Jan. 13, 2014 – Freddie ‘Fingers’ Lee was born Frederick John Cheesman in Chopwell, Durham, England in 1937. As a child an accident with a dart led to the loss of his right eye. Throughout his life he made light of his disability and refused to let it be a handicap. Though hardly a household name, Lee was a wild and notorious presence on the UK rock and roll scene from the early ’60s up to his death. Born in 1937, he lost his right eye at the age of three after an accident with a stray dart thrown by his father. According to the North Hampton Chronicle, Lee’s daughter remembers her father occasionally dropping his glass eye in people’s drinks while they weren’t looking. “He was the most unconventional dad ever, but I wouldn’t of had it any other way.”
Freddie’s career started in the fifties as a guitarist in a skiffle group, playing between films on the Star Cinema circuit. His life profoundly changed in 1957, when Jerry Lee Lewis released ‘A Whole Lotta Shakin’ and that inspired him to take up the piano. Freddie said, “All I had heard as a kid was Winifred Atwell and I just didn’t believe that a human being could play piano like that.” Cheesman had various scaffolding jobs in his teens and while working in London, he taught himself to play a landlady’s piano. He played with workmates in various skiffle and rock’n’roll groups and in 1960, he joined Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages, Sutch renaming him Freddie Fingers Lee. He play piano with Screaming Lord Sutch, in the house band at The Star Club in Hamburg. He contined to work with Screaming Lord Sutch until Lord Sutch’s suicide in 1999. The following year he was backing the hit-making Eden Kane, but his tenure ended after a fight with the audience led to him having stitches in his good eye. He became the resident pianist on the gold piano at the Star-Club in Hamburg and met several of his heroes. “Jerry Lee Lewis wouldn’t even pass you the toilet paper,” he said.
Returning to the Savages, Lee played on Sutch’s infamous “Jack the Ripper” and every night Sutch would want to perform it with himself as the killer and Lee as the prostitute. “He knocked me into the orchestra pit in Sheffield and he strangled me in Hamburg,” Lee told me in 1993, “and he said, ‘If you don’t turn up for the next show, I’m taking it out of your wages’.” Lee also worked as a session musician playing with Alvin Lee, Ian Whitcomb and Twinkle, whose “Golden Lights” was a hit in 1965.
Lee struck out on his own in 1965 and among the musicians in his band was Ian Hunter, later to form Mott The Hoople. He made the singles “The Friendly Undertaker” (1965) and “Bossy Boss” (1966) but he excelled on stage. He attacked pianos with a chainsaw and he once blew up his piano using his knowledge of explosives. At the De Montfort Hall in Leicester he removed the ivory keys with an axe and hurled them into the audience, who promptly threw them back. Doing handstands on the piano was commonplace and he often used paraffin to ignite his hat. He did however maintain that he had never, ever destroyed “a good piano”.
One of British rock ‘n’ roll’s most colorful characters was Freddie ‘Fingers’ Lee, a guy who never lost the true spirit of rock ‘n’ roll.
In the early ’60s he joined the Savages, Screaming Lord Sutch‘s band. Sutch was arguably the first rocker to incorporate theatrics into his concerts, long before Arthur Brown or Alice Cooper would make the scene. Lee was the guitarist in the band until a young upstart named Ritchie Blackmore stepped in. It was then that Lee moved over to piano.
Freddie started down the road to nuttydom playing piano for Screaming Lord Sutch, his long time partner in crime, while the young Ritchie Blackmore took over his job on guitar. He later joined Eden Kane’s band touring with Cliff Richard and Marty Wilde until, like many other British acts in the sixties, he found his way to Hamburg, initially playing with Sutch and later joining the houseband at the legendary Top Ten Club and The Star Club. When asked the inevitable questions about the Beatles, Freddie said “Lennon was a nut case but they were the same as the rest of us, just a bunch of working-class lads playing the circuit, we didn’t see them any differently; it just happened for them and they got on.”
Years later Paul McCartney paid Freddie the ultimate tribute by inviting him on stage at The Hammersmith Odeon. It was, however, visiting Americans who made Hamburg memorable for Freddie, when he met and sat in with all of the rock ‘n’ roll greats. “I played with Jerry Lee Lewis for a week, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, The Crickets and Gene Vincent, I also met Sam Cooke there, who was a real gentleman“.
These musicians, particularly Jerry Lee, remained an enduring influence on Freddie’s prolific writing career which eventually resulted in 19 singles, 8 albums, 12 compilations and had stars such as Tom Jones and Charlie Gracie covering his songs. “In my mind and in my music, I stayed in the fifties; I love country music though and do a few country numbers in the set, there are so many facets to it, from Cash to Lewis. Rock ‘n’ roll is pure excitement, there is nothing else that can make an entire audience, of all ages and descriptions, start stamping their feet. It’s that incessant drive in the beat. Fads come and go but rock’n’roll has stayed. I have been playing it since day one and I’m still playing it now”.
For many people, Freddie burst into prominence with the 1979 revival of the Jack Good TV show ‘Oh Boy’ which made him a household name, especially on the continent. “I have followed the re-runs of it right across Europe, playing major dates of the back of it. ‘Oh Boy’ sparked a massive following in Italy, Spain, France, Portugal, Germany and, believe it or not, in Africa”. Freddie’s life now consisted of jetting backwards and forwards across European capitals playing festivals and TV dates, sharing billing with his own heroes like Sleepy Labeef, Scotty Moore and Chuck Berry. “I’m glad that the TV success happened later in life because I could handle it, a lot of people couldn’t. It also saddens me that some missed it the second time around, people like Johnny Kidd who could have taken the whole scene by storm”.
Freddie Lee was an unassuming bloke, with no time for the superstar syndrome he simply reckoned that “If you can’t mix with people what can you do? I am lucky to have travelled the world, met some great people and got paid for what I love to do”.
Mott the Hoople lead singer Ian Hunter, who played with Lee in Hurricane Harry and the Shriekers back in the mid-’60s, offered this tribute on his official website:
I’m so sorry.
Fred, Miller Anderson, Pete Phillips and I had some great times back in the day. Fred was a character. He told me he started with Sutch on ten bob a week AND he had to drive the van. We starved together in Germany – van broken down – club owner not paying us – but we got to play for hours every night and that was the buzz. Somehow disasters were averted and we’d make it back.
I always felt bad for Fred. He was – quite naturally – Jerry Lee Lewis’ twin. Same range, same power on the keyboards, same arrogance and he could be really funny – same love of American Country music – he would often sail into a song the band had never heard of. Fred loved the raw original beginnings of Rock ‘n’ Roll and remained staunchly loyal to it during a long, successful career. He had a lot of fans in Europe and never seemed to stop working – music was his life.
We all went off and did different things, but I’ll always be grateful to Fred for giving me a little hope at a time when I thought the factory was my only future. I’ll always remember him saying to me “You’re a good songwriter – but don’t ever try to sing.” He was probably right!!!
Rest In Peace, Freddie. Condolences to all.
Freddie ‘Fingers’ Lee passed away on Monday, Jan. 13, 2014. He was 76 years old. Lee suffered two strokes within the past decade and had recently contracted pneumonia.