Boogie, Skating & Benson


In 1982, Mark Anthony Lee (center) recorded “I’m Just A Boogie Roller.”

(Photo: Courtesy Mark Anthony Lee)

By 1976, the initial incarnation of Stax Records was gone from the musical landscape, but the dreams of superstardom it had inspired thrived among Black Memphians. Stone Crush: Memphis Modern Soul 1977–1987 represents some of those dreams—occasionally deferred—offered up by a wide spectrum of personalities.

O.T. Sykes, a singing dentist, traded dental work for studio time to record his funky “Stone Crush On You,” which gives the 19-song CD or double-LP Light In The Attic compilation its name. And Mark Anthony Lee followed a circuitous route that took him to Venice Beach and back, before recording his 1982 ode, “I’m Just A Boogie Roller.”

The tune, which combines Lee’s disparate loves of guitar playing and roller skating, is a bonus digital track on the collection.

He called the release “a second chance.”

Lee’s musical life began when, as a child, he picked up an orphaned six-string on his family’s porch and plucked out the melody to “Shortnin’ Bread.” It eventually led him to a gig as demo guitarist at Stax in the early 1970s, when he worked alongside Rufus Thomas and Albert King, among others.

“Stax was like a family of artistic people,” Lee said recently. “We played and made up music every day. It was a music factory.”

But when Stax closed its doors, it left Lee and countless others unceremoniously out of work. After a year or so of gigging around Memphis, he headed to Los Angeles, hoping to find new opportunities. What he found, though, was a new love: boogie roller skating.

“I ended up on Venice Beach and saw the skaters out there. They were doing a dance called the ‘figure eight dance.’ I was curious about what they were doing, because I’d never seen skaters skate in lockstep before,” Lee said. “Dance has always been close to me, and these guys would have synchronized routines. So, I decided that I was gonna learn how to be a boogie roller.”

In 1980, Lee was featured in a video for guitarist George Benson’s “Give Me The Night,” which was shot partially at Venice Beach and showed the bandleader gliding around on a pair of skates. It was around the same time that Lee’s idea for “I’m Just A Boogie Roller” was born. But with studio time in Los Angeles being cost prohibitive and hard to come by, he headed back to Memphis.

Once home, Lee recorded the tune at Cotton Row Studios. And not long after, the famed roller rink Crystal Palace opened, a space that played an outsize role in Memphis music history. During the 1990s, it served as a spot where area hip-hop artists—including Three 6 Mafia—thrived, and figured prominently into the 2005 film Hustle & Flow.

Lee’s first “live band roller boogie show” took place there on Feb. 5, 1982. But with his self-released song lacking promotion, it eventually faded, just like that particular brand of skating,

After “Boogie Roller,” Lee returned to focusing on guitar and played with Bobby “Blue” Bland, B.B. King, Albert King and Ruth Brown. But his love of roller skating never waned.

“What attracted me to roller skating was [that] I wanted to learn to do the figure eight,” he recalled. “The Wright brothers were the first ones to figure out how to control a plane in the air, and they did it by doing a figure eight. [You use it to] balance yourself on roller skates; they used it to balance themselves on the little biplane they had. ... You know the flight path to get to the moon and to Earth and back? It’s a figure eight.” DB

Ayana Contreras hosts Reclaimed Soul on WBEZ and Vocalo Radio in Chicago.

This story originally was published in the September 2020 issue of DownBeat. Subscribe here.

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