Freddie Fingers Lee
Pianist whose outrageous onstage antics put him at the forefront of the British 1950s rock’n’roll scene
Sunday 02 March 2014
The rock’n’roll music of the mid-1950s encouraged performers to lose their inhibitions, but with the exception of his close friend Screaming Lord Sutch, no one in the UK was wilder or more outrageous than Freddie Fingers Lee.
“If I wasn’t crazy when I joined Sutch’s band, I certainly was when I left,” he used to say. Lee was an extrovert rock’n’roll pianist and songwriter whose songs were recorded by Charlie Gracie and Carl Mann and he is best known for his autobiographical composition “One-Eyed Boogie Boy”.
He was born Frederick Cheesman in Chopwell, Durham in 1937. As a child an accident with a dart led to the loss of his right eye. Throughout his life he made light of his disability and refused to let it be a handicap.
Cheesman had various scaffolding jobs and while working in London, he taught himself to play a landlady’s piano. He played with workmates in various skiffle and rock’n’roll groups and in 1960, he joined Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages, Sutch renaming him Freddie Fingers Lee. The following year he was backing the hit-making Eden Kane, but his tenure ended after a fight with the audience led to him having stitches in his good eye. He became the resident pianist on the gold piano at the Star-Club in Hamburg and met several of his heroes. “Jerry Lee Lewis wouldn’t even pass you the toilet paper,” he said.
Returning to the Savages, Lee played on Sutch’s infamous “Jack the Ripper” and every night Sutch would want to perform it with himself as the killer and Lee as the prostitute. “He knocked me into the orchestra pit in Sheffield and he strangled me in Hamburg,” Lee told me in 1993, “and he said, ‘If you don’t turn up for the next show, I’m taking it out of your wages’.” Lee also worked as a session musician playing with Alvin Lee, Ian Whitcomb and Twinkle, whose “Golden Lights” was a hit in 1965.
Lee struck out on his own in 1965 and among the musicians in his band was Ian Hunter, later to form Mott The Hoople. He made the singles “The Friendly Undertaker” (1965) and “Bossy Boss” (1966) but he excelled on stage. He attacked pianos with a chainsaw and he once blew up his piano using his knowledge of explosives. At the De Montfort Hall in Leicester he removed the ivory keys with an axe and hurled them into the audience, who promptly threw them back. Doing handstands on the piano was commonplace and he often used paraffin to ignite his hat. He did however maintain that he had never, ever destroyed “a good piano”.
In 1978 Lee was invited to join Jack Good’s revival of his successful 1950s show Oh Boy! Good had instructed Johnny Kidd to wear an eye-patch and Gene Vincent to accentuate his limp for instant recognition. Lee told me, “Jack Good said to me, ‘Wear an eye-patch,’ and I said, ‘I don’t want to’. He said, ‘Wear it and everyone will remember you.’ I did that, and he was right, but he was always right.”
Lee became one of the show’s most notable performers, although the series made a star of Shakin’ Stevens. Lee released two albums, Freddie Fingers Lee (1978) and Ol’ One-Eye’s Back (1979), which were very popular with rock’n’roll fans. Billy Fury was about to record his song “Chains Around My Heart” in 1983 when he collapsed and died.
Lee was in constant demand for rock’n’roll festivals and he found regular work on the continent. When I met him in 1993 he gave an effective but rather low-key performance on a theatre tour with Jack Scott, Frankie Ford and Charlie Gracie. He expected to slow down and turn to his second love, country music, as he got older but he suffered a stroke in 2002 which ended his stage career. He did make a reasonable recovery and felt privileged to have seen his great-grandchildren. No doubt he’d be leaving them advice: “If you want to play rock’n’roll, never learn to play properly.”
Frederick Cheesman (Freddie Fingers Lee), rock’n’roll singer and pianist; born Chopwell, Durham 24 November 1937; married and divorced, twice; died Newcastle 13 January 2014.
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