Curtis Lee, who made it big in the early ’60s pop music world before returning home to Yuma and building decades’ worth of homes here, died Thursday after a long battle with cancer. He was 75.
Lee’s daughter, Stephanie Lee-Howell, said he will be remembered “not only as a local boy who made it big but as a true family man who believed in the small-town values and roots. He was proud of Yuma and being part of the community.”
Her father passed away while visiting doctors in San Diego, Howell said. Preliminary arrangements have been made for a service on Saturday, Jan. 17, at Champion Church in Yuma, which Lee helped design and build.
Lee is still remembered by fans of pre-Beatles rock ‘n’ roll for his biggest hit, “Pretty Little Angel Eyes,” which peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1961, according to billboard.org. Produced by “wall of sound” legend Phil Spector, it remains a staple today on stations playing music from that era.
He released one more single, “Under the Moon of Love,” and toured with legends including Jerry Lee Lewis, Jackie Wilson and Ricky Nelson before returning to his birthplace of Yuma, meeting his wife of 51 years, Lydia, and joining his father’s construction business, eventually building thousands of homes in the area.
Pat Maestro of Yuma, an employee of oldies station KXO AM 1230 in El Centro, said Lee had been embittered by not getting all the royalties due to him from his music, but over the years “he really came to realize he was a piece of the history of rock ‘n’ roll, and began getting into it again,” performing at Midnight at the Oasis and other local events.
Under Lee’s leadership, Homer Lee and Son Construction became Lee Homes LLC, which has built numerous subdivisions, including the still-developing Falls Ranch. Lee-Howell and other family members continue to run the family business.
She and her three siblings agree, she said, that “a lot of people say ‘my dad is a rock star,’ but not many people can say, ‘My dad’s a rock star and he really is a rock star,’ in that sense of it. But he was a rock star in every aspect of his life, his family life, in his work ethic, in taking care of people and everything in general.”
Lee was born in Yuma into a musical family and has continued the legacy with his own children, with son Darren Lee a member of local ’80s cover band Checker’d Past. “He started singing in church, and his mom and dad were very talented, and had cousins who were very talented, just the whole family,” Lee-Howell said.
Maestro said Lee was discovered in a Tucson nightclub by Ray Peterson, singer of “Tell Laura I Love Her” and other classics. Lee recorded three singles for Peterson’s new Dunes label before being introduced to Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, who wrote “Last Train to Clarksville” for the Monkees, as well as their TV theme song and several more compositions.
Lee wrote “Pretty Little Angel Eyes” with the duo, a song that still impresses today. KXO employee Tracy Lyons Ramirez said she knows the “peppy” song well: “It’s a standard in our rotation, but I didn’t realize he was from Yuma.”
After returning to his hometown and working alongside his father for years, Lee took over the construction business in 1969. Besides Falls Ranch, other Lee Homes subdivisions included Rancho Sereno, Rancho Viejo, Old World Village and Rancho Verde, and he also took on commercial projects including the remodeling of Crescent Center and the Shaw Carpet building.
His community involvement included sitting on the city of Yuma’s Residential Building Advisory Board, helping bring Pop Warner to the area, supporting BMX racing and the Yuma High Choralairs.
Lee-Howell said golf was among Lee’s favorite pastimes, a memory shared by Mike Dahin, president-elect of the Yuma Southwest Contractors Association. He said he started out in the business doing flooring for Lee Homes and would sometimes tease Lee by singing “Pretty Little Angel Eyes” to him as he came into the room.
He said he hadn’t seen Lee in a few years, but still felt his loss, as would the larger community.
“The Yuma community just lost a longtime family member, because he pretty much was. He was well-known and respected by pretty much everybody in Yuma.”
Lee’s survivors include his wife, Lydia Lee, and their four children, five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
The family suggests memorial contributions be made to Bridget’s Gift Foundation to support local cancer survivors or TGen Foundation, supporting the Phoenix-based Translational Genomics Research Institute, which helped guide Lee through his battle with cancer.