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Following the demise of his high-school band, the Road Runners, Lee enlisted in the Navy, serving in Southeast Asia (including Vietnam) during the mid-'60s. After his discharge, he floated between California and Texas before settling near Houston. Lee convinced Gilley into letting him join his band as a backup singer and trumpeter in 1968, telling the pianist that they had previously met in Galveston, when in fact they hadn't. For the next ten years, Lee worked closely with Gilley, becoming an integral party of the pianist's Pasadena club, Gilley's. When Gilley was on tour, Lee acted as the headliner at the club. Lee decided to go solo in 1973, but his records for the independent label Astro were unsuccessful, so he returned to the club within a year.
By the end of 1975, he signed a contract with ABC/Dot and his first single for the label, "Sometimes," became a minor hit. The following year, he moved to GRT, where he released several minor hits in the next two years, highlighted by the number 15 placing of "Country Party" in 1977; the song was a reworking of Rick Nelson's hit "Garden Party." In 1979, he appeared in a made-for-television film, The Girls in the Office, which paved the way for his appearance in the 1980 film, Urban Cowboy. Starring John Travolta, Urban Cowboy glamorized the sound and style of modern honky tonks like Gilley's, and the movie and its soundtrack became huge hits. Lee contributed "Lookin' for Love" to the soundtrack, and the single became a gigantic crossover success, spending three weeks at the top of the country charts in the summer of 1980 while peaking at number five on the pop charts. Lee became a star thanks to Urban Cowboy, and his records for his new label, Full Moon, began appearing in the country Top Ten with regularity. "One in a Million" became another number one hit late in 1980, followed by "Pickin' Up Strangers" early the next year.
In the wake of the success of "Lookin' for Love" and Urban Cowboy, Lee officially left Gilley's band in 1981, forming not only his own group, the Western Union Band, but also his own rival nightclub, Johnny Lee's, which was located just down the road from Gilley's. Throughout 1981 and 1982, Lee's star burned bright, as the Academy of Country Music named him the Best New Artist of 1980, and he had Top Ten hits like "Prisoner of Hope" (1981), the number one "Bet Your Heart on Me" (1981), and "Be There for Me Baby" (1982). In 1982, he married actress Charlene Tilton, one of the stars of the nighttime soap opera Dallas. Lee's success continued in 1983 and 1984 with Top Ten singles like "Sounds Like Love" (1983), "Hey Bartender" (1983), and the number one singles "The Yellow Rose" (1984) and "You Could've Heard a Heart Break" (1984).
Lee's career cooled down as quickly as it heated up. Though he had one Top Ten single, "Rollin' Lonely," in 1985, by the beginning of 1986 he had trouble reaching the Top 40. Warner, who inherited his Full Moon contract in 1984, dropped him from their roster in 1986, and his marriage to Tilton collapsed in 1987. Over the next two years, he struggled to find a contract, as he came to the realization his management took most of his earnings from his hitmaking days. During this time, he released a single and three EPs on his own Lee record label as well as an independent record on JMS. In 1989, he signed to Curb Records, but none of his records for the label were hits. By the end of the decade, he published his autobiography, Lookin' for Love.
During the '90s, Lee continued to tour across the country, playing clubs and honky tonks. He lacked a record contract, and he had long been estranged from his mentor, Gilley, due to his management problems and his rival club, but he continued to draw sizable crowds at his concerts. By the new millennium, Lee issued two hits collections and a stunning live effort, Live at Billy Bob's Texas. 13th of July, which appeared in 2003, officially brought Lee back to the forefront thanks to the chart success of "Stand by Me." ~ Tom Roland, Rovi