes part in karaoke with friends. Asked what inspired him to take part in the Senior Idol competition, Lee responded with a laugh. “My wife,” he said.
“It was kind of a last minute thing,” his wife Julie said of the competition. Julie is certainly his biggest supporter. “His voice is marvelous.”
“She’s a great singer, too,” Dick quickly added.
Lee will take to the stage after a personal loss. He recently sang at his mother’s funeral.
“My mother passed away so we’re kind of thrown off of our schedule,” Lee said. “I did [Josh Groban’s] ‘How Great Thou Art’ for her funeral. I added his song, ‘You Raise Me Up’. I got through most of it, but in the last words kind of broke up. Feeling that way you can’t get the words out.”
Unlike last year’s competition in which Bright House subscribers were able to vote for the winner over several weeks, this year the audience in attendance at Ruth Eckerd Hall will vote on the winning senior idol and the winner will named that night. The 2011 Senior Idol will win $500 and pick up another $500 for the charity of his or her choice.
“If I don’t win, I won’t be disappointed,” Lee said. “I’m not going to feel bad if I don’t, but it would be nice. No matter who people vote for, this is a great thing. I think that Bright House should also be applauded for the money to charity.”
For Lee, it seems most of the fun is just being involved in the competition. He talked about the incredible talent he has encountered in the program and, of course, he is in awe of the music itself.
“God made us so diverse,” he said. “There are only so many notes, but just think about how diversified music is.”
Richard Lee, a budding musician as a young man and a successful business owner as an adult, has found, in retirement, the songs in his heart. On April 6 at Ruth Eckerd Hall, Lee will show the audience his own diversity. The entire community is invited to come out to cheer him on.
The Senior Idol Final Competition will be featured on Bright House Tampa Bay On Demand on channel 340 after April 6. The winner’s presentation will be showcased on Bay News 9 on April 6.