KAILUA-KONA — It wasn’t too long ago that Big Island resident Robbie Lee was entertaining his fellow high school students in Monterey, California, with his ukulele and the one song he knew how to play.
“And the vision that was planted in my brain, still remains, within the sound of silence …”
Lee was a sophomore in high school in 2006 when he first discovered the ukulele and found his calling, amusing his peers with Simon and Garfunkel. After he mastered “The Sound of Silence,” he moved on to “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey, and then “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Now, Lee has 520 songs on his set list, and he plays his ukulele on stage at 6:30 p.m. every Friday at Rays on the Bay at the Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa.
“Music has always been with me,” Lee said. “No matter where you go, if you’re called to something, you can be successful at it.”
From hip-hop to classic rock, Lee covers all musical genres when he performs.
“I’m known as the guy who can do anything on the ukulele. I have a very unique style, I call it contemporary ukulele,” Lee said. “I do everything, and I take requests. I do Johnny Cash one moment, Lady Gaga the next. You name it, I can do it.”
Lee has considered himself a musician since he was in kindergarten, when he discovered his talent for singing, and he also learned to play violin at a young age. His discovery of the ukulele came completely by accident.
“I took blame for something my sister did, and I was grounded and there was nothing I could do. So I went into the attic and I found a really old box in the attic that (had) a ukulele,” Lee said. “And it came with a book called ‘You Can Play the Ukulele.’ It was really cheesy. And ever since then, I take it around with me. At high school parties, I was always the guy bringing the ukulele with me.”
Lee had to teach himself to play, as there weren’t any available ukulele teachers in his area of California. After high school, Lee studied music at Belmont University in Tennessee, where he had to learn the piano because ukulele wasn’t available as an instrument of study.
After graduating, Lee felt a calling to become a professional musician in a place where his talents with the ukulele could be appreciated.
“The ukulele, it single-handedly brought me to Hawaii,” Lee said.
Lee and his wife, Bethany, first made their home on Oahu before moving to the Big Island. Lee was able to find his first break in Kona when he was invited to have a spot playing at Sunset Terrace, a bar in Keauhou.
Off-duty Sheraton staff members heard Lee play, and were able to help secure him a spot at the bigger venue of Rays on the Bay, where he has been for more than a year.
“It took a year of consistently playing for a crowd that didn’t tip well, in a small place,” Lee said. “In music, consistency trumps intensity every time. If you want to play in the big shows, you have to be consistent.
“If you play music consistently, you will be noticed.”
And Lee and his ukulele are getting noticed. On the mainland, Lee played at the Bellagio in Las Vegas in October and has also played at the Ritz-Carlton in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. On the Big Island, outside of the Sheraton, he plays weekly in the North Kona neighborhood of Kukio.
He said his next step would be to find enough paying gigs on the island to be a full-time musician, and to make an album.
Lee has a few original songs that he has written, but he said he doesn’t have a desire to make a full, original album.
“Everyone has that special song. To be able to write a song and replace that special song, I’ll never be able to do,” Lee said. “So I really appreciate the covers. I love taking these covers and making them my own.”
While on his journey to becoming a ukulele star, Lee has learned a thing or two, and he wants to pass on the knowledge to other aspiring musicians on the island.
“Here, they’re starving for talent,” Lee said. “If you want to make music, and you want to get out there. Start with the open mic nights. Call me, and I’ll let you play for five minutes in front of me at Rays on the Bay.”
Info: Robbie Lee can be found online at https://www.robbieleemusic.com/.