The iconic front man of The Nerves and writer of "Hanging on the Telephone" died after a three-year battle with colon cancer
Jack Lee, singer-songwriter-guitarist-producer of the pivotal, hard-edged ‘70s Los Angeles power pop band the Nerves and author of the trio’s best-known song “Hanging on the Telephone,” famously covered as a career-defining hit by Blondie, died May 26 in Santa Monica, CA, after a three-year battle with colon cancer. He was 71.
Lee’s family said in a statement, “He never gave up on his music, to the very end. His guitar, right by his side. He lived his songs. One by one they told the story of his life. Some dreams die. His never will.”
Born in Alaska, Lee pursued a life in music with the zeal of a committed independent artist. He first left home for California at 15 and arrived at the Santa Monica Pier, in the town he called home for most of his life. He hitchhiked to San Francisco at 19, and was picked up on the side of the road by a powder-blue T-Bird driven by Constance Williams, who would later become his wife and mother of two of his children. She encouraged Lee to write his own songs and sold everything she owned so Lee could record and self-publish the original single version of “Hanging on the Telephone,” a virtually impossible-to-find collector’s item, on his own Maiden America imprint.
He founded the Nerves in San Francisco in 1974 with two East Coast emigrés, Buffalo native and fellow Fisherman’s Wharf busker Peter Case and New York City-born, New Jersey-bred Paul Collins, both of whom also sang and wrote. Like his bandmates, he was penning economical, rocking pop songs, greatly inspired by his admiration for the Beatles and the ambitious craftsmanship of Bob Dylan.
Clad in three-piece Yves Saint Laurent suits (a Lee inspiration) and playing their revved-up, aggressive pop originals, the Nerves — with Lee on guitar, Case on bass, and Collins on drums — were an anomaly on the San Francisco scene. But they were ambitious enough to secure a $2,000 loan to record at Kelly Quan Recorders in North Beach and press up a four-song, self-titled, self-released 1976 EP, which featured two Lee compositions, “Give Me Some Time” and “Hanging on the Telephone,” the latter of which served as the record’s lead-off track.
“When I met Jack, I was a street musician,” Case says. “I immediately related to him — he was one of the few guys who were out on the scene who were writing. The first day I met him, in late ’73 or early ’74, we went out and sat in the car, and I played him ‘When You Find Out’ and he played me ‘Hanging on the Telephone.’ It was fantastic and inspiring. When Paul joined, it was a very exciting period, and Jack was the mover and shaker. In the early days, he was on fire, and he was visionary about where music could go.”
Collins says, “I loved Jack. He was my mentor — I met him when I’d just turned 18, and meeting him changed my life. I always looked up to him as an absolutely topnotch songwriter. I idolized him from day one. Being in the Nerves was the best boot camp anybody could ask for to start a career in music. I learned about songwriting and harmonies from both Jack and Peter. The experience has been with me ever since — the lessons I learned there, I apply all the time.”
In the wake of recording their debut, a self-titled DIY 7-inch EP, the Nerves relocated to Los Angeles on New Year’s Day 1977. The band’s EP was distributed by Greg Shaw’s influential independent L.A. label Bomp Records. The group was soon rubbing sometimes sharp elbows with the nascent local punk rock underground. (“The L.A. punk rock thing included everybody who was willing to take a shot,” Case says.)
In the DIY spirit of the era, the band booked the first L.A. punk gigs at roving self-produced shows they dubbed the Hollywood Punk Palace, presenting such local notables as the Weirdos, the Germs, the Dils, and the Zeros. In 1977, without the aid of an agent, manager, or record company, the Nerves booked their own self-produced coast-to-coast U.S. tour, during which they appeared with such acts as the Ramones, Pere Ubu, DEVO, and Mink DeVille. They made several 1977-78 appearances at the Masque, the legendary subterranean Hollywood club.
Perhaps burdened by an overabundance of talent in one group, the Nerves split in 1978; Case formed the Plimsouls and Collins founded the Beat, both of which carved out significant careers.
Collins says, “I think what happened with the Nerves was we took it as far as three people could possibly take a project, expending an enormous amount of energy and time, and it just imploded from a lack of interest — like a plant dying from a lack of water.”
The band’s music was anthologized on the 2008 Alive Records compilation One Way Ticket. Their impact could be felt in the work of such like-minded, garage-inflected L.A. power pop acts of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s as the Zippers, 20/20, Redd Kross, the Three O’Clock, the Last, and the Bangles.
In the wake of the band’s breakup, Lee was struggling to establish himself as a solo artist when Jeffrey Lee Pierce — a writer for the storied L.A. punkzine Slash, the future founder of the fabled band the Gun Club, and, most importantly in this case, the president of the Blondie Fan Club — brought a copy of the Nerves EP, and “Hanging on the Telephone,” to the attention of the New York band’s vocalist Debbie Harry, who phoned Lee and asked for permission to record it.
In a 2007 interview with England’s Mojo magazine, Lee recalled that the call came not a moment too soon: “I remember the day vividly. It was a Friday. They were going to cut off our electricity at six o’clock, the phone too.”
Producer Mike Chapman’s high-energy version of the song, which duplicated the original Nerves arrangement down to its ringing phone intro, became a radio “turntable hit” that helped thrust Blondie’s million-selling third LP Parallel Lines to No. 6 in the U.S. and No. 1 in the U.K. in 1978. “Hanging on the Telephone” remains a fixture of the group’s concert repertoire to this day. The song was later covered by Def Leppard, Cat Power, and most recently the Puerto Rican punk band Davila 666. This year, the original Nerves version was featured on the wildly popular Netflix series Outer Banks. It endures as Jack Lee’s most covered and most anthologized composition, appearing on literally dozens of compilations.
Following that major success as a writer, Lee stepped back into the performing arena with two collections of original material, both of which he produced: the ironically titled Jack’s Lee’s Greatest Hits Vol. 1 (financed by royalties from “Hanging on the Telephone” and released on Maiden America in 1983), which included new versions of his songs for the Nerves and fresh originals, and a self-titled 1985 set released by Lolita Records in France. (A 23-song compilation of his work, Bigger Than Life, was issued by Alive in 2016.)
As a writer, Lee was involved in another career-establishing success, in this case on the other side of the Atlantic: In 1983, his song “Come Back and Stay,” which dated from his days with the Nerves, became a No. 4 smash and one of three top-five singles that pushed soulful vocalist Paul Young’s debut album No Parlez, which featured two other Lee songs, to No. 1 in the U.K.
Lee never duplicated those initial successes. But he continued to write and record music for the rest of his life, and plans call for a documentary film and the release of some 30 unissued recordings sometime in the near future.
At Lee’s request, his remains were cremated. His life will be commemorated by a plaque in the Rose Garden at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. A memorial celebration showcasing his previously unreleased body of work and his hits is being planned at the Echoplex in L.A.’s Echo Park neighborhood.
Lee is survived by his children Wallie Autry, Grace Lee, Mary Lee, and Cynthia Jacqueline Lee Cook; grandchildren Jack Autry, Brenlee Autry, Adam Mejia, Alana Joy Nichols, Jackson Cook, and Hudson Cook; half siblings Robert Emiel Lee, Virginia E. Lee, and Katherine Lee; and wife Mieke Sofia Lee.
Condolences and archival material of his work and life can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.