(Dec. 29, 2015) -- In 1985 a self-described blues man from Brazil, Indiana, decided it was, “Time For Big Fun,” and titled his album the same. From that Henry Lee Summer landmark LP was a hit that went Top 20 on the Billboard charts and the Hoosier rocker seemed on his way to national stardom.
“To make it out of Indiana, they said it couldn’t be done and I had to go somewhere else, and I wasn’t interested in going anywhere else,” said Summer backstage before a recent performance at The Vogue in Broad Ripple. “I mean, it took me a long time, but we did it by keeping track of our record sales from the time for 'Big Fun' album. We sold over 50,000 copies. We had to sell them in the stores like Karma and stuff to be legit because we got passed over by every record company numerous times because they wouldn’t take us seriously.”
The industry soon noticed and took Henry Lee Summer seriously enough to book him on the Arsenio Hall and Late Night with David Letterman shows and find him a place on stage during Farm Aid IV at the Hoosier Dome.
Summer’s music videos, simultaneously goofy, high energy and touching, played on MTV.
“That’s the album I got the deal from because that album had on it, 'Time For Big Fun,' 'Wish I Had A Girl Walked Like That,' 'Darling Danielle Don’t,'" said Summer who, to this day, marvels at the artistic stretch he ran 30 years ago when from pen-to-paper-to-studio, everything and everyone said he was on his way.
“You write like three good songs right in a row and then you go for eight months and write schlock stuff, you know, over and over and over and you just can't…”
For a moment Summer, backstage where he shot the “Girl” video decades ago, seemed lost himself to understand his good fortune.
“I figured out the difference between the regular people like myself and the Paul McCartneys of the world is they can like do that in a lot longer stretch. I get like a day of good songwriting and it goes away and I have no idea where it goes.”
The albums and the work followed, another minor hit covering the Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose classic “Treat Her Like A Lady” resulted in a national performance and local airplay, but, almost as quickly as it rose, the sun set on Summer’s day of Big Time rock stardom.
“I was so naïve,” he recalls. “As with everybody, once you’re in the business, you figure out that it's show business and, like most people, I don’t really care to be famous. That’s an easy route to take, but what’s fun for me is those minutes out on stage.
“I’m not built for the other part,” he continued, his voice straining to be heard over the vocals of a warm up band out front, “but I’m built for the stage, but I’m not built for the show business end of it. I don’t have that. I’m not able to do the things that need to be done to be on that level with other people.”
So it was back to the bars and county fairs and small concerts where he cut his teeth in the ‘80s, but then Summer’s streak hit the skids following his methamphetamine arrest several years ago.
“Not too long ago I was in the gutter thinking, ‘Well, I ain’t gonna make it to Christmas at this stage, so…’"
A trip to the Marion County Jail and seeing his mugshot in the media convinced Summer it was “Time For Big Fun” again, and the only way to do that was to sober up and beat his addiction and focus instead on what he knew best.
A guitar and the bright lights and the finding of his own voice again were Summer’s salvation.
“For the stupidity and the things I did, I should not be back because I don’t do anything a little bit,” he said. “If I’m going down the wrong road, I’m going to go all the way, and I took it all the way, and I’m just lucky by the grace to be here.
“The luck I had with the kind of constitution and I was able to get through, what I put myself through, so I’m very lucky, and that’s why when I’m out there I feel very blessed to be able to do it.”
Celebrating 30 years of “Big Fun,” Summer’s voice is remarkably strong, still hitting the high notes, as he wills his lanky body into a jangling dance on stage accentuating his big hits in performance to crowds large and sparse still reminiscing to a time when Henry Lee’s mullet and single “Hey Baby” were still fresh.
“I have so many who say to me, ‘Don’t quit, Henry, because when we come see you we feel young again.’ Seriously, so many people say it to me.”
Summer admits after a lifetime of dancing on stage, and running a basketball court as a teen in Putnam County, his knees aren’t what they used to be.
“Now, the next morning when I wake up, I don’t think that, but when I’m on stage, everything feels good. I’m alive, you know. That’s when I can actually think quick, and if I could live that way 24/7, it’d be great, but that’s not how it is.”
Drummer Tim Berry has watched Summer perform through good times and bad.
“We were doing 'Alligator Brothers and Henry Lee Summer' for about six or eight years and then things slowed down for a minute and then I would say in the last two years we’ve been back and rockin’ and rollin’.
“He is the hometown hero and he’s the people’s rock and roller.”
Wrapping up his 30 year anniversary of “Big Fun,” Summer will ring in the new year with a Dec. 31 performance at The State Theater in Logansport.
“The people that come to see us at this stage of the game, they’re there for the music,” he said. “When I’m singing and you feel like the audience gets it, you get the energy coming back, like every performer says, that’s what you live for. It comes back at you--like it pumps you up to 10,000 rpm.”