By R.L. Witter
Growing up in the Queensbridge Projects in New York City, young John Robert Lee Jr. played football and baseball while contemplating a career as a professional boxer. All of that went out the window when the music bug bit him.
Becoming Dr. Bob Lee
Bob began to appreciate the records his mom and his sister played in their home. He soon began a collection of his own, color-coded the 45 RPMs he purchased and called himself a “house party DJ.” He traversed the city DJing wherever he could at community centers, block parties, schools, and eventually, colleges and universities. He became quite well known, but how did Bob Lee become Dr. Bob Lee? The way Bob tells it, though his given name is John Robert Lee Jr., both he and his father were always called Bob. In the building in Forest Hills, Queens where his father served as doorman there were medical and dental offices. As a young boy he would spend time there with his dad and got to know many of the tenants. One, a dentist, was particularly fond of him. Bob recalls he would often go to the dentist’s office, put on one of his white lab coats, look into a microscope and pretend to be a doctor. The dentist finally gave him a lab coat and his father brought him a chemistry set with his own microscope. Dr. Bob Lee was born.
While medical school wouldn’t be in his future, Lee, always a savvy promoter, understood how Bob Lee, “Doctor of two turntables and a mic” would sound and he was right. He has created a legacy of 30 years and growing. He was still a teenager when he began at WBLS as an intern, worked as famous air personality Frankie Crocker’s program assistant, and promoted WBLS at events throughout the city.
Doing Something for the People
Lee explained that he always wanted to do something to help people. After studying at the New York Institute of Technology he thought, “Let me do something more meaningful than just radio. I wanted to be serving on the ground and in the public, saying some words to the people.. Looking people in the eye and being with people. I love when people talk to me, but I’m a great listener, too.”
Giving back began when Lee paired with a new radio personality, Mr. Magic. “We started the WBLS On-Time Program. Ken Webb would be on the air in the morning and Mr. Magic and I would go around to schools with a lot of early-days rappers, trying to encourage kids to be on-time and get a good education,” Lee said. “We’d put these kids on the air and ask them what they wanted to do after graduation and they’d say, ‘I want to be a dentist’ or something and they said it on the radio to four million people… years later they’d come back and say, ‘Look, I’m a doctor,’ or a stockbroker… It just warms my heart that I said a few words to some young people and encouraged them to follow their dreams.”
From the On-Time Program, Lee created the Make the Grade Foundation (MTG4U), a partnership and collaboration between parents, teachers, students, community, and clergy with a financial literacy and health component, to help in the edification of young minds. “Everyone uses their own name on their foundations, but I wanted it to be more meaningful,”he revealed. He came up with “Making the Grade” while in the shower one morning. Still wet when he reached for a pen and paper and scribbled the name, he has that smeared writing on wrinkled paper to this day.
MTG4U hosts college fairs and bus tours, local school tours, workplace shadowing opportunities, a communications club, and a community ministry.The organization tackles issues like food insecurity, blankets for the unhoused, and has a rescue vehicle.
Faith and Family
Along with his radio work and community service, another constant in Lee’s life is his faith. He was raised in the Catholic church from first communion to altar boy to marriage. Once he began interacting with a range of diverse people and making appearances at community events, he was exposed to other religions. “I’ve sat in mosques, studied Judaism and Buddhism. I’ve had an opportunity to explore many religions and traditions over the years, so that’s why I wanted to study world religions and feel better about how I deal with people in the community. It’s all about community building— moving together in the same direction for a common cause. I’m not hitting people over the head with the Bible.” After earning a doctorate in Theology at the New Seminary in Washington, DC, he is now, formally, Rev. Dr. John Robert Lee Jr.
As if his accomplishments in radio and in the community aren’t enough, Lee is a man of many other talents. He has authored several books including “People to Know in Black History & Beyond: Recognizing the Heroes and Sheroes Who Make the Grade” in 2019 and a second volume released just this year. He boxed his way through the Golden Gloves, was a night foreman at a printing company, and is a student of natural healing, holistic, and eastern medicine. Dr. Bob also landed acting roles in several popular movies and TV shows including Do the Right Thing, Paris Blues in Harlem, Shaft, Down to Earth, Law and Order, and hosts Open on BronxNet, broadcast Monday-Wednesday and Friday on Optimum and Fios.
A family man, Bob is devoted to his wife, three children, and five grandchildren. His oldest daughter is a Navy Veteran and registered nurse, his son is a teacher and coach, and his youngest daughter is an accomplished singer. A longtime friendship with rapper Kurtis Blow led to Lee’s involvement with the Hip Hop Alliance, a strategic partnership that represents the needs and concerns of the Hip Hop and R&B workforce through advocacy, information, and service. Their goal is to extend pivotal union resources to all creators in Hip Hop and R&B. Dr. Bob Lee—still serving and giving back.
As our time together ended, I asked Lee if there was anything we hadn’t covered that he wanted our readers to know. Without missing a beat he replied, “I want to be able to continue to help people.”