The Story and Music of Curtis Lee


Curtis Lee is a singer-songwriter who was featured in two Phil Spector-produced tracks, “Pretty Little Angel Eyes” and “Under the Moon of Love.”  The Arizona-born talent began his career while still in his teens.  Ray Peterson (of “Tell Laura I Love Her” and “Corinna, Corinna” fame) heard one of Lee’s early recordings and invited him to New York to cut a demo for Peterson’s fledgling label Dunes Records.

While in New York in the late 1960s he and good friend Tommy Boyce began a songwriting partnership.  Boyce would later be one-half of the Boyce-Hart songwriting team.  “Special Love” and “Pledge of Love,” Lee’s first two issued singles, hardly made any impression on the charts.

Third time’s the charm however, when a Lee-Boyce original composition called “Pretty Little Angel Eyes,” produced by Spector, hit the Billboard Top 10 in 1961. Another Lee-Boyce composition, “Under the Moon of Love”, was a minor hit, and Lee’s last charting single.

Lee died from cancer on January 8, 2015, in Yuma, Arizona, aged 75. 

Lee’s Music Career

Curtis Lee is an American singer-songwriter born on October 28, 1941 in Yuma, Arizona. Lee occupies the era of rock & roll between Buddy Holly’s death and the Beatles’ arrival. While he was in his teens, he already cut three records for small labels. He later relocated from Arizona to the West Coast he had his first single in 1959 “Pure Love” on Hollywood’s Warrior label. In 1960, Lee’s next release was on the independently-owned Hot label, “I Never Knew What Love Could Do”/ “Gotta Have You”.

Not long thereafter, Lee was recognized by Ray Peterson (of “Tell Laura I Love Her” fame), who just established his own label Dunes. Lee was invited to New York to record a demo there. Lee arrived in New York and started recording his material in the late 1960. With his friend Tommy Boyce, they began a songwriting partnership (Boyce would became one-half of the successful songwriting-producing-singing duo, Boyce & Hart).

Lee’s first three singles from Dunes label were a failure, nevertheless Spector’s genius with the production took over which already scored a Top 10 hit for Dunes with Ray Peterson’s “Corinna Corinna.” Lee’s squeaky voice did not impress Spector so he decided to add background vocals to the song “Pretty Little Angel Eyes.”

Eventually, “Pretty Little Angel Eyes” entered the Billboard charts in mid-1961, reaching #7 spot and peaked at #47 in the UK chart. Another Boyce-Lee composition “Under the Moon of Love” peaked at #46 on the pop chart also that same year. Unfortunately, it was to be Lee’s last successful recording.

Lee left the music business and returned to his hometown where he became a successful custom homebuilder along with his father who also works in the construction industry.

Rise to Stardom

The first single from Lee was “I Never Knew What Love Could Do”/”Gotta Have You” (1960) on the tiny Hot label. It was still in the Ricky Nelson style and is highly collectible if you can find a copy. Shortly after, Curtis was spotted by singer Ray Peterson, who had just started his own record label, Dunes Records, with his then-manager Stan Shulman.

Beginning in the late 1960s, Curtis recorded all of his music for the label at Dunes, a studio in New York City. Tommy Boyce, who would later make up one half of the popular Tommy Boyce / Bobby Hart songwriting-producing-singing duo, and Bobby Hart had already started working together on songs at this point.

The first three Dunes singles were failures, but Phil Spector, who had already achieved success for Dunes with “Corinna Corinna” by Ray Peterson, took over production duties. When Curtis brought four Lee-Boyce compositions to the recording session at Mira Sound Studios on West 47th Street, Spector was unimpressed by Lee’s scratchy voice and decided that “Pretty Little Angel Eyes” needed something extra to give it life.

Spector enlisted the Halos, a black quartet that had recorded for Seven Arts Records and was about to have their own Top 30 hit with “Nag,” to provide the background vocals. Spector gave us the lyric sheets when we arrived and instructed us to play how we felt, according to Arthur Cryer, the bass player and band leader of the Halos.

The vocal riffs in the Halos’ song, which were straight out of the uptempo doo-wop school of the 1950s and made the song infectious, were part of the doo-wop revival in 1961. Midway through 1961, “Pretty Little Angel Eyes” peaked at number seven on the Billboard charts. In the UK, where it was released on London HLX 9397, it reached number seventy-seven.

Boyce and Lee’s upbeat “Under the Moon Of Love” was the follow-up, using less of a doo-wop style in favor of a thick sax sound and a party atmosphere typical of Gary U.S. Bonds’ records. Although Lee’s last chart entry, this song did well with sales (getting to #46 overall). Soon after splitting from Dunes, Phil Spector launched his own label, Philles. Up until the end of 1963, Curtis released four more Dunes singles, but they fell short of the caliber of his first two hits.

For singles on Mira and Rojac, he had switched to “blue-eyed soul” by 1967, but to no avail. Around 1970, Curtis left the music industry, went back to Yuma, Arizona, where he was raised, and began a very prosperous career as a custom home builder.

Showaddywaddy, a high-selling eight-piece Leicester band that specialized in covers of rock ‘n’ roll hits from the 1950s and early 1960s, gave “Under the Moon of Love” new life in 1976, making it a #1 hit in the UK. They also had success with their renditions of two other Curtis Lee songs, “A Night At Daddy Gee’s” (# 39, 1979) and “Pretty Little Angel Eyes” (# 5, 1978).

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