Joe Lee, founder of a popular DC-area record store, dies at 76

Joe's Record Paradise, founded by Joe Lee was a haven for DC music community

Joe Lee, whose Montgomery County shop, Joe’s Record Paradise, was a popular gathering spot for D.C.-area music fans, died July 4 at the age of 76.

His son Johnson told WTOP Lee had been battling throat cancer and died at a hospice center in Rockville, Maryland.

Joe Lee (left) and Zev Feldman (right), at Lee’s home in West Virginia, in Feb. 2024. (Courtesy Zev Feldman)

Lee opened his first Joe’s Record Store in Takoma Park in 1974. Over the years, the store has moved five times, and is now operated by Johnson in Silver Spring.

Known for his eclectic tastes and encyclopedic knowledge, Lee made Joe’s Record Paradise — with décor including posters, hand-scrawled signs, books and bins of vinyl — a haven for music fans of all ages.

Long before he became a Grammy-nominated record producer and music historian, Zev Feldman grew up in Montgomery County. Joe’s Record Paradise was next door to where his parents brought him to buy shoes before he was in kindergarten.

“I found it intoxicating — the smell of old records and incense burning,” Feldman told WTOP.

When he approached record-buying age, he would talk to Lee and seek recommendations.

When Feldman broke into the music industry as a local record representative, “I would go to that store probably three or four times a week on my way home.”

“Saturday afternoons were like a barber shop,” Feldman recalled. “He’d stroll in, maybe around 11 or 12. There would be some beer drinking going on, we’d be hanging out behind the register, there’d be music being played.”

Lee was gregarious with customers and friends alike.

“People would come in and he’d be talking to folks, making recommendations,” said Feldman, who recalled a special moment when Lee offered music he thought Feldman might like.

“He said, ‘Hey man, you know this record, Miles In The Sky?'” referring to Miles Davis. “I said, ‘Of course, man, it’s with George Benson on that record.’ We had some sort of moment, and there was a connection there.”

Longtime D.C.-area DJ Cerphe Colwell was friends with Lee since 1973.

“Visiting Joe at his store was always an event,” Colwell said. “More often than not he’d be holding court with a musician or customer, sharing everything from politics to obscure knowledge of early jazz and blues records — Joe really knew his stuff.”

When Colwell worked for WHFS in Bethesda, Lee was managing Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band — best known for the 1978 song “Boogie ‘Til You Puke.”

“He introduced Root Boy Slim to us at WHFS,” Colwell said. “Root Boy Slim launched his career at the Psyche Delly club, right across the street from HFS.”

Colwell, of Music Planet Radio, said Lee often helped people in the music community when they needed help, including DJ Damian Einstein, music journalist Tom Terrell, The Bama from WPFW and musicians Billy Hancock and Robert Gordon.

A visit to Joe's Record Paradise was always memorable say friends

Colwell stayed in touch with Lee after he turned Joe’s Record Paradise over to his son about 15 years ago.

“I loved our long phone conversations after he moved to West Virginia,” said Colwell. “Sometimes we’d talk for hours.”

Feldman visited Lee in West Virginia in mid-February and the two talked often through this spring.

“Joe Lee is in the bedrock, and in the fabric of the Washington, D.C., music scene, and he always will be,” said Feldman.

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Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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