Courtyard harpist is heaven for rock fans

By Lori Rotenberk
Chicago Sun-Times
Published 8/27/90


This story of ethereal Amy Lee must begin with a glissando.

That is the beautiful continual flow of notes produced by the gliding hands of the harpist. The sound heard in movies when someone arrives at the Pearly Gates.

Lee is sitting in the courtyard of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she has been the harpist in residence for eight summers.

The courtyard is a hideaway where lunchers gather to seek respite and repair from the workday dross. They bask in the shade of umbrellas situated around a pattering fountain, and fall into a trance invoked by the celestial strains of Lee's rendition of ... Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin. Or an apropos Art Institute song, "Paint It, Black," a Rolling Stones classic.

Indeed, Lee dares to be different. You may have seen this 34 year-old classically trained musician leaning to and fro with her harp as she plays "Stairway to Heaven" and making stodgy tea time a bit untypical.

Some fellow artists belonging to the American Harp Society have labeled her the "Fallen Angel" an the "Harpist from Hell."

She has played on the bows of small boats, before shark tanks and at the opening of a waterbed store. She longs to do "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" on a grassy field.

Though she has been asked to don wings and halo, Lee prefers performing in dark sunglasses, leather skirts, boots and oversize T-shirts. Oftentimes coins jingle at her feet, as people toss money, thinking she is blind.

So popular and beautiful a musician is Lee, said a spokesman from the Art Institute, that when the summer courtyard program was halted for a year, letters flowed in asking that the rock 'n' roll harpist return.

Lee's 47-string, seven-pedal, 75-pound harp is the same Chicago Lyon & Healy model that her late father, John, bought for his wife, Emy, after returning from the Army in World War II.

While he was shipboard in the Pacific, an orchestra was flown in for the filming of a movie. At night he would hear the harpist practice, and the music, he once told Amy, brought out the stars. There he decided the music of the harp would always fill his life. "His favorites were also uncommon," recalled Lee. "They were 'Blue Moon' and 'Puttin' on the Ritz.' "

Requests come in. Lee passes on "Clair de Lune."

"You can hear that from the harpist at the Drake," she softly sings out.

And with a sly grin, she begins a glissando that rips into a medley of the Doors.