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Joe Lee, owner of a recording paradise, dies at 76

Joe Lee, an internationally renowned dealer of blues, rock and jazz records whose Montgomery County store, Joe’s Record Paradise, became an informal hub of the D.C. music scene, died July 4 at a hospice in Rockville. He was 76.

He had throat cancer, said his son, Johnson Lee.

Mr. Lee was the acknowledged black sheep of a distinguished Maryland family, with two ancestors who signed the Declaration of Independence. His father, Blair Lee III, was a Maryland state legislator and lieutenant governor who served as acting governor in the 1970s.

Other members of the Blair-Lee family were senators, governors, presidential advisers and military leaders, including Robert E. Lee. The Blair House, across from the White House, was named for another relative.

This intellectual legacy held little interest for the charismatic but irascible Mr. Lee, who was expelled from high school as a teenager. His political involvement ended when he received two weeks of detention for telling obscene jokes while nominating a high school friend for class treasurer.

“Joe has always marched to a different beat — a completely different orchestra, in fact,” his brother Blair Lee IV told the Washington Times in 1990. “He brings a lot of spark to our family… Joe helps us not take ourselves too seriously.”

After studying art and working in a Los Angeles record store, Mr. Lee returned to Maryland and opened Joe’s Record Paradise in Takoma Park in 1974. The store has moved to several other locations in Montgomery County over the years and is now operated by his son in Silver Spring.

At each location, Joe’s Record Paradise was a jumble of music memorabilia, posters and books, but mostly an eclectic collection of vinyl LPs, CDs, tapes and videos of all kinds: country and hip-hop; Tejano and comedy; alternative rock and punk; jazz, even from the pianist and composer Thelonious Monk.

At the center of it all, as resident storyteller, entrepreneur and all-around music expert, was Mr. Lee, a tireless conversationalist who knew where every one of the 100,000 titles in his store could be found.

“A lot of record store owners are crazy,” he told the Washington Post in 1988. “They can’t tell you the names of their kids, but they can tell you who the musicians were who played sideman on some bluesman’s first 78 rpm record.”

From the beginning, musicians, writers, obsessive collectors and rebellious teenagers began passing through. Some went to work for Mr Lee; others met like-minded people and formed groups together. Music fans from Britain and Japan sometimes bought hundreds of albums at a time.

“There was a whole community around that man and that shop,” Zev Feldman, a producer and record company executive who grew up in Montgomery County, said in an interview. “It was a barbershop atmosphere. I went there several times a week. I learned music by hanging out there.”

Mr. Lee began booking artists for the Psyche Delly, a Bethesda club, and Friendship Station, in the District. Always drawn to artists on the fringes of respectability, he managed the career of Foster MacKenzie III, a Yale graduate better known as the wild singer Root Boy Slim.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band, often backed by the Rootettes, drew enthusiastic crowds to their shows, with Root Boy wearing capes and collapsing onstage, while fans sang along to “My Wig Fell Off” and “Boogie Till You Puke.”

Mr. Lee helped arrange a contract with a major record label, Warner Bros., which released one Root Boy Slim album and then paid him $40,000 not to record a second album. He died in 1993.

Many of Lee’s other forays into music management included concerts, reunions and fundraisers for ailing musicians. In 1984, he assembled several eccentric performers at the Psyche Delly for a concert billed as—thanks to a designer’s spelling mistake—“Primitive Night.”

In 1989, after new corporate management fired veteran DJ Damian Einstein from WHFS-FM, Lee organized an all-star concert that drew some 8,000 listeners to a Silver Spring parking lot and won a reprieve for Einstein. He promoted an artist he dubbed “Blelvis” (for Black Elvis) who knew every song Elvis Presley had ever recorded.

Mr. Lee spearheaded the revival of the Orioles, a 1950s doo-wop group, and coordinated the reunion of the British Walkers, a group from Arlington, Va., that adopted fake English accents during the height of the 1960s British Invasion led by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Mr. Lee made one of his greatest discoveries in the late 1990s, when a friend told him about Leon Kagarise, who had collected thousands of records in his home in Towson, Md. While sorting through the collection — “You have to walk like a crab to get to a room” — Mr. Lee spotted a tape recording labeled “Johnny Cash, Maryland 1962.”

The sound was impeccable. Kagarise was a reclusive recording engineer who had recorded thousands of hours of tapes of live country music shows and broadcasts during the 1960s.

“Here was an unreleased recording of Johnny Cash in his prime, sounding like it had been recorded yesterday,” Lee told the New York Times in 2001. “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.”

Mr. Lee spent about two years cataloging Kagarise’s music and helping to organize its commercial release. Several albums have been produced and more are on the way.

Joseph Wilson Lee was born on August 17, 1947 in Silver Spring. His mother, the daughter of a diplomat, was raising a family of eight children.

His father was first elected to the Maryland legislature in 1954 and to the state senate in 1966. He was elected lieutenant governor in 1970 and again four years later as the running mate of Gov. Marvin Mandel (D). Blair Lee III served as acting governor from June 1977 to January 1979, when Mandel was recovering from a stroke and on trial for corruption.

After being expelled from Georgetown Prep, Joe Lee graduated from Springbrook High School in Silver Spring. He later graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. He celebrated his 22nd birthday at the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969.

In high school and college, Lee played drums in bands before moving to Los Angeles, where he worked for two years at a record store. He occasionally acted in underground music videos and films that did not receive wide release.

His marriage to Mary Catherine Pepper ended in divorce. In addition to his son—whose full name is Robert Johnson Lee, after the Delta blues musician—of Aspen Hill, Maryland, he is survived by a daughter, Matilda Lee, of Chevy Chase, Maryland; six siblings; and four grandchildren.

Mr. Lee lived in Mount Airy, Maryland, before settling on a mountaintop near Moorefield, West Virginia. In 2008, he turned Joe’s Record Paradise over to his son.

He briefly opened a branch of the store in Baltimore, but closed it after the fire department demanded payment for “highly flammable” items. Content with one branch, Lee turned down all offers to launch a franchise chain.

“We’d lose what we have,” he told Billboard magazine in 1991. “If you expand, pretty soon you’re hiring the typical ignorant, dysfunctional, minimum-wage earners. No, I don’t want that.”