Main > Series > Articles/Interviews > Lee Curreri Interview
LEE WORKS VERY HARD INDEED - BUT HE SAYS HIS WORK IS WHAT HE ENJOYS DOING MOST! By Kay Anderson
In case you think life in California is one long sunbathing session on a glorious beach, a conversation with Lee will soon shatter the myth!
"Look at this," he invited everyone on the set the other day, pushing back the sleeves of his pale blue pullover. "I've never been so pale as I have since I moved to the beach. Back in New York, I looked like I went to the beach all the time, but since I came out here and got a place by the ocean, I never see the sun!"
The California winter is the subject of much grumbling around the Fame set. Most of the Kids and dancers are from New York, where winter is a definite season with snow and leafless trees and all the traditional details. In California, winter is just cooler and rainier than summer, with coastal fogs that may hang around for days, blotting out the sun. The only snow is the artificial stuff they put on Christmas trees in the shopping centers.
"It's not just these weird winters, with Christmas lights on the palm trees," Lee continued, with a laugh, "I was just realizing that, with the shorter days you get this time of the year, and with working twelve hours a day inside the sound stages, I never get the chance to see blue sky any more. Fortunately, I'm nocturnal anyway - most musicians are. But this is California . . . beaches, sand, surf, sailboards, suntans! And I look like a mole."
He doesn't, of course. Moles don't have eyes like Lee's, an intense blue-green that mysteriously photograph a greenish hazel shade. Moles. can't coax such magical music out of a synthesizer, either!
Lee continued to chat to me while Jack Wilson was applying his make-up for the next scene.
"When I was working in New York, I was in the habit of going to bed at about four in the morning. The city doesn't wind up till then, after the clubs and shows close up. I was plucked from my lifestyle when I got on Fame. I saw a lot of sunrises from the opposite direction when I came out here . . . I have to be on the set at about the time I would have been going to bed in New York!
"I thought I could adapt, but it's been hard. I want to work on my own music after I go home from the set, and I look at the clock and realize that it's 2 a.m. already and I have to be on the set again at seven."
It sounds like the story of Bruno's life, as well as Lee's, and there are plenty of other parallels between the backgrounds and personalities of Lee and Bruno, too. Like the character he plays in the series, Lee comes from a family that has never had any performers in it before. The Curreris are a warm Italian family who take great pride in Lee and have always encouraged him.
"Almost always," he corrects himself. "When I was sixteen and decided to move away from home and live in New York City while I went to college, my mother and father weren't too thrilled. In fact, after they tried to make me understand how hard it would be for me to support myself, I slammed out of the door in a huff. But after a couple of months they saw I was doing okay, and I missed them and they missed me, so I went home for a visit and we all made up. We have a great relationship now."
After Lee graduated from high school, he went to the Mann's College of Music to study composition. Commuting by train from Manhattan to the family home in Yonkers took up to an hour each way, and was very tiring and time-consuming.
"It was a matter of two different worlds," he points out. "Yonkers is an hour from New York City, but it's also light-years away. I wanted to stay in the city, in the middle of the stream of things, so I could get work in the music scene. I wanted to be able to roll right out of bed in the middle of all the things that were going on in mid-town Manhattan."
By now, we were continuing our conversation in Lee's tiny dressing room trailer outside Stage 26, to escape the noise of the production number which was being rehearsed on the set.
"The first place of my own that I lived in was about this size, six feet by eight, I swear," he told me. "It was in a residential hotel, next door to a cheap bar. There were people on the sidewalk outside, whistling and yelling to each other, all night long. I made just enough money as an organist at churches and playing piano in bars to get by. To play in bars I had to lie about my age. Then, when I started producing demo tapes for singers, some of whom were strippers and bartenders at the places I worked, I was even able to move up to a better awful hotel room!"
A demo tape is a sample of a singer or songwriter's work, which is sent to prospective recording companies, casting directors of musical shows, or booking agents at nightclubs. Working with other artists on their material gave Lee an opportunity to use other talents besides his performing ones. He found that he loved writing tunes, doing arrangements and producing other people's work, so much so that it completely changed his life.
"I dropped out of college after one year, because I was working too much," he confessed. "I didn't have the time to go to the classes, and the things I wanted to learn about, I had to learn by doing them. The only way to do it was to be in a recording studio, not a classroom. That's when I became nocturnal, being in the recording studios day and night. That was more fun than anything else. I'd have been happy never seeing the daylight!"
Lee Charles Curreri is the elder of Joseph and Domenica Curreri's two sons. Lee's eighteen-year-old brother, John, is a drama student at the High School of the Performing Arts, on which Fame's School of the Arts is based. Both Lee and John's parents are schoolteachers. Their mother, 'who came over from Italy as a little girl, teaches art in Yonkers, and their father, who is a second-generation American of Italian stock, teaches in an elementary school, also in Yonkers.
"Actually," said Lee, "the most Italian thing about our family is the food. Lasagna, fettucini, ravioli. . . . I can never find good Italian food in Los Angeles. Carlo's no help, either. He loves Japanese food and can recommend the best sushi joints, but not a place that serves good Italian food."
Lee doesn't know where his musical interest and talent come from. As early as five or six years old, he was drawn to pianos wherever he found them, at church, in stores, at neighbors' houses. "My mother would go next door for coffee and cake and take me along, and I'd immediately disappear behind the piano and plunk away on it," he chuckled. "Finally it became apparent that it wasn't just a passing interest, and that a piano and I should be brought together. I started taking lessons when I was seven, and our first piano was one that was being given away, that we happened to hear about."
Lee also plays the trombone. That may sound like a strange combination, but he points out that several well-known jazz musicians, including J.J. Johnson and Bill Wattreus, are piano/trombone players.
I wrote my first song when I was eleven," he recalled. "I was a big fan of Burt Bacharach, so, not surprisingly, it sounds like a Bacharach tune. When I was thirteen, I started playing with a band and writing charts for various instruments. I'd go to music camps during the summer and groups of kids would break off into little combos. They'd need arrangements made, and that's where I started getting a working knowledge of what sounded good. It came in easy stages. Learning music theory wasn't work at all, it just developed."
The episode that day was a script, written by Lee, the first he'd ever attempted. That, too just developed because he was interested in story-telling. The dance number was choreographed to one of Lee's original compositions, a tune called "Kitchen Sync" (it's pronounced 'sink' - Lee's fondness for puns keeps everyone groaning!). It has a sparkling beat that gets your fingers tapping, and a melody that goes round and round in your head long after you've heard it. Lee recorded it in his apartment on an 8-track machine, using a digital computer. Through the computer, he 'plays' all the instruments needed on the recording.
"The difference between a synthesizer and a computer is that the computer is used to recall sounds of a real instrument, which you have stored in its memory," he explained. "So it has a warm, human quality, as opposed to a synthesizer, which creates notes from nowhere, mechanically.
"The computer allows me to compose and perform music with an instrument I don't actually play. I can write music for the clarinet, for example, and since I have a computer disc on which every note a clarinet can make is stored, I can push a button and the computer sounds that note in a clarinet tone. It's the same with the violin, tubular bells, a motorcycle, or even a canary! If you put it in, you can get it out, to order."
At the moment; Lee is using his free time to put together a demo tape of his own compositions, doing each instrumental track himself with the computer. "I lost momentum in the music business when I did the Fame movie, then the series," he explained, "so I have to re-establish myself and catch up."
When we walked back to the set, someone asked him if he got what he wanted for his birthday on January 4th. Lee shook his head. "I wanted an extra three hours in the day," he replied wistfully.
This interview was provided to me by Stuart Farrell.
The article above is from the Official Fame Magazines from 1983. The OFFICIAL FAME MAGAZINE was published by Beat Publications Ltd. and the interviews are copyright MGM/UA Entertainment Co.