“Mama Lee and Rose”

A Memoir by Jayleen Lawler

Soaking up the sun’s rays on my family’s back porch, I surrender to the August heat and take a sip of cool sparkling water. Through the screen door I hear a familiar song playing on the radio. One I cannot listen to without thinking about my mother, the East Hampton singer Mama Lee. The music curls into the introduction like a vine wrapping around me, and then the lyrics bloom.

 

At last . . .
my love has come along.
My lonely days are over, 
and life is like a song.

 

For many years Etta’s song dripped out of my mother’s mouth like honey, attracting listeners near and far. It was a staple in her lineup for weddings, concerts, and guest appearances. The only event she put Etta on the shelf for was a burial service, where still she sang, albeit her own lullaby for departed souls.

Etta’s song takes me back in time, when I first began to feel my mother’s singing, long before I understood it. As I think about my mother’s love for music and her love for people, how they intertwine, the heat is getting easier to bear. I’m not in a rush; I can start at the beginning.

To accurately describe my mother’s relationship with music, the appropriate question is when was she not singing? When did she ever shy away from entertaining someone? The answer is simple: never. 

She started out doing backup with Bonnie Raitt and Little Feat. Correction: She started out as a little girl singing her praises to God. Sometime after her “hallelujahs” and “sweet china whites” there was the Downstairs Band. Married to a drummer, she set out to sing her way through life. Along the way three musical masterpieces — if I do say so myself — named L’kela, Rose, and Jayleen were created, and my mom had to make some tough choices. She chose to put down roots in an infamous town that on a local level humbly whistled the working class’s “hi-ho.” 

Not to disappoint, though, East Hampton is a boomtown for the ambitious networker; connections are made for bigger and better things. These didn’t appeal to my mother. Despite the siren call of fame, Mama Lee connected with East Hampton to form a bigger and better family, held together by music’s emotional impact. When she sang, we all were swept away. And that is what she wanted most. To help us remember what happiness feels like, though fleeting as a three-minute song. You will never walk away unhappy from listening to my mother sing. That guarantee is stronger than any scientific or mathematical principle.

With that in mind, we, her daughters, were very fortunate to have her as a mother. As little girls, she sang us to sleep regularly. We sing the same lullabies to ourselves and relatives and friends. She wrote songs of play for us. Why sing “Ring Around the Rosie,” a mechanical rhyme with limited range, when your mom’s “Up and Down” was lyrical, imaginative, and inspiring? While we might be the only ones to ever know these songs, what you need to know is that music is the medium through which my mother chose to show her love for us. Every time she sang, we were happy. 

Fortunately for us, she sang most of the time. Naturally we developed an ear for music. So, we were very surprised when we learned the tape playing in our car was not our mother, but the Aretha Franklin; Mama Lee sounded just like her. Every dip, nuance, note — it was my mother’s. And apparently Aretha’s, too. We weren’t disappointed; we were in awe of our mama.

Eventually I learned to sing harmony, L’kela did backup, and the baby girl Rose grew up to have a locomotive in her lungs. The day came when she vocally outshone our mother, by just a hair. My mother is still the performer, the ringmaster and the gilded mockingbird in one. Rose just likes to sing, but how many of us wish our desire to sing gave us a voice like hers, a voice that can bring the house down?! There is a list of songs that when she starts to sing the very first note, you can hear a pin drop; the audience is hypnotized.

My mother, Mama Lee, once told me that artists are the ulcers of the world. Watch and listen to her sing with Mama Lee, Rose, and Friends: The stress she feels from daily living or years of life she releases through song. 

She cannot live without singing. It is her lifeline to overcome molehills and mountains. It’s how all her band members survive. They love the music and the music loves them back. They are puzzle pieces coming together to make the whole beautiful scene. Maybe that’s why they can get us out of our seats at every show. Yes, the band is very impressive. The bass grooves you, percussion leads you, the guitar rocks you, and the keyboard dances with you. 

But when Mama Lee and Rose walk onto the stage, the show begins. Take them away, you have great music. Add them, you have an unforgettable moment, because through song they remind you of other memories, sad or happy. They move you through the emotions of your life. 

Mama Lee and Rose sing, and we wait for drops of honey to land on us with the hair on our necks standing on end, shivers running down our spines, and goosebumps rising on our skin.

 I’m sorry, Etta. I love your music. But that doesn’t happen when I listen to you. 

It’s hot, I’m sweating, and Etta’s song is done. I’m sad it’s over because in a few hours, my mother and sister are going to take the stage at Gosman’s Dock. With a four-piece band behind them, they will sing their last public concert of the summer, allegedly the last for all time. Whether it’s truly today or a year from now, the thought of the band’s finale makes me pause. My mom has gained so much joy from singing for East Hampton. If only she knew what it was like to be in the crowd listening to her. If only she could feel how she makes us feel.

“At last . . . our love has come along. Our lonely days are over and life is but a song” thanks to her.

 


Jayleen Lawler is an East Hampton native who enjoys writing, travel, and volunteering wherever she roams.