Jake E. Lee (real name Jake Lou Williams) was twelve when his family moved to Imperial Beach. His mom had him taking piano lessons but, while attending Mar Vista High School, he discovered his sister’s Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin records, deciding to take up the guitar instead.
His teen band Teaser played one school dance, but Lee was expelled for changing his report card. In 1980, he joined a local band fronted by Stephen Pearcy called Mickey Ratt (which, after his departure, became known simply as Ratt). Among the local clubs to host him onstage (in bands such as Child and others) was the Spirit (later Brick by Brick). "I played there a bunch of times in the ’70s. 1978 was when I turned 21. Then I moved to L.A. in 1980."
His first break came from Ronnie Jame's Dio's wife. She managed a club band called Rough Cutt and hired Lee to take over lead guitar. Then, Ronnie hired him away to do same in a band he was starting called Dio; another San Diegan, Craig Goldy, replaced him in Rough Cutt/Dio. Meanwhile, Ozzy Osbourne's miracle guitarist, a diminutive man named Randy Rhoads died suddenly. Jake E. Lee was invited to audition for a slot that rock critics said no man could ever fill. But that he did, and, he did it for the next five years.
"Our first gig was in Europe, I think. We opened for a band called Whitesnake. Opened," he says, putting some weight on the word. "I'm thinking we're the opening act? Am I working for the wrong Ozzy or something?"
Lee stayed with Ozzy from 1982 until 1987, appearing on 1983’s Bark at the Moon and 1986’s The Ultimate Sin, both featuring him as co-writer as well as guitarist.
“On the first album, I felt [pressure] because there were a lot of guitar players who wanted this gig,” he told Guitar World magazine in 1986. “I knew there were going to be a lot of people listening to see if I did any good or not. But I’m not the kind of person who really cares what other people think. There are guitar players who still come up to Ozzy and go ‘I’m the guitar player you should have got.’”
Lee essentially retired from the music biz in the 1990s, settling in Las Vegas around 2003 and pursuing his passion of restoring old cars. "Everything changed. The first Badlands [a short-lived band Lee formed after Ozzy] record budget was a quarter million dollars," he says, "and we went over that! Now, that kind of money sounds ludicrous. Things really changed around 1990."
He plays on Enuff Z’Nuff’s 12th studio album Dissonance, originally only available in Europe and Japan until its U.S. release in spring 2012. It was a cameo appearance, with guitar, in a Beggars and Thieves video that sparked some comeback interest. "Ron [Mancuso] showed me all the response when they posted the video on YouTube. He said, 'Look, a lot of people want to know if you're gonna do anything again.' I said, 'Maybe. I don't know.'"
Even though Lee was off the big stage he still wrote music. "I had years of stuff stored on my computer, everything from licks to entire songs. Ron and I started writing together to see how it'd go, and we finished a tune." They decided to record it. "I said, 'Who is gonna sing?'"
Robin Zander from Cheap Trick was the answer.
"And [Cheap Trick's] Tom Petersson played bass."
At some point, Lee and Mancuso figured out that they were in the process of making an entire album, not just recording a single for the hell of it. "We tried to get Brian Ferry and David Bowie to sing some of the songs, but we couldn't track them down. So I said that we'd need to get an actual singer if we were ever going to play shows."
Later in 2012, he began work on a new album with planned guest singers to include Paul Di’Anno (Iron Maiden), Robin Zander (Cheap Trick), and Maria Brink. He announced that was seeking a permanent vocalist who “Must be capable of singing a couple of Ozzy and Badlands songs, while having a strong-enough identity to carry the band into the future.”
His next band, Jake E. Lee’s Red Dragon Cartel, including singer Darren James Smith (Harem Scarem), bassist Ronnie Mancuso (Beggars & Thieves) and drummer Jonas Fairley (Black Betty), began recording a new album with Ozzy producer Kevin Churko in 2013, at Hideout Studios in Las Vegas. They got together after Mancuso asked Lee to appear in that Beggars & Thieves video.
He did a rare TV interview on June 22, 2013 for That Metal Show, talking publicly for the first time about his years playing with Ozzy Osbourne. The episode included him saying “I feel like I should get credit for the songs I wrote for Bark at the Moon.”
Red Dragon Cartel released a lyric video for “Feeder” in November 2013, featuring Cheap Trick's Robin Zander on vocals and taken from the group's self-titled album (Lee's first in two decades), due for release January 28, 2014, via Frontiers Records. Guest players on the album include Paul Di'Anno (ex-Iron Maiden), Rex Brown (Kill Devil Hill, ex-Pantera), Todd Kearns and Brent Fitz (Slash), Scott Reeder (ex-Kyuss), Maria Brink (In This Moment), Jeremy Spencer (Five Finger Death Punch), Tom Petersson (Cheap Trick), and Sass Jordan (SUN).
"I really hadn't made any plans on doing that. I'm pretty happy in my retirement. I had a good career going (no, he does not work as a mechanic as some have insisted) and when my name became less of a household word, I just bowed out gracefully."
Singer Darren James Smith posted an online apology for his poor showing at the band's December 2013 debut at Hollywood's Whiskey A Go Go. “No excuses: I f**ked up. I can't believe the band is sticking with me. The most sincere apologies to the band and all the Jake fans.”
Red Dragon Cartel made their San Diego debut at Brick By Brick on December 15, 2013. The group was also added to UK's 2014 Download festival, happening June 13-15, 2014 (headlined by Aerosmith, Linkin Park, and Avenged Sevenfold), and they toured the UK with Syron Vanes and Jupiter Falls.
However, the Cartel cancelled two of the scheduled U.K. shows (June 10 and 11) ahead of their Download Festival appearance. A statement said “Jake has to fly back to the U.S. on June 9 to attend to urgent business matters, unrelated to the tour.” Then, the band failed to make a June 8 appearance in Wolverhampton, UK, and at least one subsequent show was cancelled, in the wake of an apparent dispute between promoters and Lee, who named promoter Denise Dale as the person responsible for the call-off.
His former Badlands bandmate Greg Chaisson joined Red Dragon Cartel in summer 2014, replacing bassist Ron Mancuso, who quit to concentrate on his production career. They played Brick By Brick on November 21. In early 2015, in yet another tour interruption, Red Dragon Cartel was forced to postpone a run of shows in California and Washington, after Lee reportedly suffered a back injury.
Red Dragon Cartel then lost vocalist DJ Smith (replaced by Michael Beck) in early 2015, followed by bassist Chaisson, just two weeks before the start of a North American tour. Chaisson was replaced by Anthony Esposito (ex-Lynch Mob, Ace Frehley).
A few weeks later, singer Beck was replaced by Chas West (Lynch Mob, Jason Bonham). However, that didn't last long, as the band announced its sixth lead vocalist in the past four months, or actually the rehiring of their first singer Darren James Smith, who replaced former Jones Street singer Shawn Crosby, who replaced Chas West (who was preceded by DJ Smith, Michael Beck, and Smith).
The band's Hummer limo reportedly caught fire near San Jose on September 9, 2015, temporarily closing two lanes on I-280, though the occupants escaped harm and fire crews quickly extinguished the blaze.
A new Red Dragon Cartel album, Patina, dropped in November 2018 via Frontiers Music Srl, preceded by a music video for the first single, "Havana." Produced by Anthony Esposito & Jake E. Lee and mixed by Max Norman (whose relationship with Jake dates back to his days with Ozzy Osbourne), the band featured Esposito on bass with singer Darren James Smith and drummer Phil Varone (ex-Saigon Kick, Skid Row).
"Patina marks a change of style from the debut Red Dragon Cartel album, going more bluesy hard rock as opposed to the debuts heavier leanings," said Lee in a press release for the album. "The first album was more of a piecemeal production with some of the song ideas being 10 years old, and never having more than one player in the room at any time. I wanted to do this one from scratch with all the songs originating and worked on with everyone in the room, on their instruments. It felt much more organic, like the way I used to do it for the first 20 years of my career, more honest to my roots."
Among the influences cited by Lee for the album, he mentions "Robin Trower, Santana, Black Sabbath, Captain Beyond, Thin Lizzy, Grand Funk Railroad, David Bowie...I could go on and on, but let me also say that there are also hints of Sly & the Family Stone, Dick Dale, psychedelia and even some George Benson. Don't let any of that scare you, it all makes sense!"
After the album's release, a new video debuted for the track "Bitter." Drummer Phil Varone announced his impending retirement in March 2019.