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Lee Tracy & Isaac Manning – Is It What You Want
By Jeff Mao
As the sun sets on a quaint East Nashville house, a young man bares a piece of his soul. Facing the camera, sporting a silky suit jacket/shirt/slacks/fingerless gloves ensemble that announces “singer” before he’s even opened his mouth, Lee Tracy Johnson settles onto his stage, the front yard. He sways to the dirge-like drum machine pulse of a synth-soaked slow jam, extends his arms as if gaining his balance, and croons in affecting, fragile earnest, “I need your love… oh baby…”
Dogs in the yard next door begin barking. A mysterious cardboard robot figure, beamed in from galaxies unknown and affixed to a tree, is less vocal. Lee doesn’t acknowledge either’s presence. He’s busy feeling it, arms and hands gesticulating. His voice rises in falsetto over the now-quiet dogs, over the ambient noise from the street that seeps into the handheld camcorder’s microphone, over the recording of his own voice played back from a boombox off-camera. After six minutes the single, continuous shot ends. In this intimate creative universe there are no re-takes. There are many more music videos to shoot, and as Lee later puts it, “The first time you do it is actually the best. Because you can never get that again. You expressing yourself from within.”
“I Need Your Love” dates from a lost heyday. From some time in the ’80s or early ’90s, when Lee Tracy (as he was known in performance) and his music partner/producer/manager Isaac Manning committed hours upon hours of their sonic and visual ideas to tape. Embracing drum machines and synthesizers – electronics that made their personal futurism palpable – they recorded exclusively at home, live in a room into a simple cassette deck. Soul, funk, electro and new wave informed their songs, yet Lee and Isaac eschewed the confinement of conventional categories and genres, preferring to let experimentation guide them.
“Anytime somebody put out a new record they had the same instruments or the same sound,” explains Isaac. “So I basically wanted to find something that’s really gonna stand out away from all of the rest of ’em.” Their ethos meant that every idea they came up with was at least worth trying: echoed out half-rapped exhortations over frantic techno-style beats, gospel synth soul, modal electro-funk, oddball pop reinterpretations, emo AOR balladry, nods to Prince and the Fat Boys, or arrangements that might collapse mid-song into a mess of arcade game-ish blips before rallying to reach the finish line. All of it conjoined by consistent tape hiss, and most vitally, Lee’s chameleonic voice, which managed to wildly shape shift and still evoke something sincere – whether toggling between falsetto and tenor exalting Jesus’s return, or punctuating a melismatic romantic adlib with a succinct, “We all know how it feels to be alone.”
“People think we went to a studio,” says Isaac derisively. “We never went to no studio. We didn’t have the money to go to no studio! We did this stuff at home. I shot videos in my front yard with whatever we could to get things together.” Sometimes Isaac would just put on an instrumental record, be it “Planet Rock” or “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” (from Evita), press “record,” and let Lee improvise over it, yielding peculiar love songs, would-be patriotic anthems, or Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe tributes. Technical limitations and a lack of professional polish never dissuaded them. They believed they were onto something.
“That struggle,” Isaac says, “made that sound sound good to me.”
In the parlance of modern music criticism Lee and Isaac’s dizzying DIY efforts would inevitably be described as “outsider.” But “outsider” carries the burden of untold additional layers of meaning if you’re Black and from the South, creating on a budget, and trying to get someone, anyone within the country music capital of the world to take your vision seriously. “What category should we put it in?” Isaac asks rhetorically. “I don’t know. All I know is feeling. I ain’t gonna name it nothing. It’s music. If it grabs your soul and touch your heart that’s what it basically is supposed to do.”
Born in 1963, the baby boy of nine siblings, Lee Tracy spent his earliest years living amidst the shotgun houses on Nashville’s south side. “We was poor, man!” he says, recalling the outhouse his family used for a bathroom and the blocks of ice they kept in the kitchen to chill perishables. “But I actually don’t think I really realized I was in poverty until I got grown and started thinking about it.” Lee’s mom worked at the Holiday Inn; his dad did whatever he had to do, from selling fruit from a horse drawn cart to bootlegging. “We didn’t have much,” Lee continues, “but my mother and my father got us the things we needed, the clothes on our back.” By the end of the decade with the city’s urban renewal programs razing entire neighborhoods to accommodate construction of the Interstate, the family moved to Edgehill Projects. Lee remembers music and art as a constant source of inspiration for he and his brothers and sisters – especially after seeing the Jackson 5 perform on Ed Sullivan. “As a small child I just knew that was what I wanted to do.”
His older brother Don began musically mentoring him, introducing Lee to a variety of instruments and sounds. “He would never play one particular type of music, like R&B,” says Lee. “I was surrounded by jazz, hard rock and roll, easy listening, gospel, reggae, country music; I mean I was a sponge absorbing all of that.” Lee taught himself to play drums by beating on cardboard boxes, gaining a rep around the way for his timekeeping, and his singing voice. Emulating his favorites, Earth Wind & Fire and Cameo, he formed groups with other kids with era-evocative band names like Concept and TNT Connection, and emerged as the leader of disciplined rehearsals. “I made them practice,” says Lee. “We practiced and practiced and practiced. Because I wanted that perfection.” By high school the most accomplished of these bands would take top prize in a prominent local talent show. It was a big moment for Lee, and he felt ready to take things to the next level. But his band-mates had other ideas.
“I don’t know what happened,” he says, still miffed at the memory. “It must have blew they mind after we won and people started showing notice, because it’s like everybody quit! I was like, where the hell did everybody go?” Lee had always made a point of interrogating prospective musicians about their intentions before joining his groups: were they really serious or just looking for a way to pick up girls? Now he understood even more the importance of finding a collaborator just as committed to the music as he was.
Isaac Manning had spent much of his life immersed in music and the arts – singing in the church choir with his family on Nashville’s north side, writing, painting, dancing, and working various gigs within the entertainment industry. After serving in the armed forces, in the early ’70s he ran The Teenage Place, a music and performance venue that catered to the local youth. But he was forced out of town when word of one of his recreational routines created a stir beyond the safe haven of his bohemian circles.
“I was growing marijuana,” Isaac explains. “It wasn’t no business, I was smoking it myself… I would put marijuana in scrambled eggs, cornbread and stuff.” His weed use originated as a form of self-medication to combat severe tooth pain. But when he began sharing it with some of the other young people he hung out with, some of who just so happened to be the kids of Nashville politicians, the cops came calling. “When I got busted,” he remembers, “they were talking about how they were gonna get rid of me because they didn’t want me saying nothing about they children because of the politics and stuff. So I got my family, took two raggedy cars, and left Nashville and went to Vegas.”
Out in the desert, Isaac happened to meet Chubby Checker of “The Twist” fame while the singer was gigging at The Flamingo. Impressed by Isaac’s zeal, Checker invited him to go on the road with him as his tour manager/roadie/valet. The experience gave Isaac a window into a part of the entertainment world he’d never encountered – a glimpse of what a true pop act’s audience looked like. “Chubby Checker, none of his shows were played for Black folks,” he remembers. “All his gigs were done at high-class white people areas.” Returning home after a few years with Chubby, Isaac was properly motivated to make it in Music City. He began writing songs and scouting around Nashville for local talent anywhere he could find it with an expressed goal: “Find someone who can deliver your songs the way you want ’em delivered and make people feel what you want them to feel.”
One day while walking through Edgehill Projects Isaac heard someone playing the drums in a way that made him stop and take notice. “The music was so tight, just the drums made me feel like, oh I’m-a find this person,” he recalls. “So I circled through the projects until I found who it was.
“That’s how I met him – Lee Tracy. When I found him and he started singing and stuff, I said, ohhh, this is somebody different.”
Theirs was a true complementary partnership: young Lee possessed the raw talent, the older Isaac the belief. “He’s really the only one besides my brother and my family that really seen the potential in me,” says Lee. “He made me see that I could do it.”
Isaac long being a night owl, his house also made for a fertile collaborative environment – a space where there always seemed to be a new piece of his visual art on display: paintings, illustrations, and dolls and figures (including an enigmatic cardboard robot). Lee and Issac would hang out together and talk, listen to music, conjure ideas, and smoke the herb Isaac had resumed growing in his yard. “It got to where I could trust him, he could trust me,” Isaac says of their bond. They also worked together for hours on drawings, spreading larges rolls of paper on the walls and sketching faces with abstract patterns and imagery: alien-like beings, tri-horned horse heads, inverted Janus-like characters where one visage blurred into the other.
Soon it became apparent that they didn’t need other collaborators; self-sufficiency was the natural way forward. At Isaac’s behest Lee, already fed up with dealing with band musicians, began playing around with a poly-sonic Yamaha keyboard at the local music store. “It had everything on it – trumpet, bass, drums, organ,” remembers Lee. “And that’s when I started recording my own stuff.”
The technology afforded Lee the flexibility and independence he craved, setting him on a path other bedroom musicians and producers around the world were simultaneously following through the ’80s into the early ’90s. Saving up money from day jobs, he eventually supplemented the Yamaha Isaac had gotten him with Roland and Casio drum machines and a Moog. Lee was living in an apartment in Hillside at that point caring for his dad, who’d been partially paralyzed since early in life. In the evenings up in his second floor room, the music put him in a zone where he could tune out everything and lose himself in his ideas.
“Oh I loved it,” he recalls. “I would really experiment with the instruments and use a lot of different sound effects. I was looking for something nobody else had. I wanted something totally different. And once I found the sound I was looking for, I would just smoke me a good joint and just let it go, hit the record button.” More potent a creative stimulant than even Isaac’s weed was the holistic flow and spontaneity of recording. Between sessions at Isaac’s place and Lee’s apartment, their volume of output quickly ballooned.
“We was always recording,” says Lee. “That’s why we have so much music. Even when I went [to Isaac’s] and we start creating, I get home, my mind is racing, I gotta start creating, creating, creating. I remember there were times when I took a 90-minute tape from front to back and just filled it up.”
“We never practiced,” says Isaac. “See, that was just so odd about the whole thing. I could relate to him, and tell him about the songs [I had ideas for] and everything and stuff. And then he would bring it back or whatever, and we’d get together and put it down.” Once the taskmaster hell bent on rehearsing, Lee had flipped a full 180. Perfection was no longer an aspiration, but the enemy of inspiration.
“I seen where practicing and practicing got me,” says Lee. “A lot of musicians you get to playing and they gotta stop, they have to analyze the music. But while you analyzing you losing a lot of the greatness of what you creating. Stop analyzing what you play, just play! And it’ll all take shape.”
“I hope you understood the beginning of the record because this was invented from a dream I had today… (You tell me, I’ll tell you, we’ll figure it out together)” – Lee Tracy and Isaac Manning, “Hope You Understand”
Lee lets loose a maniacal cackle when he acknowledges that the material that he and Isaac recorded was by anyone’s estimation pretty out there. It’s the same laugh that commences “Hope You Understand” – a chaotic transmission that encapsulates the duality at the heart of their music: a stated desire to reach people and a compulsion to go as leftfield as they saw fit.
“We just did it,” says Lee. “We cut the music on and cut loose. I don’t sit around and write. I do it by listening, get a feeling, play the music, and the lyrics and stuff just come out of me.”
The approach proved adaptable to interpreting other artists’ material. While recording a cover of Whitney Houston’s pop ballad “Saving All My Love For You,” Lee played Whitney’s version in his headphones as he laid down his own vocals – partially following the lyrics, partially using them as a departure point. The end result is barely recognizable compared with the original, Lee and Isaac having switched up the time signature and reinvented the melody along the way towards morphing a slick mainstream radio standard into something that sounds solely their own.
“I really used that song to get me started,” says Lee. “Then I said, well I need something else, something is missing. Something just came over me. That’s when I came up with ‘Is It What You Want.’”
The song would become the centerpiece of Lee and Isaac’s repertoire. Pushed along by a percolating metronomic Rhythm King style beat somewhere between a military march and a samba, “Is It What You Want” finds Lee pleading the sincerity of his commitment to a potential love interest embellished by vocal tics and hiccups subtlely reminiscent of his childhood hero MJ. Absent chord changes, only synth riffs gliding in and out like apparitions, the song achieves a lingering lo-fi power that leaves you feeling like it’s still playing, somewhere, even after the fade out.
“I don’t know, it’s like a real spiritual song,” Lee reflects. “But it’s not just spiritual. To me the more I listen to it it’s like about everything that you do in your everyday life, period. Is it what you want? Do you want a car or you don’t want a car? Do you want Jesus or do you want the Devil? It’s basically asking you the question. Can’t nobody answer the question but you yourself.”
In 1989 Lee won a lawsuit stemming from injuries sustained from a fight he’d gotten into. He took part of the settlement money and with Isaac pressed up “Saving All My Love For You” b/w “Is It What You Want” as a 45 single. Isaac christened the label One Chance Records. “Because that’s all we wanted,” he says with a laugh, “one chance.”
Isaac sent the record out to radio stations and major labels, hoping for it to make enough noise to get picked up nationally. But the response he and Lee were hoping for never materialized. According to Isaac the closest the single got to getting played on the radio is when a disk jock from a local station made a highly unusual announcement on air: “The dude said on the radio, 107.5 – ‘We are not gonna play ‘Is It What You Want.’ We cracked up! Wow, that’s deep.
“It was a whole racist thing that was going on,” he reflects. “So we just looked over and kept on going. That was it. That was about the way it goes… If you were Black and you were living in Nashville and stuff, that’s the way you got treated.” Isaac already knew as much from all the times he’d brought he and Lee’s tapes (even their cache of country music tunes) over to Music Row to try to drum up interest to no avail.
“Isaac, he really worked his ass off,” says Lee. “He probably been to every record place down on Music Row.” Nashville’s famed recording and music business corridor wasn’t but a few blocks from where Lee grew up. Close enough, he remembers, for him to ride his bike along its back alleys and stumble upon the occasional random treasure, like a discarded box of harmonicas. Getting in through the front door, however, still felt a world away.
“I just don’t think at the time our music fell into a category for them,” he concedes. “It was before its time.”
Lee stopped making music some time in the latter part of the ’90s, around the time his mom passed away and life became increasingly tough to manage. “When my mother died I had a nervous breakdown,” he says, “So I shut down for a long time. I was in such a sadness frame of mind. That’s why nobody seen me. I had just disappeared off the map.” He fell out of touch with Isaac, and in an indication of just how bad things had gotten for him, lost track of all the recordings they’d made together. Music became a distant memory.
Fortunately, Isaac kept the faith. In a self-published collection of his poetry – paeans to some of his favorite entertainment and public figures entitled Friends and Dick Clark – he’d written that he believed “music has a life of its own.” But his prescience and presence of mind were truly manifested in the fact that he kept an archive of he and Lee’s work. As perfectly imperfect as “Is It What You Want” now sounds in a post-Personal Space world, Lee and Isaac’s lone official release was in fact just a taste. The bulk of the Is It What You Want album is culled from the pair’s essentially unheard home recordings – complete songs, half-realized experiments, Isaac’s blue monologues and pronouncements et al – compiled, mixed and programmed in the loose and impulsive creative spirit of their regular get-togethers from decades ago. The rest of us, it seems, may have finally caught up to them.
On the prospect of at long last reaching a wider audience, Isaac says simply, “I been trying for a long time, it feels good.” Ever the survivor, he adds, “The only way I know how to make it to the top is to keep climbing. If one leg break on the ladder, hey, you gotta fix it and keep on going… That’s where I be at. I’ll kill death to make it out there.”
For Lee it all feels akin to a personal resurrection: “It’s like I was in a tomb and the tomb was opened and I’m back… Man, it feels so great. I feel like I’m gonna jump out of my skin.” Success at this stage of his life, he realizes, probably means something different than what it did back when he was singing and dancing in Isaac’s front yard. “What I really mean by ‘making it,’” he explains isn’t just the music being heard but, “the story being told.”
Occasionally Lee will pull up “Is It What You Want” on YouTube on his phone, put on his headphones, and listen. He remembers the first time he heard his recorded voice. How surreal it was, how he thought to himself, “Is that really me?” What would he say to that younger version of himself now?
“I would probably tell myself, hang in there, don’t give up. Keep striving for the goal. And everything will work out.”
Despite what’s printed on the record label, sometimes you do get more than one chance.