Gitlo Lee was born on a turpentine farm among nine brothers and three sisters in Menola -- that's a town on the skirts of the Okefenokee Swamp in lower Georgia, where the South couldn't get any deeper. Gitlo was raised by Church of God in Christ parents, his father a minister, his mother extremely devout. Religion, which from time to time has a reputation for maintaining a relatively humorless environment, resigned in the Lee home, and eventually kept Lee from beginning his blues career earlier that he could have. In addition to attending Sunday services, Gitlo went sneaking around juke joints to hear the sultry, what some called devilish, sounds of the blues. Just listening didn't get him close enough to the action, so Gitlo made his first guitar out of Prince Albert tobacco cans, a burned tire and wire tied to pennies. "Gitlo is Gitlo, and he's a unique phenomenon," said the bass player for Gitlo's Blues Roadshow. He typifies the real blues experience. Like all good blues-experience stories, the next ingredient involves the special combination of luck and divine intervention that leads to a close brush with early fame: a notorious and established bluesman, Sonny Boy Williamson, just happened to be playing a New Year's Eve gig in Darien and needed a guitar player when word spread of a 13-year old prodigy. There are two Sonny Boy Williamsons. This one was of King Biscuit radio fame, was younger than the first and was sometimes called Sonny Boy Williamson #2. He knocked on the Lee's door to inquire after the young man he'd heard so much about. The New Year's Eve gig was a success that impressed the seasoned and elderly performer so much that he invited the 13-year old Gitlo to hit the road with him. It may sound young, but according to Gitlo, "I was already a grown dude at 10, 11 years old." Under Williamson's tutelage, Howlin' Wolfe became a household blues name. So you can imagine the disappointment the young man must have felt when Gitlo's mother said, "absolutely not." "I feel like I really missed a big one," he said. "But I love doing it anyway. I'm excited about playing tonight as I was about playing with Sonny Boy." Among musicians, the term "chitlin circuit" refers to gigs that old-school, hard-knocks, unpolished blues performers play in. And for years, Gitlo has fit the chitlin-circuit bill, which can be summed up as carrying blues players good enough to be famous, but too real to be transmogrified into market fodder by the music industry. So Gitlo remains about as grassroots as the blues can get. "I always thought a lot of those older guys (on the circuit) were part of a by-gone era, but Gitlo's about as close to legitimate as you can get to the real blues experience." Gitlo is always ready to hit the road. His van is a self-contained unit that allows him to take off at a moment's notice for gigs all over the country. "It doesn't matter who he's playing for. Even if it's a bunch or doctors or lawyers, he can go out and work a crowd anywhere," said his drummer. And work he has. Gitlo has played everywhere from a command performance at the governor's mansion to the smelliest honky tonk, juke joint the red clay ever coughed up. Just about every local musician has sat in with Gitlo to experience what some call the phenomenon of playing with him. For some it's a chore to be next to a man who consistently steals the show. For others, it's a blessing. But the gospel according to Gitlo remains clear in his world: "Everybody wants to play with me because I got that old time religion like Elvis or James Brown. Seeing him perform will doubtlessly convert you to Gitlo's old-time, bluesded-in-the-wool ways. He will have you up dancing and shouting. Forget your troubles, the good times are here now!
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