By Bob Doerschuk
Quincy Jones is his mentor. Michael Jordan signed him up as a brand ambassador—the only violinist to receive that benediction, at least so far. He’s performed in NBA halftime shows, onstage with Stevie Wonder, and on TV spots for ESPN and the NFL. Lee England Jr. is a star on the rise. Charismatic, iconoclastic, armed with world-class technique, he seems open to any and all new opportunities to electrify audiences and defy the status quo.
But even he wasn’t expecting that phone call he got not long ago from wrestling impresario Vince McMahon’s office. They had an event coming up at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, that would feature a number of new wrestlers. It’s standard practice for combatants to approach the ring as their specially composed recorded music roars throughout the venue. It turns out one of those pieces features a solo-violin lead line, created by a duo known as CFO$ for wrestler Shinsuke Nakamura, whose processions are a highlight of every show presented by NXT, a kind of preparatory league for McMahon’s big-time operation, WWE. It’s part of his routine to preen and shiver and quiver and even to faint briefly on his way down the aisle and into the ring, as if swooning to the Paganini-like power of the melody.
So, someone at WWE asked, would England be interested in playing that music live at Barclays?
The question threw England only momentarily. Then, before he could reply, he started to remember. “My father, my little brother, and I used to watch wrestling all the time on TV,” he says. “I was into Bam Bam Bigelow, the Ultimate Warrior, Ric Flair, Macho Man—all of them! I had all the action figures. Eventually I moved away from it. But now I began to remember how it was a story. It’s drama. It’s acrobatic theater—an athletic opera, in a sense. I’d forgotten how spectacular those entrances were.
“So I was like, ‘Cool!’”
Shortly after that, England found himself in a recording studio with CFO$, aka John Alicastro and Mike Lauri. “Whoever played the original track had one of those six- or seven-string Mark Wood electric violins, so he got a crazy range on it,” England says. “He also went for more of an electric-guitar sound. But I’m a purist. I wanted what I did to sound like a violin. So they said, ‘You’re the artist. Do your thing. This is your space.’ And I recorded my part straight from the violin into the mic, without any line-in.”
After about an hour with them, everyone felt happy with the results. They sent him the demo, and England went over it all. Then came the night of the matches. Packing his five-string Realist electric violin and a bow from Sam Ash, he made his way to Barclays.
“I’m not gonna lie,” England insists, “it hit me when I got to soundcheck: This is a really big deal. I did get a little nervous. I’d played at the Barclays Center before, but this wasn’t halftime in an NBA game. This was one of the main attractions. So I talked with Triple-H [the ring name for Paul Levesque, McMahon’s son-in-law and a top WWE executive]. He told me, ‘We want you to do whatever you want for the first part of the entrance. It’s all yours. It’s your time to shine.’”
That’s just what England wanted to hear. He had already picked out attire that seemed appropriate to the occasion—boots and a military-style jacket as an homage to one of his early heroes, Jimi Hendrix. He also decided to stash his bow in a quiver slung behind his back, so that he could whip it out like an archer grabbing an arrow.
Nothing, though, had prepared him for the moment when he took his first steps into the arena. “There were 16,000-plus fans out there and they were all quiet,” he marvels. “You could hear a pin drop. Nobody knew what was about to happen. When I pulled the bow up from my back, I could feel all this anxiety, like, ‘What’s he about to do?’ Then when the music started, I just zoned out. It was like, ‘This is gonna be over before you know it, so enjoy the moment.’ I had my part down so cold that when Nakamura came out I decided to play with what was going on, like, ‘I’m gonna dance around! I’m part of this show!’”
With his ear monitors amped up, England didn’t notice how the sold-out crowd was exuberantly chanting along with the tune, which they’d memorized from previous Nakamura appearances. “I was able to stay in my head that way,” he explains. “But it was bananas to watch the video later and realize the crowd was so into what was going on!”
As he had anticipated, the moment passed quickly and England slipped away backstage, the speakers already cranking out the music of Nakamura’s opponent. Then began the second half of this experience, a coda that classical artists experience far too seldom after their concerts.
“I was in the loading area, getting into my car,” he says. “These guys saw me with the violin and started chanting ‘You . . . were . . . awesome!’ Then they started singing the song! I was like, ‘Yo, this is crazy!’ For that next week and a half, I would go into a bar and people [would be] like, ‘Hey, it’s the NXT violinist!’ And they would start singing again! I couldn’t go anywhere in New York and not have people come up and take pictures and show me love!”
Understandably, England is open to a return engagement with NXT. But he might enjoy taking it a step further, perhaps smashing his violin against the bad guy’s head in the middle of a match. “That would be cool!” he muses. “Maybe I’ll even get body slammed!”
Watch England and violinist Victor Ekpo give an impromptu performance at the 2017 Winter NAMM show on Strings’ Facebook page.