Born John Lee Ham on July 3, 1946, in Texas City, Texas, Johnny Lee was raised on a dairy farm in Alta Loma, Texas. His main interest was rock ‘n’ roll, and he led a high school band, Johnny Lee and the Roadrunners. After a stint in the U.S. Navy, he worked through the ’60s by playing cover tunes in Texas clubs and bars.
In 1968, Lee began a 10-year working relationship with Mickey Gilley, both on the road and at Gilley’s nightclub in Pasadena, Texas. Recording for the ABC/Dot and GRT record labels, Lee charted his first single in 1975 with “Sometimes.” Moderate chart success followed with “Red Sails in the Sunset” and “Country Party,” the latter adding new lyrics to Rick Nelson’s pop hit, “Garden Party.”
Johnny Lee made an appearance in the 1979 television movie The Girls in the Office, but became a major star after being featured in the film Urban Cowboy, starring John Travolta and Debra Winger. Shot largely at Gilley’s club, the 1980 box office hit spawned a series of hit singles. Lee became a primary beneficiary of the media attention surrounding the film and the soundtrack. His 1980 single, “Lookin’ for Love,” spent three weeks at the top of the Billboard country singles chart.
Johnny followed up “Lookin’ for Love” with “One in a Million,” which spent two weeks at No. 1. He scored three more No. 1 singles: “Bet Your Heart on Me,” “The Yellow Rose (a duet with Lane Brody) and “You Could’ve Heard a Heart Break.” His string of Top 10 hits continued with “Pickin’ Up Strangers,” “Prisoner of Hope,” “Be There for Me Baby,” “Cherokee Fiddle,” “Sounds Like Love,” “Hey Bartender” and “Rollin’ Lonely.”
Coinciding with his biggest hits, Johnny Lee married actress Charlene Tilton, a major celebrity at the time due to her role as Lucy in the TV series Dallas. They tied the knot in 1982 in a much-publicized wedding at Tony Orlando’s house, but the marriage only lasted three years.
During the height of his chart success, Lee appeared on talk shows, several network specials and series such as Fantasy Island, CHiPS, The Fall Guy and The A-Team.
During the ’90s, Johnny Lee‘s recording career was largely on hold following his 1991 cover version of Chris de Burgh’s pop hit, “Lady in Red.” In 2003, he returned to the studio to record his album, 13th of July, on the Title Tunes label.