Jack Lee, “Hanging on the Telephone” Songwriter, Dies at 71
By Mike Barnes,2023-06-07
Jack Lee, the singer, songwriter, guitarist and producer with the 1970s West Coast band The Nerves who wrote the power pop trio’s “Hanging on the Telephone,” famously covered by Debbie Harry and Blondie, has died. He was 71.
Lee died May 26 in Santa Monica after a three-year battle with colon cancer, his family announced. “He never gave up on his music, to the very end,” they wrote in a statement. “His guitar, right by his side. He lived his songs. One by one they told the story of his life. Some dreams die. His never will.”
In 1976, The Nerves — Lee on guitar, Peter Case on bass and Paul Collins on drums — secured a $2,000 loan to record a four-song, self-titled, self-released EP in San Francisco that featured two Lee compositions, “Give Me Some Time” and “Hanging on the Telephone.”
After the band split in ’78, writer Jeffrey Lee Pierce — then-president of the Blondie Fan Club — brought a copy of The Nerves’ EP and “Hanging on the Telephone” to the attention of Blondie vocalist Harry, who phoned Lee and asked for permission to record it.
“I remember the day vividly. It was a Friday. They were going to cut off our electricity at 6 o’clock, the phone too,” he said in a 2007 interview with Mojo Magazine .
Producer Mike Chapman’s high-energy version of the song , which duplicated The Nerves’ arrangement and its signature ringing phone intro, helped thrust Blondie’s Parallel Lines to No. 6 in the U.S. and No. 1 in the U.K. on the album charts in 1978.
“Hanging on the Telephone” also would be covered by Def Leppard, Cat Power and Davila 666, while the original Nerves version was featured this year on the Netflix series Outer Banks .
Born in Alaska on March 25, 1952, Lee left home for Santa Monica at 15 and settled in San Francisco four years later. He founded The Nerves in 1974 with Case and Collins, two guys from the East Coast who also sang and wrote.
“The first day I met him, in late ’73 or early ’74, we went out and sat in the car, and I played him ‘When You Find Out’ and he played me ‘Hanging on the Telephone,'” Case recalled in a statement. “It was fantastic and inspiring. When Paul joined, it was a very exciting period, and Jack was the mover and shaker. In the early days, he was on fire, and he was visionary about where music could go.”
Added Collins: “I loved Jack. He was my mentor — I met him when I’d just turned 18, and meeting him changed my life. I always looked up to him as an absolutely top-notch songwriter. I idolized him from day one. Being in The Nerves was the best boot camp anybody could ask for to start a career in music.”
After recording their EP, The Nerves relocated to Los Angeles on New Year’s Day 1977. That year, they also booked their own self-produced coast-to-coast U.S. tour, appearing with such acts as the Ramones, Pere Ubu, Devo and Mink DeVille.
Following The Nerves’ breakup, Case formed The Plimsouls and Collins founded The Beat.
Lee later released two collections of original material, Jack’s Lee’s Greatest Hits Vol. 1 (financed by royalties from “Hanging on the Telephone”) in 1983 and a self-titled set in 1985. A 23-song compilation of his work, Bigger Than Life , was issued in 2016.
Survivors include his wife, Mieke; children Wallie, Grace, Mary and Cynthia; grandchildren Jack, Brenlee, Adam, Alana Joy, Jackson and Hudson; and half-siblings Robert, Virginia and Katherine.