Share a special moment from Robert's life

Write a story

Bobby and The Steel Guitar Forum through the eyes of daughter Shoshanah Lee

March 9
by Lori Smith on behalf of Shoshanah Lee
on behalf of Shoshanah Lee
This is b0b's daughter, Shoshanah. I'm writing about my dad's life.

I first met Bobby Lee on the day I was born. I have no memory of the event, but I believe we were both equally delighted to meet each other. I was born in the same hospital he was, in Greensburg, Pennsylvania.

He was born Robert Paul Lee on August 4, 1949, when his mom, Ruth Lee, was still a teen, and his dad, Paul Lee, had just come back from fighting in the South Pacific a few years before. Bob was the oldest of six kids, all of them musical and creative in many ways. Bob formed a band with his brother, Dennis, in high school, but they had a hard time getting gigs. His sister, Virginia, had a manager and a slew of gigs lined up, and Bob and Dennis were a little bit jealous.

Bob was a poet, too, and felt somewhat out of place in the hills of Western Pennsylvania. He told me a few weeks ago, "It was no place for a sensitive boy who wrote poetry." He also hated the winters. 1967 was the Summer of Love and the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Bob felt drawn away. One day in fall, he left a note for his mom and hitch-hiked across the country, to San Francisco. And he never really went back home for very long, after that.

He loved California. He loved the music scene. He saw lots of bands in small venues before they were really big names. He had a brief marriage to my mother, Frances Blankenship, and I was born. And then they got divorced when I was two.

He started playing a lap steel somewhere around 1970. There are tapes of him when he first got it, just making weird noises with the bar going up and down strings. Once he taught himself to play, he moved on to pedals, and he played a regular gig at the one country bar in San Francisco at the time, the Castle Club. The Castle Club is where he met the love of his life, Jean Kay.

They were immediately smitten with one another. They got married in 1978, and not only did he get Jean, but a ready-made family of three more daughters: Lori, Kelly, and Kat. Bob would spend the rest of his home life surrounded by women, which he relished, I think. Or at lest, he made us feel like he enjoyed it, like we were the best. (He hated sexism in any form. He was always calling people out for being sexist, all his life- even the hospice nurse, a few weeks ago!)

In 1979, he moved the family up to Petaluma, California. Bob worked at the Mesa Boogie amp factory in Petaluma. He was in several bands. At some point in the early 1980's, the first incarnation of the Steel Guitar Forum came to be: he had a paper newsletter for musicians. I think it was quarterly. We stuffed envelopes and mailed them out.

Bob got an Atari 400 and started copying programs out of the backs of magazines, and after making more and more of his own programs, he got a job at a software company, Lumena. This was the beginning of what you might call his "day job," writing computer software. And writing programs by day made him better at creating a bulletin board system by night. The next iteration of the Forum was a BBS, an on line Bulletin Board System. And he was still gigging regularly, practicing eight hours on Sundays, and raising four daughters.

Bob really enjoyed making connections with people through music. The more the internet grew, the more opportunity he saw to connect everyone in the world who played steel guitar. He had a vision. And he just kept doing it, he kept making it grow, and grow, and here you are! The home page says that this iteration of the Forum has been going since 1997.

He believed that, if you made people pay a small amount of money, and everyone had to use their real names, people would be basically nice to one another. And he was right.

Some facts about b0b, in no particular order:

* He added the last name "Quasar," because, "I go to the convention and say my name is 'Bobby Lee' and the Southern guys say, 'Bobby Lee what?' so I added 'Quasar,' because it's a kind of a stellar object, and I would like to think of myself that way. As a stellar object. And then I can give them another name when they ask at the convention."

* He often said that music was his religion.

* He could make a pun or joke about anything at all. He could have a conversation of indefinite length that was nothing but jokes. Dad jokes.

* He said he was, "not very good at steel guitar," but he could hear a song once and play it back on the steel. He had an unbelievable memory for music.

* He is in the European Steel Guitar Hall of Fame. He never in his life left the United States. We all know why he's big in Europe, but it's still funny, isn't it?

* He once fired the Judds. He thought that "it wasn't okay to make little girls sing at a bar." So, he told the bar manager, "It's them or me," and the bar fired the Judds.

* He was homeless on and off when he first got to San Francisco. He squatted in a building slated for demolition. He sold newspapers enough to eat. He had one pair of pants, then, made from an American flag.

* He survived pancreatic cancer nine years ago.

* At his "day job," he headed the programming team that created the Printshop- the program everyone used in the '90's to make written documents.

* He liked to walk places.

* He couldn't get lost in San Francisco.

* His favorite musician of all time was Paul McCartney.

* He played steel guitar, guitar, bass guitar, marimba, and drums.

* It was difficult to take guitar lessons from him, because he would launch into a deep explanation of musical theory, and soon be over everyone's head.

* He told me once that he truly learned the theory behind music by being in the front row at a Grateful Dead show, and watching Jerry Garcia's hands go up and down the frets. He said, "Suddenly, it just all clicked. I knew the chords before, but it was like, after that, I knew why the chords were there and how they were all interconnected."

* He truly liked all kinds of music. He was just delighted when he heard a new piece of music he hadn't heard before that was different or interesting in some way.

* He was generous to a fault, almost. I've seen him give forty dollars to someone who asked for spare change. I'm writing this at the desk in his office, and I see a note here, to transfer "Shanah" money. That's me. The week before he died, I wanted to give him money, and he wanted to give me money. We ended up calling the whole thing off, so to speak.

* Bob died Monday, March 7, at around 10:30 AM. He was at home, listening to the Beatles, "All You Need Is Love." He took his last breath on the word, "love."

Bob said, before he died, that he didn't create the Forum, that you all created the Forum. The Forum isn't him, it's you. And all of you make his memory live on. And in that way, he is immortal.

He said it's just like the Beatles lyric:

"And in the end,
the love you take
is equal to the love
you make."

And he said he felt so much love.   ~  Shoshanah Lee

The original version of this story can be seen by registered members of the Steel Guitar Forum.

Who inspires Bob, in his own words

March 6
My heroes have always been musicians. Most of all, I would say Paul McCartney. His genius approach to songwriting and performing, as well as his lifestyle, have always been an inspiration.
My Grandfather, Paul A. Hellmann, was also an inspiration in the way he lived. His commitment to family helped to shape my life from an early age.  ~ Bob

Bob and His First Car

March 6
"It wasn't very common back then for teenagers to have their own car. I didn't learn to drive until I was 22. In San Francisco, the bus was my car. I didn't really start driving until I had to haul musical equipment around."  ~ Bob

Share a story

Attach a document, picture, song, or video (optional):