From his very first breath as a newborn, Phillip Lee Jr. immediately caught everyone’s eye.
“You could almost say that Phillip was born in the spotlight,” said his father, Pastor Phillip Lee of Cedar Creek Church in Aiken. “He was 10 pounds, 11 ounces. Phillip was a huge baby.”
A smile quickly spread across Pastor Lee’s face as he recalled the enormous pride and joy he felt after the birth of his first son.
“He was born in a little hospital down near the beach in Dillon, S.C.,” Lee said. “I remember when he was in the nursery, people would come by and look through the window and he was so big he touched the edges of the crib. Phillip made the other babies look like premies. People would point and say, ‘Look at that big baby!’”
Phillip Lee Jr. was a beautiful child who grew up to be a strong athlete who excelled in several sports and never shied away from leading his teams in high school, his father said.
“He was the pitcher on the baseball team, so he was kind of out there in the middle of the field. Once again, in the spotlight,” Lee said. “And then he was the quarterback on the football team. He actually got a baseball scholarship to USC Aiken, but, during his freshman year, he messed up his shoulder and had to have surgery. It was at that point that he kind of transitioned away from sports and began concentrating on music.”
While in high school, Phillip Lee Jr. first began singing and playing with the youth worship team at Cedar Creek Church on Sunday mornings.
“That’s kind of where he first started,” Lee said. “In fact, he taught himself to play the guitar just by watching YouTube videos. He was completely self taught.”
While in college, Phillip Lee Jr. became the worship leader for the church’s west campus, which met inside the Aiken Family Y.
He eventually received a bachelor’s degree from Augusta State University and he began graduate school at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C.
“He was studying to become a licensed professional counselor,” Lee said. “But after the first semester there, even though he did great and made all A’s, I think he just realized it was going to take a long time to get that certification and he decided not to continue there.”
“Phillip was not known for his patience,” Lee added, chuckling as his voice trailed off.
Lee once again smiled thinking of his son, but this time, there was a clear and deep sadness in his eyes.
While speaking of the past, the harsh reality of the present weighed heavily in the room: Phillip Lee Jr. is gone.
“About six years ago, Phillip made the decision to come back to the area and pursue a musical career,” Lee said. “And he pursued that with everything he had. He played wherever and whenever he could.”
The family fully supported Phillip Lee Jr.’s choice to become a musician because he truly seemed to be in his element on stage, Lee said.
“It was obvious that he was doing what God had created him to do,” Lee said. “Whether he was on stage at the Imperial Theatre playing with Ed Turner and Number 9 or on the stage of our church leading worship, it was obvious music was his passion and that’s what he was created to do.”
Not only was Phillip Lee Jr. playing with local bands, but he also began traveling extensively throughout the Southeast and eventually played several events in California, his dad said.
“He actually had a publishing contract with a studio, Sleeping Giant Music, in California,” Lee said. “The studio he recorded in was the same studio that Fleetwood Mac recorded the ‘Rumours’ album.”
Phillip Lee Jr. was thrilled to be associated with such an incredible studio, his father said.
“I remember when Phillip was there, he was texting me and sending me pictures of the gold records on the wall,” Lee said. “He was saying, ‘This is such a great place. It’s incredible.’ At that point, he — as well as my wife and I — felt like his career was really starting to move forward.”
However, something was gradually changing inside their son, Lee said.
Something that deeply concerned the entire family, he said.
“Around about the same time, Phillip’s mental illness started to show up,” Lee said. “He talked to us and said that he felt like his mental illness started to show up about two years ago. And the way that it showed up seemed like it was 100 percent driven by alcohol and drugs.”
A NUMB DARKNESS
By April of this year, the family knew Phillip Lee Jr. needed help.
“We realized in April that something wasn’t right. He wasn’t doing well,” Lee said. “Eventually we were able to get him some mental health treatment. He got his bipolar diagnosis and got medication, which allowed him to go into a drug and alcohol rehab at Penfield Christian Homes in Union Point, Ga.”
For six weeks in rehabilitation, Phillip Lee Jr. worked extremely hard on his sobriety as well as counseling and treatment for his mental illness.
“When he came back, it was amazing. He was so much like the true Phillip,” Lee said. “After returning, he had three or four really good weeks, where he was doing extremely well. And then, the depressive side of the bipolar hit him unbelievably fast, and I think it just overwhelmed him.”
Being bipolar and artistic, Phillip Lee Jr. was having an internal battle in his mind on a daily basis, his dad said.
“The manic side of it is, especially when you’re creative, it feels great in the beginning,” Lee said. “You are unbelievably creative and you have tons of energy. You can just work and get so much done, but then, the problem is, it just doesn’t turn off.”
His son’s mind was relentlessly active, Lee said.
“Phillip shared with us that he had about four consecutive nights where he did not sleep at all. Not at all,” Lee said, shaking his head. “Of course, no sleep brings on a whole different set of issues.”
After he returned from Penfield, Phillip Lee Jr. discussed and shared a lot of his struggles with his entire family.
“He was very transparent about his struggle with alcohol,” Lee said. “He did a lot of hard work at Penfield. It was not easy for him to do rehab and go through the self evaluation and admit the need for help. After all, when he left for college, he was independent from that point forward. He had a very strong independent streak, but he knew he needed help.”
While struggling with his mental illness, Phillip Lee Jr. turned to his family for support, his father said.
“We have an unbelievably close family,” Lee said. “Phillip’s the oldest of our children at 29. But they are all very close together. Our kids ages are 29, 28, 27, 25 and 24. So when he got back from Penfield, we were able to talk and share and be together as a family. And he made amends with all of the family, and we made amends with him.”
However, when the first full week of September arrived, Lee and his wife noticed their eldest son was having a very difficult time.
“We knew that he was struggling with the depressive side of it, or as he described it as feeling ‘numb,’” Lee said. “Phillip would say, ‘I don’t feel sad, but I don’t feel happy. I don’t feel anything.’ And, for an artist like him, that’s a nightmare.’
In August, Phillip Lee Jr. went to see his doctor and they made some adjustments to his medication. But those kinds of changes usually take several weeks to start really taking effect, Lee said.
“He was at the house with our family all day on Saturday,” Lee said, referring to Sept. 1. “We get together on Saturdays in the fall and watch Clemson football and eat together. It’s sort of a family tradition.”
Phillip Lee Jr. stayed at the house all day with the family.
“But you could tell he wasn’t feeling great, so my wife, Terry, and I just sat with him before he left that evening,” Lee said. “We talked together, just the three of us, and we asked him how he was doing, really. And he shared a little bit. And we asked him, was he thinking of harming himself or having those kinds of thoughts and he said, ‘Absolutely not.’”
Lee said he talked to his son again on Monday, Sept. 3.
But by that Tuesday and Wednesday, Phillip Lee Jr. wasn’t returning any of his father’s texts or calls.
“That was very unusual, especially ever since he had gotten back from Penfield,” Lee said. “We had stayed very close. Then, my wife tried to call him Thursday morning and he didn’t answer.”
That’s when Lee knew something was terribly wrong.
“He was gone by noon,” Lee said, pausing a moment. “Phillip saw his roommate that morning, probably less than an hour before he took his own life. He seemed good and he said, ‘I love you’ and then… he was gone.”
The suicide of a child is an indescribable pain like no other, Lee said.
“All grief is painful, but there are levels and depths of grief,” Lee said. “I think the loss of a child is the worst. And, then, I think the loss of a child through suicide is possibly the peak. I don’t know. I don’t want to compare my grief or minimize other people’s loss, but I can’t think of anything worse.”
Not only do you grieve for the death of your beloved child, but you also have terrible remorse that eats away at you, Lee said.
“We struggle every day with guilt and regret,” Lee said. “We ask the questions, ‘How did we miss this?’ ‘What did we not do?’ ‘What could we have done differently?’ We ask those questions every day. And I don’t know how long I’ll be struggling with that. I just don’t know.”
COPING WITH THE LOSS OF PHILLIP
Over the past month, the Lee family has been deeply touched by all the people in the Aiken-Augusta area who have reached out and shared their stories and love for Phillip Lee Jr.
“I cry every day. Every day at some point,” Lee said, when asked about the outpouring of kind words from the public regarding his son. “Because of Phillip’s struggles, I think he had an incredibly tender heart for people who were also hurting. He could tell who was hurting, and he made time for them.”
Part of God’s purpose for his son was to help others, Lee said.
“So many people have shared stories about how he would come off the stage and just be available for them and spend time with them. He wasn’t a rock star,” Lee said, smiling. “Phillip never felt like he was above anyone. He could relate to everybody, whether it was a music executive in California or a homeless guy on Broad Street. He could relate, and he could feel their pain.”
Lee also deeply appreciates his son’s friends who truly stood by him, even during his darkest hours, especially local guitarist Michael Baideme.
“Mike was Phillip’s closest friend,” Lee said. “He’s the one who really stuck with Phillip when it wasn’t easy to be Phillip’s friend in those several weeks before he got treatment. And they loved playing music together. They played hundreds, if not thousands of shows, everything from a gig at Mellow Mushroom, where no one is listening and everybody is eating, to several hundred people at the Imperial Theatre.
“For Phillip and Mike, it didn’t matter if people were listening or not. They played because they loved to play.”
There isn’t a day that goes by that Baideme says he doesn’t think of his best friend and the pain that the Lee family is going through.
“His dad is one of the greatest human beings on this planet,” Baideme said. “Phillip is a direct reflection of his mom and dad in how he treated people. He had this innate ability to focus just on you. It could be crazy all around you, but you would be sitting there talking to him, and he would treat you like you’re the only person on Earth.”
Baideme said he clearly recalls the first time he ever heard Phillip Lee Jr. take the stage and perform.
“We were over here at Metro Coffeehouse, and I was playing with my friend, Ryan Abel, and it was New Year’s Eve and the place was packed,” Baideme said. “We were playing and Ryan asked me, ‘My friend, Phillip, is here. Do you mind if he plays during the set break?’ And I said, ‘Sure. That’s fine.’”
As Baideme left the stage, he suddenly heard this soulful voice that stopped him in his tracks.
“I was like, ‘Whoa.’ I turned my head around and it was like lightning,” Baideme said. “I’ll never forget that moment. I was just so impressed with his talent. And his ability to connect with people was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It was just natural for him. He would make a connection without even trying.”
Eventually, Baideme moved into a townhouse in North Augusta with Abel and Phillip Lee Jr. and they became instant friends.
“We became brothers,” Baideme said of Phillip Lee Jr. “We could have conversations without a word. Or we could be sitting there playing and say something in passing while we were on stage and we would just crack each other up. Those were moments that nobody else would know what was going on. But we were just having trouble still playing because we were laughing so hard.”
They played more than a thousand shows together over a five-year period, Baideme said. “It’s funny. There are several pictures that have been captured of us sitting there playing, and we are literally just bowing toward each other,” Baideme said, laughing. “We just had a mutual respect and incredible energy that was always there. It was like, ‘I bow to you, sir.’”
Phillip Lee Jr. also knew how to make road trips tons of fun, Baideme said.
“We were going to a gig in Wilmington, N.C., and we were traveling across the state of South Carolina,” Baideme recalled. “As we were going up the interstate, we kept seeing all these signs that were saying, ‘South of Border, next mile.’”
For those unfamiliar with South of the Border, it is an attraction on Interstate 95 that includes a 97-foot-tall sign featuring a Hispanic man named Pedro who is wearing a giant sombrero. The massive sign has been welcoming visitors to this pit stop in Dillon County for more than 50 years.
“We were just like, ‘I know we are going up here to play a gig, but we are stopping at South of the Border,’” Baideme said. “We were there way longer than we should have been, and it put us on the backside of being late getting to the gig. But we didn’t care. All of a sudden, we are running around like 9-year-old kids. That day will always stick with me. Forever.”
Baideme said he will always cherish the good times he had with Phillip Lee Jr., but he dearly misses his friend.
“I find my peace in the situation just knowing that Phillip isn’t feeling any anguish or any pain,” Baideme said. “Just knowing that he can now rest and he’s at peace, I can be OK with that. We are all searching for something. We are all looking. I wanted him to have his peace, and he’s got it now. But I will miss my best friend forever. There is no doubt about that.”
A HOLE IN THE HEART OF DOWNTOWN AUGUSTA
Singer Bethany Davis will never forget the first time she took the stage and sang with Phillip Lee Jr.
It was both comical and a true insight into Phillip Lee Jr.’s heart, she said.
“I remember we had to share a microphone, and I was barely able to speak because he was so damn pretty,” said Davis, who is the lead singer of the local group Bethany and the Southside Boys. “I just didn’t know what to do with myself. I was just thinking, ‘Don’t mess up the notes. Don’t look at his face.’”
The song was going along just fine until Davis and Phillip Lee Jr. leaned in to sing together, and he accidentally brushed up against her chest as he was strumming the guitar.
Phillip Lee Jr. was beyond embarrassed, she said.
“He turned purple, and he was just absolutely mortified,” Davis said, laughing. “It had him blushing so terribly. So, I just jokingly said, ‘Don’t be scared to get in there, Phillip!’”
The two laughed about it afterwards and soon became good friends, Davis said.
“Phillip was just one of those guys who knew how to treat a woman. He was a true gentleman,” Davis said. “He was a door-opener and a really kind soul. And those are the types of people you gravitate toward when you spend time with the late-night crowd. Because, let’s face it, the late-night crowd can get a little rough.”
“You immediately look and know, whose heart is in the right place and whose parents did the right thing when they were growing up,” Davis added. “Well, Phillip was just one of those good souls from the get-go.”
As their friendship grew and they supported one another as musicians, Phillip Lee Jr. eventually asked Davis if she would collaborate on a song together for his 2017 “Overflow” album.
“Augusta’s music scene is not a competition. It’s always been more a family atmosphere,” Davis said. “Everyone has always been extremely welcoming. And Phillip and I started gigging out in Augusta around the same time period. We kind of grew together as human beings and friends and artists, so collaborating with him just came naturally.”
But in the final months, Davis admits she saw a change in Phillip Lee Jr.
“We all have people in our lives who struggle with mental illness. There is nobody who is a stranger to mental illness these days,” Davis said, adding that it was clear that Phillip Lee Jr. was going through a difficult time. “He came to each of his friends, very separately, that final week and found us. I happened to be at the Metro that day, and we sat and just talked for about half an hour.”
The two friends caught up on good times and apologized for any bad ones, Davis said.
“We hugged each other and told one another we loved each other,” Davis said. “I was very hopeful after that meeting. But then, two days later, he was gone.”
Davis said she was completely heartbroken when she heard the news.
“Then, I came to find out that each one of his friends had gotten that conversation in that last week,” Davis said. “I think it was something that had been weighing on his mind.”
Now, she only wishes there was something that she could have said to stop Phillip Lee Jr. from taking his own life.
“It’s devastating. You want to find an answer that you’re never going to find,” Davis said. “It’s not possible to make sense of it. You can’t. Phillip always took care of everybody else, maybe he forgot about himself some days.”
This Friday, Oct. 26, several of the Augusta musicians will be performing a tribute to Phillip Lee Jr. at the Jack-O-Lantern Jubilee in North Augusta at 5:30 p.m.
Davis said she never wants the Augusta area to forget about Phillip Lee Jr.
“Unfortunately, you have to move forward and put one foot in front of the other and live life the way Phillip would want you to,” Davis said. “But if I have learned anything from this, it’s to listen to people. To really listen because you never really know what people are going through. I did a lot of talking and not enough listening, and that’s my only regret. It’s not guilt. It’s just remorse.”
A FAMILY’S MISSION
While the Lee family is trying to deal with the fact that Phillip Lee Jr. is truly gone, they are also supporting local efforts to raise awareness about mental illness, addictions and suicide prevention.
Just this past weekend, Pastor Lee and his wife participated in the Out of Darkness Walk at Pendleton King Park in Augusta to help prevent suicides.
And on Sunday, Nov. 4, the Lee family will join participants for Aiken’s Out of the Darkness Walk at 2 p.m. at Odell Weeks Center to support the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s goal to reduce the suicide rate by 20 percent by 2025.
“This weekend, I was standing at the event for suicide prevention and awareness and I was just thinking, ‘How did we get here?’” Lee said. “This was not a journey that we ever thought we would be on, but it is the journey that we’re on. And we have a long way to go to heal and to get stronger and to grieve. But we know, long-term, we will be engaged in this fight against suicide for the rest of our lives.”
Many people don’t realize that suicide is the 10th leading cause of death overall in this country, claiming the lives of nearly 45,000 people each year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
“At the walk in Augusta this weekend, I saw two of the families who lost sons to suicide who I had officiated their sons’ funerals,” Lee said. “And Phillip had sang at one of those funerals. In fact, I did five funerals in less than a year of young 20-something-year-old guys who took their own lives.”
That’s why Lee and his family believe they must speak out about their son’s mental illness, addiction and eventual suicide.
“We want people who struggle with this to know, it’s OK not to be OK,” Lee said. “It’s not a sin to be sick. We all need help when we are sick. Phillip had two issues he had to deal with: Getting mental health help, but then also getting help with his addiction to alcohol. And I can say, he was clean and sober until the day he died. In fact, on his nightstand in his room was his 90-day AA chip. He had it right there.”
In order to get people the help they need, Lee said the family has also decided that all proceeds from Phillip Lee Jr.’s music will go to support those struggling with addictions, mental illness and for suicide prevention.
“So anytime anyone downloads or streams any of his songs, 100 percent of those funds will go to support those three areas,” Lee said.
Those are small steps that his family hopes will help others avoid the terrible pain of losing their child to suicide, Lee said.
Because the death of their eldest son has forever changed his family’s life, he said.
“All of us are dealing with our grief differently, but we are doing it together,” Lee said. “We decided very early on that we would all give each other permission to grieve in whatever way we needed to grieve, as long as we were grieving. So, sometimes one person is laughing and another one is crying at the same time. Those things change week to week, sometimes day to day. But this is uncharted territory for all of us. My family never thought we’d be here, and yet, here we are.”
If you or a loved one is contemplating suicide, there is a 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline available seven days a week at 1-800-273-8255. People who are having suicidal thoughts or who are dealing with any painful emotion also can text HOME to 741741 at any time, and a live, trained Crisis Counselor will text back. Both services are free.
For more information about the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, visit afsp.org.