Older siblings are often to blame for the growth and maturation of the youngest in the family. Lee Harrelson is a perfect example; he blames his older brothers for everything, including the reason he became a professional photographer, why he rides a BMW and even his deep love of music. It’s also the reason he’s served as the Entertainment Chair at every BMW MOA International Rally since 2009.
The youngest of five boys, Lee grew up like many of the babies of the family do. Parental leniency is typically greater with younger children, and sometimes a wrong path can be taken by a son or two. Maybe Lee was simply hanging around with the wrong crowd. Whatever the reason, Lee was getting into trouble away from home, which one day led to he and a couple of friends being picked up by the police.
Scared and alone, Lee believed his only option was to run away from home to avoid the anger of his parents he thought were sure to kill him. During his “bout with juvenile delinquency,” it was his oldest brother Keith, a professional photographer, who took notice and pulled Lee under his wing.
“Keith handed me a 35mm camera and a roll of black and white film and told me to go take some pictures of my friends,” Lee said.
After Keith showed Lee the magical processes of film developing and printmaking, Lee discovered a passion he didn’t know he had. Before long his days as a delinquent faded in his life’s rearview mirror.
Excited about the new passion he’s discovered and apparently forgetting his parents’ anger, Lee recalls when he finally went home to report his plans to become a professional photographer. Knowing how Keith was struggling to become established and probably living on peanut butter, they were not impressed.
“I’ll never forget my father’s face,” Lee said. “He looked at me and just shook his head as if to say, ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea, son.’”Despite their initial lack of enthusiasm, they supported his dream. Lee took the first step by taking a job at a local camera store. While the job didn’t offer the creative outlet that Lee so desperately sought, it brought him to a place he could share his love of photography with coworkers and customers.
It didn’t long for Lee to recognize the five or six working pros who frequented the store and did the work that he sought. Just as Keith had done, they became not only his mentors (whose brains he picked every time they came to the store), but the photographers he approached when he took his next step. Before long, Lee left the camera store and began working as an assistant for an area fashion photographer. Despite the cleanliness of the floors being one of his job responsibilities, he was working in a photography studio and nothing else mattered.
With youthful confidence and ready to take the next step to make their marks on the world, Lee and Keith packed everything they owned and moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, where they found work in a studio shooting fashion.
Lee loved the excitement of his work, the team and models he worked with and the ability to express himself creatively with a camera. Though he was living his dream shooting on the beaches of South Beach, he began to feel something was missing. His home in Birmingham, Ala., felt farther and farther away and the strong family ties binding the Harrelson family together so strongly began to tug on Lee’s heart. He missed his parents and the rest of his family. After two years in Florida, a job opening in the studio of Parisian, a Birmingham-based chain of upscale department stores, brought him home and the smile returned to his face.
Harrelson spent the next nine years traveling and creating fashion images across the country for not only Parisian, but Saks and Robinsons. Though he loved his work, the travel began to take a toll. Calling fashion a “young single man’s kind of career,” about 16 years ago Harrelson made the decision to change specialties.
His initial fear of the huge change in his business model was made easier when he secured a contract for a local grocery chain as well as several contracts with cookbook publishers. Before long, Harrelson’s client list included names like Time Inc., Wendy’s, Chesters and Southern Living. The one-time delinquent given a camera by an older brother to get him off the streets was living his dream and able to keep the promise he made to his parents so many years earlier to become just like Keith.
As is the case with photography, Lee credits his brothers for developing his interest in motorcycling. A man of many dreams and also wanting to be like his motorcycle riding older brothers Rob and Vance, Lee built his first bike using a Briggs and Stratton lawnmower engine mounted in a simple tube frame. He hung out in the garage with his brothers when they were around and snuck rides on their bikes when they weren’t.
Like his brothers, Lee progressed through a long line of motorcycles including a strange mix of Suzukis and Yamahas and even used a Honda 750 for his only means of transportation for more than two years.
Despite his success at nearly every endeavor he undertook, about 12 years ago Lee came to the frustrating conclusion that he’d never become the golfer he wanted to be. Instead of the golf course, Lee found himself spending his weekends with his brother Vance riding one of his F 650 GSes. Golf clubs relegated to a dark and dusty garage corner, the BMW bug bit Lee hard and he bought a 2004 R 1150 R and was hooked. Keeping Vance’s license plate in view while riding the curvy roads surrounding Birmingham has become Lee’s prescription to clear his head and along with Rob, the Harrelson trio has become constant traveling companions making many memorable trips around the country.
While Lee credits brother Keith for developing his love of photography and brothers Rob and Vance for his love of motorcycling, it’s his remaining brother that he blames for his love of music. With a musical palate deeply rooted in the southern rock he listened to as a kid, Lee truly enjoys all genres including blues, country and soul. “Nothing moves me more than some of the old recordings of the Staple Sisters, Wilson Pickett, Arthur Alexander and Aretha Franklin,” Lee confesses.
Back in the 1980s, Lee’s oldest brother Mark worked in the music industry. As had been the case with Keith, Vance and Rob, Mark had an energetic and enthusiastic little brother hanging around, so he did what any older brother would do – he put Lee to work. Long before Lee should have been anywhere near nightclubs, Mark had Lee wrapping cords and moving amps for the bands he managed. Later, Lee helped Mark produce a show in Birmingham featuring Gregg Allman and some of the famous “Swampers” from Muscle Shoals. Looking back, Lee recalls a fun week full of rehearsals and band meals topped off by a great performance.
Few families seem as closely knit as the Harrelsons, and over time the boundaries separating Lee’s photography, motorcycling and music have become more and more blurred.
In 2009, Lee’s brother Vance was the co-chair for the BMW MOA Rally in Johnson City, Tenn., and Lee accepted the invitation to chair the entertainment committee. It’s a position he’s held ever since, leaning on the music contacts he’s made over the years to bring quality acts to the annual BMW MOA Rally.
“I have been fortunate to work on some very cool projects with some great artists with my favorite two being Paul Thorn and Gregg Allman,” Lee said. “I have recently started a film production company with five cinematographers, a sound engineer and a producer/editor. We hope to concentrate on two areas: food to pay our bills and music videos for fun.”
Harrelson says he considers himself lucky that photography has taken him places and shown him things he wouldn’t otherwise have had the opportunity to see.Friends describe Lee using phrases like “Salt of the Earth” to describe his friendly southern nature and personality that shuns the spotlight. Lee blames his mother for his personable demeanor and prides himself in always saying please and thank you and understanding that he is part of a team. He believes his portfolio represents the combined efforts of stylists, creative directors and support staff.
“It’s like a rock and roll band,” he said. “The more you work with a group, the tighter the group gets.”