‘Future superstar of the blues’ Toby Lee plays Fulford Arms tomorrow. Guest slot with Jools Holland awaits at York Barbican

Toby Lee: Blues guitarist on the rise

TEENAGE blues prodigy Toby Lee heads to the Fulford Arms, York, tomorrow night, the next stop in a year when the Oxfordshire-born guitarist and singer will play more than 100 British and European shows.

In his diary are 40 solo gigs and 60-plus engagements as a special guest on boogie-woogie pianist Jools Holland and his Rhythm & Blues Orchestra’s travels in May to July and October to December.

The 2023 Young Blues Musician of the Year will be joining Jools at York Barbican on December 11, as well as further Yorkshire gigs at Bridlington Spa on July 16; Hull City Hall, July 17; Sheffield City Hall, November 23, and Leeds First Direct Arena, December 20.

The story goes that Lee’s musical journey began at the age of four when his grandmother bought him a yellow-and-green ukulele, but by then he had already “started banging around on stuff as if I wanted to be a drummer, when you want to make a noise out of anything,” recalls Toby, now 19.

“We always had instruments around the house, so I could ‘experiment’, as my mum reminds me on a regular basis. I started drumming on the piano legs with two drumsticks, so when it came to guitars and stringed instruments, that’s when I got the ukulele from my grandma, and my dad always had guitars in our home too.”

Toby still has that ukulele, “though it’s lost all its strings. I keep it in the footwell of the car,” he reveals. “It was a natural evolution to play guitar, so I got my first full-size electric guitar when I was eight.; it was a Stratocaster replica, I think.”

Within two years of receiving that guitar as a Christmas present while holidaying at a Cornish hotel, he was partnered by Gibson Guitars. “It was a very crazy experience, having that partnership at that age – and they rang me!” says Toby.

“It all came through social media, from when I did a Get Well Soon jam for BB King, recording myself playing along to a drum beat on my dad’s Fender guitar. It went viral, getting five million views in a week! Gibson Guitars got to see that video, contacted me, and they’ve been unbelievable in terms of them sending me guitars to use ever since.”

Living in the Oxfordshire countryside outside Banbury, no-one could object to Toby’s early guitar exertions. “Not even the cows,” he jokes.

Such was his talent that he was chosen to play guitarist Zack Mooneyham in the West End premiere of School Of Rock.

“I started rehearsals aged 11, going from being a bedroom guitarist, knowing every word of the show, when I got the call to go to Broadway, but it would have meant moving to the other side of the world.

“They said, ‘that’s fine, we’ll be coming to London’. So, after the auditions, they pulled me to one side to say ‘we’d like you to take the part of Zack Mooneyham’.

“That was a crazy feeling as it was a show I’d been listening all my life, and being told at 11 that you can play the guitar on stage, use all that energy, jump around on stage, was wonderful.”

Toby’s attendance record at school was “absolutely dire”. “But I was able to do classes during the day, sometimes cramming them into the morning,” he says.

Three young teams performed the show in rotation, with Toby picked for the team for radio, TV and press coverage. “We did the press opening night when Cliff Richard was in the front row,” he says.

He played Zack Mooneyham for a year, winning an Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement In Music, since when has gone on to share stages with blues luminaries such as his hero Joe Bonamassa (on his Mediterranean Blue Cruise), Buddy Guy, Peter Frampton and Slash.

Toby Lee with Jools Holland: Teaming up at York Barbican, Bridlington Spa, Hull City Hall, Sheffield City Hall and Leeds First Direct Arena

“It’s only now that I can look back and think about those amazing experiences, when now it feels real, because you’re in the moment. Now I know what they’ve been through to get where they are; the amount of graft that goes into it. Now I have infinite ideas of how hard it is to make it happen.”

 But what drew him to the blues, the music of BB King and Jimi Hendrix in particular, rather than rock?  “It’s a bit of an unusual style to pick, and I actually grew up listening to Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and Eddie Cochrane, as my dad was always in love with American music, so that was the music around the house,” says Toby.

“So I grew up listening to anything from Buddy Holly – who was my first inspiration – to Metallica, but blues music was the one that took off the most with fans. That took me down a rabbit hole even more, so I’d go from listening to Stevie Ray Vaughan and BB King to thinking, ‘right, I better do more homework’.”

His passion for playing the blues remains a family business, the Lees having moved to Cornwall, just outside Newquay, five years ago. “It’s very much a family-run thing, just me and my mum and my dad.  I couldn’t have done it without them,” says Toby, who describes the guitar as his “comfort blanket”.

“There aren’t many parents who would have said ‘great’ when I said I wanted to be a guitarist at nine! My dad was on it straightaway, whereas at first my mum was saying, ‘where’s the curriculum for that?’.”

Toby’s sheer talent negated that question, and the sense of togetherness, completed by their three dogs, prevails. “My mum works from home, and I always travel with my dad, who’s part of the management team,” says Toby.

His multiple shows with Jools Holland will heighten his profile still more. “I got asked to do Cerys Matthews’ blues show on BBC Radio 2, and one of her producers works with Jools too and got asked to do some filming for a film being made about blues music that Jools was involved in as well,” he says.

“That was the first time I met Jools, about seven or eight months ago, and it was definitely a jump in at the deep end, with everyone there knowing they were going to play a song together apart from me! So it was like, ‘ready Toby? Go’!

“It was a really cool moment, jamming a song between Jools and Ruby Turner called Remember Me, so, all of a sudden, I was having a one-to-one music lesson with Jools. It turned out there were lots of similarities between us because neither of us reads music.

“We get on really well, and just as I was about to leave to head back to lovely Cornwall, they asked if I could play some shows with Jools.”

Initially, 30 shows were on his schedule, now it will be more than 60; the summer itinerary with Irish singer Imelda May as Holland’s fellow guest, the autumn and winter dates with Soft Cell frontman Marc Almond on board.

“I grew up listening to Jools, watching his Hootenanny shows on YouTube, and after watching them for years, it was a surreal moment to be working with him,” says Toby.

Before thoseJools Holland commitments comes tomorrow’s gig at the Fulford Arms with Lee’s four-piece band, featuring Chris Haddon on rhythm guitar, Sam Collins on bass and Joe Harris on drums.

“It’ll be original material and a few covers,” says Toby. “For the new album – all originals – we’ll be dropping singles over the summer and it’ll then be out in the autumn with the title House On Fire.”

Toby has played York once before, supporting blues guitarist, singer and songwriter Joanne Shaw Taylor at York Barbican in April 2022. “I’m excited to be coming back, headlining this time,” he says.

Toby Lee, Fulford Arms, York, tomorrow; doors open at 7.30pm. Tickets: ticketweb.uk/event/toby-lee-the-fulford-arms-tickets/13366163. Jools Holland and his Rhythm & Blues Orchestra, featuring special guest Toby Lee, York Barbican, December 11, 7.30pm. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.