Wheeling Rediscovers 101-Year-Old Musical Groundbreaker

At the age of 101, Wheeling native and musical prodigy Everett Lee has been rediscovered and honored by residents of his hometown.

Lee, who now lives in Sweden, celebrated his 101st birthday on Aug. 31. To mark the occasion and recognize Lee’s trail-blazing legacy, Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott declared Aug. 31 as Everett Lee Day in the city.

Erin Rothenbuehler, coordinator of programming at the Ohio County Public Library, presented a Lunch With Books program on Lee’s life and career. Members of the audience signed a large birthday card which, along with the mayor’s proclamation, was sent to Lee.

Born in Wheeling on Aug. 31, 1916, Lee was the first African American to conduct a major Broadway production, a major symphony orchestra in the South and a major opera company. Lee received considerable media attention, both locally and internationally, at the height of his career, but public recognition in his hometown faded in recent decades.

Rothenbuehler learned of Lee’s barrier-breaking role about a year ago while she was working with materials in the library’s archives.

She came across five scrapbooks compiled by Mabel Hull, who wrote about the African-American community for the Wheeling News-Register from 1948 to 1956.

Hull’s albums contained News-Register clippings from 1955 about Lee’s achievements as a conductor.

The archivist began searching for more information and made contact with Lee and his son, Everett III. She has spoken by telephone with them several times over the past year.

“He is such a positive person,” she said. Excerpts of their recorded conversations were played at Lunch With Books.

Rothenbuehler spoke again recently with Lee’s son who said his father “is still doing great.” She remarked, “He (Lee) has got an amazing memory. For 101, he’s still going strong.”

In their conversations, Rothenbuehler learned that “one of his big regrets was that he never made it back to Wheeling and never had the chance to play with the orchestra here.”

Asked if Lee expressed any bitterness about opportunities denied to him, she related, “He said a lot of Americans weren’t able to get conductorships.” Lee said U.S. orchestras wanted European conductors so few Americans, either black or white, were hired.

Lee, who lived at 1015 Eoff St. as a child, said his father “was crazy about music and bought a lot of records.” After attending a concert in which a black man played violin and piano and sang, Lee said, “I was begging for music lessons.”

The youngster began taking violin lessons from music teacher Walter Rogers at 407 S. York St. Lee recalled, “He (Rogers) liked me so much. He was a very beautiful violinist. He was my first inspiration.”

Lee continued to study violin after his family moved to Cleveland. At East Technical High School, Lee ran track, lagging behind teammate and future Olympian Jesse Owens.

He attended the prestigious Cleveland Institute of Music. In 1943, he was recruited to be concertmaster for the musical, “Carmen Jones,” on Broadway and later became a substitute conductor for the production.

In 1944, he married Sylvia Olden, an Oberlin Conservatory graduate who was hired as a vocal coach at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, becoming the first African American to work there. Years earlier, her mother turned down an offer to join the Met because she refused to pass as white, Rothenbuehler said.

Lee enrolled in The Juilliard School’s opera workshop and studied conducting at Columbia University and Juilliard.

Lee and composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein became life-long, good friends. Lee was the first African American to lead an all-white orchestra on Broadway when he conducted Bernstein’s “On the Town” in 1945.

In 1946, frustrated by limited opportunities, Lee started the Cosmopolitan Symphony Society, an interracial, all-inclusive orchestra in New York City. In a letter to Bernstein, he expressed hope that the new orchestra would be the beginning “of breaking down a lot of foolish barriers.”

After studying in Rome as a Fulbright Scholar, he served as guest conductor for the Louisville (Ky.) Orchestra in 1953, making him the first African American to conduct a major symphony in the South. He conducted an all-white orchestra in New York’s Central Park in 1954 and toured South America in 1955 as conductor of an orchestra from Bogota, Colombia.

Still unable to find regular conducting posts in the United States, he headed to Europe and conducted the Munchener opera house in Germany for 10 years. In 1962, he moved to Sweden, where he served as conductor and musical director of Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra for 13 years. He conducted the Royal Opera in Stockholm in 1969.

Rothenbuehler said Lee’s first U.S. performance in 10 years occurred in 1965, when he conducted the New World Symphony Orchestra in New York. He was guest conductor in Cincinnati, Baltimore, Atlanta and Detroit in 1970; in Nashville and Cleveland in 1974 and with the New York Philharmonic in 1976. Lee’s last job was as guest conductor in Louisville in January 2005.