Front Porch

Jeff Lee: A Man of Music, Joy, and Laughter

Jeff Lee at the Troubadour holiday party last year. Photo by Steve Covault.


Jeff with his twin grandsons.


Jeff Lee and Jerry Gontang perform at Java Joe’s. Photo by Dennis Andersen.

Oh! Ridge (Jeff Lee on the right) in 1976

“If we think back on what we were doing 20 years ago and reflect on how recent it feels in the present moment, it gives us an idea of how quickly the next 20 years will progress,” true words spoken by a longtime friend, fellow musician and occasional guitar student. His name was Jeff Lee, a connoisseur of life, a crafty singer-songwriter, entertainer, black belt, veteran, husband, father, grandfather, and overall good guy, who was loved by many. In our most recent guitar lesson last year, we spent a couple of hours playing, a couple of hours reminiscing about the heyday of the San Diego music scene when his group Oh! Ridge and mine, Stone’s Throw, ruled the nightclubs throughout San Diego County in the 1980s, back in the day when a musician would usually work six nights a week in the same room for months as the house band, and finally we spent an hour or so talking about our mortality, the aging process and how quickly our time on earth proceeds. Little did I know I’d have to craft an article about his life so quickly after our last discussion. Lee died on July 3rd from a mountain biking accident. So, on that note, I now defer to life reflections by the many who loved him and knew him well, paying homage to his life and musical times, beginning with longtime friend, musical sidekick and Oh! Ridge partner in crime, Jerry Gontang.

Reflections from Jerry Gontang and Jeff’s wife, Carol: “If you ever attended an Oh! Ridge show, you have fond memories of the evening. Usually those memories were spawned by founder and leader Jeff Lee. The band prided itself with a collective effort of comedic timing and accurate harmonies that came about by constant practice and a grueling work schedule. 40-plus years of music and humor were kept alive through Jeff’s energy and his ability to read an audience. Parodies and funny songs, along with props and gimmickry, kept audiences entertained and laughing for decades.

Jeff had rewritten a travesty of Peter Paul and Mary’s hit “Puff the Magic Dragon” and it became the group’s most requested song. Other satirical hits included “Dick and Jane,” “Loving You,” “The Fish Song,” “Dead Dog Rover,” and the show closer “Rodeo Song,” plus many others too profanely titled to name here. Is that a smile on your face? His ability to focus and engage one table at a time allowed him and his sidekicks to make everyone in the room feel like they were a part of the show. Jeff’s degree of ribaldry became more intense as the evening progressed and this was made possible by the statement “we’re an equal opportunity offender, we f#@k with everyone,” or “this show is like a door knob, everybody gets a turn.”

The famous kamikaze airplane and drink wheel specials made a lot of bars, restaurants, owners, managers, and patrons happy people. One of his favorite quips,”The drunker you get, the better we sound,” became a motto that audiences revered. The “Toast! Toast back!” routine, borrowed from a fellow entertainer in Sun Valley, Idaho, and followed by a limerick, insured nobody was left ignored. The show usually started out with a docile dinner set and ended with the last set being triple X blue humor. Inappropriate? Maybe, if you didn’t have a sense of humor. Entertaining? Always, from beginning to end. That’s just how Jeff Lee planned it.

His part-time career as a music teacher in the elementary school system caused many double takes from parents who had seen the Oh! Ridge show. A three-battery Mag flashlight kept in his back pocket was used to single out people in the audience. There was no mistaking who he was talking to. Jokes were a good portion of the show and he was always coming up with new material. Not one to be outdone by hecklers, his Don Rickles style of banter left them outwitted and wishing they had never started. At a recent Oh! Ridge reunion that lasted four and a half hours, Jeff was the only member who remained on stage. When asked how he was able to play for so long, he immediately replied, ‘Depends?!’

Although he was the driving force behind the band, he was much more than Oh! Ridge. Jeff and his wife, Carol, were married on October 26, 1980. They have two daughters, Jessica Taylor and Allison Lee; son-in-law Michael Taylor; and grandsons Jackson and Lincoln Taylor. A proud papa and grandpa, he could be seen swiping pictures into his iPhone while giving brief excerpts of the children’s progress to friends and fans intent on hearing updates. A native San Diegan, he attended Crawford High School, Mesa College, San Diego State University, and served in the United States Navy. Attending open mics opened doors to a solo career playing private parties, corporate functions, restaurants, festivals, and coffee houses. Outside of music, Jeff also had an interest in musical theater, playing roles in his daughters school plays and local theatrical troupes. He was an active member of the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus (ECV), a fraternal organization dedicated to the study and preservation of the heritage of the American West, especially the history of the Mother Lode and gold mining regions of the area. An avid mountain biker and second-degree black belt in karate, he was well versed at getting from point A to point B via dirt trails and more than competent at fighting his way out of a paper bag.”

From former Oh! Ridge band member Ricky Araiza: “Jeff was the instigator of Oh! Ridge; he was the prime mover, the big bang for this period of music for so many friends and family. We had lots of happy moments and good times thanks to our brother Jeffrey and we are all supremely in debt and equally sad for his loss. Bye brother. miss you already!”

From singer-songwriter Joe Rathburn: “I arrived in San Diego in 1979. I had been performing back in my home state of Michigan, making great money in a chain of steak houses. They were part of the Foodmaker chain which owned, among other things, Jack in the Box. The regional manager told me that I could go out to San Diego and get a gig playing at one of their affiliated restaurants, in particular, the Monterey Whaling Co. When I got here I was in for a rude awakening, as those restaurants already had acts that were playing every night, and packing them in to boot. One of those acts was Oh! Ridge. Jeff Lee and Jerry Gontang along with Steve Yarberry owned every room they played with their mixture of comedy and music, with the emphasis on comedy, of which I had very little, and still don’t to this day. But it was always the chemistry and timing between Jeff and Jer that made that act click. Jeff always had a lightning wit and a pocket full of jokes; he was the edgier, racier and more sarcastic of the two, but they both were dedicated to making their audience have a good time, no matter what.

We never really hung out as close friends but they’d always treat me like a star whenever I’d get off of my gig early and rush over to see their last set. They’d always have me get up on stage and sit in. They both were respectful of me and my act, and though I was always kinda chasin’ them, trying to get booked in the same rooms they were in, they were both always supportive and friendly.

One of the last conversations I had with Jeff, I recall poignantly how he and Carol were getting ready to start livin’ the golden years, and enjoy life more.”

From Walt Richards, multi-instumentalist teacher and performer: “Jeff Lee entertained thousands. He gave us laughter and joy through his music. He respected his fellow musicians and encouraged them to share their talents along with him. He was an inspiration and mentor to many in San Diego and an early pioneer in the professional acoustic music scene helping pave the way for many of the musicians who followed. Jeff gave his life to his music and his family. I am so lucky to have known him; I will miss him.”
From Ed Douglas: Currently a contented ceramic tile pop artist, Douglas was in the original Scottsville Squirrel Barkers lineup, a legendary 1960s local bluegrass band that featured the likes of Chris Hillman (the Byrds), Bernie Leadon (the Eagles) and Kenny Wertz (Flying Burrito Brothers). He shared his thoughts about Lee, who often sat in with the reunited Barkers from the late 1990s forward. “Jeff and I became good friends. Many of the folk and bluegrass community would gather socially and musically at Jeff’s house on Sundays, he was a great guy who loved music and life.”:

From Al Hollar: “I met Jeff in Tucson in 1978 playing with Oh! Ridge at the Putney St. Pub. He was funny, bright, unpretentious, and welcoming to a wandering harmonica player from North Carolina: he was a large part of the reason I moved on from Tucson to San Diego later that year. He gave me chances to sit in and play with Oh! Ridge, introduced me to dozens of interesting players, and showed me some of the life of an actual performing musician. While I have long since returned to North Carolina and mercifully allowed some of my poorer decisions in California to blur, I will never forget Jeff’s kindness and humor. He had no reason to like and welcome me, and yet he did.”

From singer-songwriter Charlie Imes: “Some people are just genetically designed to make people laugh and smile, and Jeff Lee was royalty among these people. From the first time I saw him and Jerry Gontang play to a packed house as Oh! Ridge, it was clear that Jeff was not only a natural performer, but he also possessed an infectious sense of happiness. That became clearer to me the longer I’d known Jeff. On too few occasions I got to share that energy on stage with him, as our paths kept us busy and crossed too rarely. But he was more than just an ever-present smile and quick wit. He was a great musician, player, singer, entertainer, and friend. There are too few of those in this world and we weren’t ready to let this one go. Even in Jeff’s tragic untimely passing, he reminds us that life is too short and to cherish the time we get to spend with our friends and loved ones. Thanks, Jeff and toast back buddy.”

From fellow troubadour Jeffrey Joe Morin: Jeffrey Joe, who posted this on his Facebook page in his daily top 10 gratuities from July 5. Sadly, Morin passed away 12 days later on July 17th. (Look for a tribute to him in the September issue.)

“Top Ten Things Today I am Grateful for:”
• Jeff Lee Singing in my Kitchen
• Jeff Lee’s Wise Counsel
• His Expert Stagecraft
• His Larry Robinson Song
• Singing Harmonies with Jeff and Cici
• Singing Harmonies with Jeff and Liz
• Loving Jeff Lee
• Hugging Jeff Hours Before His Death
• His Kindness and Joy

JEFF LEE CELEBRATION OF LIFE
Sunday, August 27, 2-4pm
OLD POWAY PARK
14134 Midland Road,
Poway, CA

13 Comments

  1. Barbara B.
    Posted August, 2017 at 11:00 AM | Permalink

    Jeff, you and Jer were one of the biggest reasons why I was able to continue and work as a professional musician. We will all sincerely miss that, and the merriment you brought. Thank you. Toast back, bet the wheel is spinning fast in heaven.

  2. Marty Katz
    Posted August, 2017 at 3:06 PM | Permalink

    I had the honor of first meeting Jeff when we trained at Family Karate. I credit Jeff with expanding my comfort zone by dragging me to the Poway Folk Circle and shoving his guitar into my hands and making me believe I could do it. I may be the only person to get to make music with Jeff and also to get my butt kicked by him. Thank you Jeff. Rest in peace and may your memory be a blessing for your family and friends.

  3. Kate Gardner Tyner
    Posted August, 2017 at 3:27 PM | Permalink

    What a wonderful article and great tribute to Jeff. Carol and I have been friends now for 30 years– we worked together and spent time socially as well. So many wonderful memories sharing time together, and so many great things to be said about Jeff. He will be sorely missed.

  4. Marlene Levitt
    Posted August, 2017 at 4:01 PM | Permalink

    What a joy to have been able to play music together in our folk circles. Jeff was an inspiration to me. He told me about becoming involved in the Guitars for Vets program at the VA Hospital in La Jolla.. He said teaching there was one of the most wonderful things he’d ever done. We all miss you, Jeff….

  5. Lauren Behrle
    Posted August, 2017 at 5:59 PM | Permalink

    Jeff,

    I remember having an intense conversation with you about how we loved country music and we liked Brad Paisley, but felt he tried a bit too hard by overplaying his solos when he was talented enough and didn’t need to. You were a joy in my parents’ and our family’s lives. I think the last time I saw you was most likely a party at my folks’ house. I can’t believe I won’t be seeing you at the next one, but I know you’re looking down on your wonderful family and friends in the masses. We love you and your family so much.

    Love Always,
    Lauren Behrle Lemos

  6. Posted August, 2017 at 8:02 PM | Permalink

    I’ve thought of Jeff almost every day since July 3. We didn’t get sing some songs we planned. But he was always supportive, gracious, positive, wise and very funny. Many friends at the folk circle are missing him. When all said and done, he was a true folkie at heart. Thanks Jeff for everything.

  7. Debbie Michaelson
    Posted August, 2017 at 12:43 AM | Permalink

    Jeff was such a kind, funny man who loved his wife and daughters fiercely. Watching Jeff performby was such a treat featuring songs, music and limericks. He is missed.

  8. Paul "Paco" Prior
    Posted August, 2017 at 2:27 AM | Permalink

    I moved to San Diego from NJ in 1979. I only knew one person there, Bruce Dallas, a college buddy,who had already established himself on the SD club circuit. One of the first band’s he told me about was OH Ridge. Checked them out, was suitabley impressed with their act, and saw them fairly often. Eventually, I joined up with Bruce and began my SD musical career drumming for The Dallas Collins Band. We often played the same nightclubs within days or weeks from each other. I would occasionally go out to see OH Ridge on one of my off nights. Invariably, I’d engage Jeff and the band in some good-natured heckling, it wasn’t even a fair fight. That was a battle I would always lose, much like the show Survivor, I was constantly outwitted and outplayed. I’ll always remember still having a great time, even being the target of his perfectly timed Barb’s and rapier-like wit. The world is now a little less funny without Jeff Lee. Toast Back, my Amigo.

  9. Jamie
    Posted August, 2017 at 8:35 AM | Permalink

    Where do I start to honor a man with a personality bigger than life? I knew Jeff my whole life.. I was blessed that my parents allowed me to attend gigs way past my bedtime!! I will miss Jeff forever. His passing has left a hole in my heart that will never be filled. I am honored that Jeff and Jer were in my backyard performing just 10 days before he left this Earth…Had I known I would have had him sing one more, tell one more joke and hugged him just a little longer. I miss you Jeff and will always treasure our time together.

  10. Mary Goodhue Deutsch
    Posted August, 2017 at 2:52 PM | Permalink

    I was one of the regulars at the Monterey Whaling Company back in the late ’70s whenever Oh! Ridge was playing. At the time, I was in law school at USD, and would often ride my bike from my apartment just off of Park Avenue in Hillcrest to the USD campus, on a route that would take me past the intersection of Robinson & Vermont. On one of my pedaling commutes, I saw Jeff hanging out in front of a nearby house (turned out he lived there), and stopped to introduce myself and say, “Hi.” At that meeting, we discovered we were both big James Taylor fans. After that, he always recognized me whenever I would go to see the band perform; and on a couple of occasions, he invited me on stage to sing harmony on James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes,” which was a huge treat for me. I received my last message from Jeff via Facebook after posting photos from Carnegie Hall in NYC, where I had the great privilege of singing with the Cabrillo Chorus. Jeff asked me if James Taylor was there. What a memory.

  11. Posted August, 2017 at 12:14 PM | Permalink

    I moved into a new complex in San Diego long before the city exploded into California’s 2nd largest city. Ah, yes, the summer of ’77. The big talk around the jacuzzi was a local band promoting music and buffoonery. I soon became an Oh!Ridge groupie. I celebrated many a birthday at the Oh!Ridge show. I was there when band members came and went and came back again. A friend and I even drove up to a June Lake gig of theirs, taking Jeff and the others by surprise.

    Throughout the many, many years, Jeff was the one constant. No matter how many times I heard the same songs and jokes, they became classics and cherished. Every year I return to San Diego to participate in a charity walk. Part of my “things to do” includes a visit to Jeff & Jer – Oh!Ridge show. This year’s trip will not be the same.

    Thank you, Jeff (and Oh!Ridge) for all the happy memories and smiles. You will be deeply missed. Toast back!

  12. Scott(SDPC)
    Posted August, 2017 at 10:38 AM | Permalink

    Jeff, I will miss you this year and in years to come as my camping neighbor at Camplands. I will miss your music with Oh Ridge and solo gigs too and hearing that wonderful locally crafted acoustic guitar. I will miss the chance to jam and make some music with you. Cheers my friend!

  13. Susan Swerdlow
    Posted August, 2017 at 9:34 PM | Permalink

    Thank you for all the lovely tributes. I didn’t really know Jeff as an adult — I saw him only a few times since 1966 when we both graduated from Crawford High School — but everything said of his humor, love of life, energy, and friendliness were definitely true back when we were in the same “crowd” at Crawford. I became another kind of musician, a choral conductor, and was delighted to learn a few years ago that Jeff was also making his living in music. (Back in high school, I had no idea he was musical!) I feel so grateful that, at 50th our high school reunion last October, I heard him perform a short, impromptu set with friends; Jeff and band were received by his former classmates better than the very skilled hired rock band at the event! My sincere condolences to his family.

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