Ask newcomer Cherish Lee about her brother, Johnny Lee II, and her first instinct is to smile, almost as an automatic reflex.
“He was the funniest and coolest person I have ever met in my life,” she says, wiping a tear from her eye. “Where my dad is hilarious, and he would have people in stitches — he was even funnier. He was a magnificent force of a human being.”
However, there was another side to her brother – one that saw a battle with a variety of drugs that led to his death. Lee wrote her new single, “Ones You Leave Behind,” about his struggle and the effect it had on her family. She recently released a video for the song, and says the response from people who have had a similar experience has been overwhelming.
“I haven’t responded to all of the comments yet, because I would love to personally reply to all of them,” she tells Billboard. “One of the comments that hit me in particular was ‘I had to watch it four times because I had to wait until my eyes were dry to watch the whole thing.’ That seems to be the reception that people have given me. I took something that was devastating, and it broke me for a little while, and here I am with this platform. I never in a million years thought that my first message to people that don’t know me would be the fact that I am trying to be an advocate against drug use.”
Lee says that her brother’s addiction struggles could very well have been an inherited trait.
“He had lost his mom – my stepmom, who had started abusing prescription drugs. Because of that, she was in and out of jail. She was in prison, and my dad (1980s country hitmaker Johnny Lee) told her ‘If you go back, this is the last time. I’m not going to bail you out.’ She went back in and hung herself while there. My brother was in high school at this time, and got a tattoo for her — ‘Always Remember.'”
It was around the time of his mother’s passing that young Johnny began to experiment.
“I had moved out to Missouri to start a band with him. He picks me up from the airport, and I see him. I knew something was wrong. I asked him ‘What’s going on with you?’ He said ‘I’m just really tired.’ I didn’t know anything about drug usage because I had never been around something like that. I made some phone calls and asked around ‘How do you know if someone is using because this is what I am seeing?’ So, I started digging in and doing a lot of research. I started talking to a lot of his friends, and lo and behold, I found out what was happening.”
Her first instinct was to go to her father – who took on a form of denial over the accusation. Her brother heard the conversation, and lashed out at his sister.
My brother walks in and asks ‘Why did you rat me out to dad?’ We got in a huge fight. That was the beginning of a wild whirlwind in the house. He knew that if he told dad he was cool and he wasn’t using, my dad would say ‘He says he’s not taking them, and he would never lie to me.’ I dug and one morning I found needles and his stash. I called dad, and told him. He wound up going to a halfway house. He checked himself out, came back, and got right back in the lions’ den. I watched my dad’s legacy that he had built – guitars, jewelry, autographed sports memorabilia – all these things disappear with my brother selling them to support his habit. He stole from me too, but that wasn’t who he was. I knew I couldn’t be mad at him. I had to be mad at the habit, and everything that led up to it.”
Since she was not a parent or a guardian, she knew there was nothing legally she could do – so she left their Missouri ranch. About a year and a half later, the phone rang. It was her father.
“My dad called me. I had never heard this tone in his voice, and he said ‘I want to let you know that you’re right. I’ve turned your brother into the police, and he’s in jail.’ He was there for six months, and he was sober.” During that time period, Cherish visited her brother in jail, which she recalled as a time of healing. “We reconciled our relationship, and he apologized for everything.”
Her brother was released into their father’s care, and the three made plans to make a fresh start in Texas, buying a property there. Cherish returned to get her things in Los Angeles, and Johnny Lee fulfilled show obligations, so that left her brother home alone – where he dived back into his old habits. This time, however, the results proved to be tragic, as he succumbed to an overdose in April 2014.
When asked why she thought her brother was attracted to the vices that wound up taking his life, she recalls a conversation where he told her something that still makes her cry.
“It was the last time I had seen him alive, and I told him I wanted to see where he had been shooting up, and it was all over his arm. He said ‘I wanted to see what was more important to my mom than me,'” she recalls.
Now, with the video — filmed at 506 Lofts in Music City — and single out, she is sharing her story with the world. One person who was definitely affected by it is her father. “He texted me and told me ‘I woke up to your video, and I’m so proud of you.’ He doesn’t say a lot, so that meant a lot.”
Lee – who is also the daughter of Dallas star Charlene Tilton – stresses that if you or a family member is affected by drug abuse, there are places you can go for help.
“You are not alone. There is a help line – 1-800-420-9064. It’s a 24-hour drug-free hotline, and a website – www.DrugFree.com. If you go on their website, they have numbers for every single state. If you call then, they’ll be able to walk you through and give you some guidance. You’re not dealing with a person – you’re dealing with a disease. Do your research. It’s not a respecter of persons. It doesn’t matter what race, religion, or gender you are. It can affect anyone. I know it affected my family.”