In high school he formed a rock band, "Johnny Lee and the Roadrunners". After graduation Lee enlisted in the United States Navy and served a tour of duty on the USS Chicago, a guided missile cruiser. After his discharge, he had his name legally changed from John Lee Ham to Johnny Lee. He played cover tunes in Texas nightclubs and bars throughout the 1960s.
John Lee Ham was born in Alta Loma, Texas on July 3, 1946, and grew up on a dairy farm Alta Loma, which is now part of Santa Fe Texas.
Rock n Roll was his first foray into music as his early years had him being exposed to such artists such as Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis in his youth. Eventually, billing himself as Johnny Lee, he went from fan to performer in high school, forming with his friends a band called the Road Runners.
This humble beginning with "The Road Runners'" who had local success,
and won local and state-wide competitions, halted when Lee joined the Navy and serving in Southeast Asia as America's involvement in Vietnam grew. After being discharged, reviving his first love, music, he bounced around from Texas to California looking for gigs, and landed his first serious break when he met honky tonk man Mickey Gilley in 1968.
Lee reminded Gilley of the time they had met and talked music in Galveston, Texas, and Gilley allowed Lee to join him on-stage that evening. Gilley eventually signed Lee as a backing vocalist and trumpet player, unaware that Lee was pulling his leg and the two hadn't previously met.
For five years, Lee was part of Gilley's band for his standing engagement at Gilley's nightclub in Pasadena, Texas, and when Gilley was playing road dates, Lee was the headliner in his absence. Lee stepped out as a solo act in 1973 and cut a few songs for the tiny Astro label, but when they failed to chart, he returned to working with Gilley again.
Lee, scored minor successes recording for ABC/Dot with "Sometimes" and GRT "Country Party" , but Lee's shot at the big time came in 1979, when filmmaker James Bridges came to Texas to shoot the movie Urban Cowboy. Irving Azoff, the high-powered music business mogul who was producing the film and coordinating the soundtrack, helped Lee land a small part in the film playing himself, and asked Lee to record a song for the soundtrack.
Lee was given the song "Lookin' for Love," and when Urban Cowboy's soundtrack album came out in tandem with the film in 1980, "Lookin' for Love" . After years Johnny Lee as a journeyman performer, playing Lone Star honky tonks and recording for various labels he finally caught his break and became a major crossover star, as "Lookin' for Love" rose to number one on the Country charts and spent three weeks at the top, and number two on the pop charts. "Lookin' for Love" later became one of the Top 100 best Country Songs of all Time.
Now signed to Azoff's Full Moon label (distributed by Warner/Elektra/Asylum), Lee dropped his own album titled "Lookin' for Love" and it spun off three more major country hits, "One in a Million," "Pickin' Up Strangers," and "Prisoner of Hope."
Lee's days on the pop charts had ended by 1981, but he was a consistent hit maker by that time on Country radio. Touring regularly with his own band for the next few years, Lee was charting high with tunes like "Bet Your Heart on Me," "Sounds Like Love," "Hey Bartender," "You Could Have Heard a Heart Break," and "The Yellow Rose" (the latter a duet with Lane Brody).
Lee even landed a TV star spouse, marrying Charlene Tilton, one of the stars of Dallas, on Valentine's Day, 1982. Tilton and Lee had a daughter, Cherish born in 1982, however, the marriage was short lived and Lee and Tilton split up in 1984.
Lee married his second wife, the late Deborah Spohr Lee, in 1986. The couple had a son, Johnny Lee Jr. in 1990, and divorced years later. Sadly, Deborah died after a long battle with prescription painkillers. Tragically their son Johnny Lee Jr. also died in 2014 at the age of 23 of a drug overdose. Johnny Lee became active in combating the illegal drug epidemic.
Lee's remained active as a touring act, playing regularly in Texas and the Southwest, and documenting two shows with independent live albums, 1999's "Live at Gilley's" and 2002's "Live at Billy Bob's Bob's Texas". Lee continued to record releasing "The 13th of July" in 2003, "It's a Long Way Back" in 2004, and the holiday themed album "Santa Claus Is Lookin' for Love" in 2005.
In 2008, Lee began appearing regularly in Branson, Missouri, playing his hits for his longtime fans. In 2015 Lee reunited with Gilley for a concert tour celebrating the 35th anniversary of the release of Urban Cowboy.
Johnny Lee is a member of the “Texas Country Music Hall of Fame” and was also awarded 1981 New Male Vocalist of the Year, an honor which was repeated the same year in Australia. "Lookin' for Love" also received a Grammy nomination in 1981 and in 1996 he was named Veteran Music Singer of the Year for the gospel song "He Could Have Walked on By".
What you might not know is that Johnny Lee also had screen rolls. It was in 1979, after his 10-year working relationship with Mickey Gilley, at the World Famous Nightclub “Gilley’s” in Pasadena, Texas that Lee landed his first screen role in the TV Movie, “The Girls in the Office”, starring Barbara Eden and Susan St. James. He also performed in the film, “Urban Cowboy”, which starred: John Travolta and Deborah Winger, and "Lookin' For Love" Lee's major hit was from that movie soundtrack, and became Lee's 1st “Gold Record”.
Johnny Lee's autobiography has also been written. “I always said I had to wait until Mickey Gilley was dead before I could write my autobiography,” laughs Johnny. “But it looks like Mickey is going to outlive all of us, so I am just going ahead and putting everything out there. And yes, I am telling everything!” Mickey Gilley and Moe Bandy actually write the foreword for Johnny’s book. “When he first told me he was writing this book, I said, “I know you aren’t putting everything in it!” Johnny yelled, “Yes I am!”
and I just shook my head and said, “Oh Lord, we are all in trouble.” commented Moe Bandy
"Johnny and I were able to see the world. I am honored to have spent most of my life working with him. We lived through a truly magical time. We worked very hard, but we also played hard. Exactly what was it like to be a country music superstar? You’re about to find out as you read this book!” added Mickey Gilley
Johnny Lee stated, “I share all of those highs and lows in this book. I know it will make you laugh. It will also make you cry. I cried as I was writing it. And there will be times when you might be shocked. But it’s all true.” Told in Johnny’s own words, the book entitled ‘Still Lookin’ for Love’ includes Johnny’s secret marriage no one knew about…until now, and the truth about Gilley’s, the World’s Biggest Honky Tonk. “If you ever wondered what it was like to be a high flyin’, jet setting country music star in the 1980’s, this book is about as close as you can come,” Johnny says. “ We did things that would make today’s big stars go running for their momma.”
Johnny includes the story behind ‘Urban Cowboy’, the movie that changed his life forever, his bout with colon cancer and backstage stories about everyone from Waylon Jennings to Alan Jackson to Charley Pride.
“I have so many stories about all of the country artists I have worked with. Most of the stories are funny. A few are sad. But all of them are entertaining."
The heartbreak of losing a wife to suicide and a short time later dealing with the death of his son are also included as well as his marriage and divorce to ‘Dallas’ star Charlene Tilton. “Not only do I give my version of everything that happened between us, but I also give Charlene the chance to set the record straight. You know this book is going to be pretty honest when I let my ex-wife have her say. I hope when people read my book, they’ll say, ‘Johnny sure wasn’t perfect. He didn’t claim to be. But he sure is honest. And he wasn’t afraid to tell the truth.’”
When not traveling and performing, Johnny can be seen on many Celebrity hunting and fishing shows as well as on RFD TV’s: “Larrys’ Diner” & “The Homecoming”.
With a string of Top 10 hits such as:"Lookin' for Love", "One In A Million" , "Bet Your Heart On Me", "Cherokee Fiddle," "Sounds Like Love", "Hey Bartender", "You Could've Heard a Heart Break" and many, many more, Johnny Lee is truly the original URBAN COWBOY.