By Ray Chelstowski
Thirty years ago, Henry Lee Summer released his self-named debut on Epic and set the airwaves on fire with three fast hits. First came “I Wish I Had A Girl,” a Springsteen meets Mellencamp rock 'n' roll romp that was about nothing more than girl watching. It soared from the first few notes, blowing doors open and grabbing your hand with an infectious riff. He followed that up with the upbeat “Hands On The Radio” and lastly with the slow burner “Darlin’ Daniele Don’t.” It was a self-contained holy trilogy of rock 'n' roll. All three songs seemed to come right at you that summer – especially if you lived in the Midwest – like three fastball strikes over the plate. They were fast, fun, and Top 40 radio friendly. I remember my college roommate recommending Summer to me, and seemingly like everyone else that August I went for it hook, line and sinker, and I never looked back.
A self-taught musician, Summer proved that he had the goods writing all of the songs himself, and except for where otherwise noted played all of the instruments, sang all of the vocals. However, he didn’t go it alone entirely. Well-known session guitarist Jimmy Rip, who is most associated with Mick Jagger and Debbie Harry, makes appearances. As does They Might Be Giant’s bassist Graham Maby and Letterman drummer Anton Fig. But no one played a more important role in the success of this debut than legendary A&R man Tony Martell. Tony had already established a career defined by blinding success across the genres of jazz, rock, soul and country. There he drove forward the careers of people like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, ELO, Joan Jett and more. Through Tony’s guiding hand Summer provided 10 tracks from the war chest he had been building over the years. This lineup drilled the first three singles at you all at once, opening side one in sequence. It was if Martell didn’t want anyone to doubt for a second how good this Henry Lee cat really was.
I believe “I Wish I Had A Girl” was a No. 1 hit for two weeks. It was a fast wave that pulled him out of the bar scene and onto the Farm Aid stage with fellow Hoosier John Mellencamp. He toured with Eddie Money, Richard Marx, Don Henley and others. He’d have two more hits. “Hey Baby” from 1989’s I’veGot Everything, and a fiery cover of Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose’s classic “Treat Her Like A Lady” from 1991’s Way Past Midnight. And like that, it was over. Legal troubles and a few arrests tossed him back to the local music scene and county fairs. There his powerful voice is said to still be in great form and it’s good to hear that he is still performing. But nothing captures that Summer supernova better than this record. It’s a brilliant snapshot of the working class rock that Springsteen seemed to make a powerful counter punch to the new wave dominance that had taken over music. It’s raw, real, and so well produced that it’s frankly still relevant today. For all the disposable music that was made in the '80s that should speak volumes.