When Bud Lee sings “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” people in the audience swear they can almost see a tiny bird fly from his hands as he and his wife, Barbara, bring the song to an end.
“I just fell in love with his voice, and his wife is accomplished on the keyboard,” said Jim Yates, pastor of First Baptist of Lloyd, where the Lees will perform as part of its musical ministry during Sunday’s morning service. Yates said Mrs. Lee’s use of her electronic keyboard’s special effects to emulate a birdsong at the end of what has become her husband’s signature song is an especially effective touch. “You actually sense the presence of the sparrow. Your heart melts as he releases it into the air.”
Yates said Lee’s vocals are filled with conviction. “You can just tell he loves Jesus. He loves the Lord,” he said.
The Lees, who still carry their keyboard and travel to churches and revivals by invitation, said they first came to the Ashland area for a visit at Rose Hill, and returned for a big crusade by pastor Jim Merritt 15 years ago. A native of Memphis, he said he met his wife while attending college on a football scholarship and majoring in music.
“I always dreamed about having someone play piano for me,” he said, explaining a highly credentialed piano instructor arrived on campus during his junior year. “I heard her playing on a Steinway grand piano, playing with emotion and I said, ‘I’m going to marry her.’ That was 43 years ago.”
The Lees prefer to perform traditional gospel songs, explaining the tried and true standards “convey what the Spirit wants us to say.” They agree God bestowed them with a special ability to work as a team, and he is quick to add “Every time she plays it’s like the first time I hear her.” They have significantly lightened their road load since the early days traveling with their son, two daughters and Mrs. Lee’s mother, although they are quite proud their grown children now report they often use the skills they learned from mom and dad while traveling from church to church.
“There were a lot of times when we were booked solid, but it has slowed down in the last couple of years. There are fewer invitations and revivals,” he said, before she added many churches are also striving to offer more contemporary music and guests, even though their traditional music services are always welcomed by both young adults who grew up hearing the songs in church, as well as youth members who are sometimes completely unfamiliar with the songs they sing.
“We enjoy the songs people remember,” she said.
Mrs. Lee said her mother enrolled her in piano lessons when she was seven years old, and she performed as a solo artist at the age of 14. Shortly after she began playing, she was encouraged to study hard and become the piano player for her Sunday school, which was a task she happily embraced. A member of a musical family, Mr. Lee said he signed up to be a music major while attending college on a football scholarship, and was surprised to find one of the music teachers saw more in him than her saw in himself.
They became involved with the Southern Baptist Association after receiving a visit from the pastor of “a white church” at their home, followed by a visit from the choir director and later the nursery director. Mr. Lee said his own upbringing made him initially resistant to their friendly invitations to worship with them, although their genuine convictions soon won them over.
Lee said they enjoy their unusual roles at “black Baptists in the Southern Baptist world,” noting he had to examine his own past to accept their future roles in the church.
“At first I said, ‘I ain’t going to no white church. I was born in Memphis, Tennessee!’” he said, chuckling at the memory and noting “I had been programmed to think white people did not like me.”
Many churches have welcomed the Lees since those early days and the musical couple say their ambitions remain unchanged, hoping people who hear them sing and watch their performances leave with a special blessing.
“We want them to know worship can be fun and exciting,” she said as her husband expressed his support of her sentiments. “We can enjoy ourselves and praise Him. We can enjoy who we are in the Lord. And, as they leave, we want them to know Jesus Christ is alive and well.”
Mr. Lee, who is perhaps most often cited for his incredible vocals and dramatic delivery of the song “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” said he hopes those who hear their music will leave with a feeling similar to that described in another favorite hymn, “It is Well with My Soul,” which is how he likes to close his performances. Bud and Barbara Lee will also perform at 6:30 p.m. today at Cannonsburg Baptist Church, and again Sunday evening at Oakland Avenue Baptist. For more information about the musical ministry, find them on Facebook or visit bblee.org on the Internet.
TIM PRESTON can be reached at email@example.com.