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"It all started at 8 o'clock on Feb. 16, 1964," Jimi Gee says of his love of music. "That was the night The Beatles came on TV. I saw boys with long hair and I thought, 'I can do that.'"
Arts and Entertainment Tuesday, Jul. 3, 2012 8 years ago

Guitar Hero: Jimi Gee

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by: Heidi Kurpiela Contributing Writer

Jimi Gee has never felt so pretty.

Twice this week he’s been asked by female co-workers how he does his makeup. Does he rim his eyes with liquid liner or pencil? Does he curl his eyelashes? Does he put shadow under his eyes?

Gee, whose look is best described as Patti Smith-meets-Alice Cooper, loves the attention. If there’s one thing he’s learned in the three decades he’s worked as a musician, it’s that looking different is a good thing.

Tiny Tim told him that.

The secret to his new and improved face?

His eyebrows. He recently had them tattooed in a permanent, but subtle, arch.

“I love it when I get compliments from women — real women,” Gee says. “It’s like, really? I’m doing something with my makeup that you don’t know how to do? It makes me feel so good!”

He lets out a hearty laugh, which quickly breaks into a high-pitched giggle. Reaching for his guitar, he clutches it to his chest like he’s embracing a long-lost friend.

Designed by his sponsor — the all-girl guitar company, Daisy Rock Guitars — the instrument, with its glittery body, slender neck and stars between its frets, is the perfect accessory to Gee’s rocker-chick image.

The musician has waited his whole life to play a sparkly guitar that matches his sparkly pants.

“It’s a really magical time for me,” Gee says. “I’ve got backers. I’m recording a CD — my first CD. I’m teaching full time, and look at me! I’m a senior citizen who looks like a 40-year-old woman.”

To clarify, Gee is neither a senior citizen nor a 40-year-old woman.

He’s a 57-year-old cross-dressing musician from New York, whose birth name is James Gaccione.

The son of Italian immigrant factory workers, Gee, a native of Queens, N.Y., grew up with two sisters, whose closets he would privately raid, not because he wanted to mess with their stuff, but because he wanted to wear it.

A Sarasota resident for more than 30 years, Gee is one of the area’s most well-regarded classic-rock guitarists, although, if you ask him what genre turns him on most, he’ll tell you jazz.

He learned from the greats: jazz musicians such as Fred Sharp, Bubba Thurston, Gene Taylor and Jerry Jerome; old-timers who played the early Sarasota Jazz Festivals and eventually retired to the Gulf Coast.

Like a lot of Sarasotans, they took a liking to the affable, fast-talking guitarist. His penchant for dresses and lipstick didn’t matter. He could play.

From cruise ships to biker bars to the Ritz-Carlton, Gee has spent his entire career moving seamlessly between crowds, rocking out as a man masquerading as a woman.

Diagnosed with gender identity disorder, Gee’s chosen profession has been kind to his lifestyle. Married for 22 years to a hospital bookkeeper, the musician has two sons: a 28-year-old from his first marriage and a 16-year-old, whom he calls “G Minor,” both of whom are cool with their father’s appearance.

“One in every 10,000 people is born like me,” Gee says. “But they don’t lay their cards out on the table. This was not a choice. I was born this way. I sit through group therapy and I listen to these stories and I think, ‘Man, I’m lucky. I have a loving and supportive family. I have a great job.”

If Gee had pursued a career in finance, he might be singing a different tune.

Thanks to his seven years as an openly cross-dressing, middle-school band teacher, the musician is somewhat of a local celebrity.

Hired in the early 2000s to lead the music department at Island Middle School on Anna Maria Island, Gee’s no-nonsense approach to teaching and his be-who-you-are message won over the hearts of parents and teachers at the small charter school.

It was like a storyline plucked from a Hollywood movie.

“At first, the kids’ eyes kind of popped out of their head,” Gee says. The teachers got white in the face. They were like, ‘What are you? Should we call your Miss or Mr. Gee?’”

Instead they called him Miss-ter Gee.

In 2005, when the Manatee County School Board closed the fledging school, Gee was promptly hired at Edison Academic Center, in Bradenton, where he remained on staff for five years.

So much of Gee’s appeal is that he’s unapologetically himself. When asked if he ever veers from his rocker-girl image, he breaks into another high-pitched cackle.

“You mean do I ever dress like a princess? Yeah. I’m a bling-bling guy,” he says, running his pink nails through his hair. “I like my sequins.”

He was hired a year ago to work at Guitar Center Studios on University Parkway, a job that he says he never expected to get.

As one of the store’s full-time guitar instructors, Gee sees about 80 to 100 students a week. According to studio manager Jarret Knuth, the musician has cultivated a cult-like following among young musicians and parents.

“Jimi has been on our radar for a long time,” Knuth says. “When we opened the business, one of our objectives was to bring in the best musicians in town. Jimi stood out not because of his appearance, but because he’s great at what he does.”

Knuth hired Gee after seeing him conduct his Junior All Stars youth jazz ensemble at Mattison’s City Grille.
The band, which Gee formed 12 years ago, performs at festivals and events all over the area. Two years ago, the group placed first at the Universal Studios Music Festival.

“We get referrals every day from people in the community who want to take lessons from Jimi,” Knuth says. “When he hosts his open jam sessions, the place gets packed. We get praise every day for his work.”
It seems no one is more stunned by Gee’s popularity than Gee.

After years of playing backup for major touring bands, the guitarist is finally flying solo. Plugging his laptop into a speaker, he hits play on one of the cuts from his unreleased album.

“It’s very intense, very heavy metal-ish,” he says, swinging his hair to the beat. “They played it on a rock ’n’ roll cruise out of Fort Myers. Rick Derringer was there, and my manager was all surprised when Rick said, ‘Oh, I know Jimi Gee. He plays guitar in Sarasota.’”

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