Alvin Lee – Fond Memories of Guitars
Written by Chris Welch
They called Alvin Lee ‘the fastest guitar player in the West’, a true star and a legendary figure in rock. But he was also a warm hearted, down to earth guy, much loved and who will be greatly missed.
Alvin loved his rock’n’roll and the blues with a passion. Just 12 years old when he met Big Bill Broonzy, he always said: ‘The day after my Dad introduced me to Big Bill I swapped my clarinet for a guitar. It was all the inspiration I needed.’
Alvin went on to inspire us all with his dynamic playing ever since Ten Years After and beyond. But as well as his musicianship, I’ll also treasure his infectious sense of humour.
Well I’ll always think of Alvin speeding through the streets of Paris by night carrying a giant fake advertising ‘egg’ we’d pinched from a pavement café after a gig. We even took it for a ride in a taxi. He was still laughing about it twenty years later… Rock On, Alvin.
Alvin Lee – An Appreciation
Written by Michael Heatley
All rock stars have egos, that’s a given. But when Alvin Lee told me “I joined the Elvis Presley Fan Club just to get a photo of Scotty Moore and his guitar,” it straight away punctured the ‘aloof rock god’ stereotype I’d been expecting.
To be fair, he was talking about ‘In Tennessee’, the project that had united him with his childhood hero and also Elvis drummer DJ Fontana, and you have to have a high opinion of yourself to keep that company. But as an elder statesman of British, rather than American rock, Alvin had much to look back on besides the Woodstock triumph that brought him and Ten Years After to the world‘s attention in 1969.
Surprisingly, perhaps, ‘the guitar that ate Woodstock’, as he called it, was not the one he first called to mind as we talked Gibsons. He recalled how lifelong friend Joe Brown and himself had been desperate to trade up from British-made Grimshaws to the real thing – a Gibson 335. ‘I got my first 335 brand new from Selmers ‘on the never never’ (paying by instalments). Took me four years to pay for it, that must have been 1960. And the week I finished paying for it, it got stolen from the van…which was a bit sad.” For Alvin, the instrument was a tool of his trade. “I’ve always been a one-guitar man! Some of these guys go on the road and if it’s like a guitar shop on stage.”
He assured me that “I always plan to make music,” confessing that the early years of the millennium had seen him “getting into semi-retirement, doing the odd festival at the weekend. I thought that suits me fine and when people said why don’t you do a proper tour I said ‘oh, I’m not gonna do that any more.’”
The Elvis connection brought him back – and, more importantly, restored his enthusiasm. “The worst thing about playing live is if you play too much and it becomes boring. Once you’re bored with rock’n’roll, what the hell is there left in life to do? So I always try to keep it exciting.”
Talking about Scotty Moore, he said: “For guitarists, standing beside him and getting your picture taken is a bit like standing by the Statue of Liberty or the Grand Canyon, isn’t it? But playing with him is even better!” He regarded this, and playing on the Jerry Lee Lewis London sessions in the Seventies, as “Two of the feathers in my cap. I’m a real fan of all those guys.”
Maybe Alvin will get the chance to stand at Elvis’s side and play some ‘heavenly’ gigs before Scotty gets the call…
Virtuoso rock guitarist whose band Ten Years After was a highlight of Woodstock.
December 19th 1944 – March 6th 2013
Alvin Lee, globally acclaimed rock guitarist, passed away in the early hours of Wednesday morning, March 6th 2013. He had been admitted to hospital in Spain, where he lived, for a routine surgical procedure for atrial arrhythmia but died from unforeseen complications. He was 68.
Born in Nottingham to Sam and Doris on December 19th 1944, the youngest of three children, Alvin Lee began playing guitar aged 13 and two years later had formed the core of the band Ten Years After. Originally influenced by his parent’s collection of jazz and blues records, it was the advent of rock and roll that truly sparked his interest and creativity, and guitarists like Chuck Berry and Scotty Moore provided his inspiration. The Jaybirds, as Lee’s early band was called, were popular locally and had success in Hamburg, Germany, following the Beatles there in 1962. But it wasn’t until the band moved to London in 1966 and changed its name to Ten Years After that international success beckoned.
The band secured a residency at the legendary Marquee Club and an invitation to the famous Windsor Jazz & Blues Festival in 1967 led to their first recording contract. The self titled debut album surprisingly received play on San Francisco’s underground radio stations and was enthusiastically embraced by listeners, including concert promoter Bill Graham who invited the band to tour America for the first time in the summer of 1968.
Audiences were immediately taken with Lee’s distinctive, soulful, rapid fire guitar playing and the band’s innovative mix of blues, swing jazz and rock, and an American love affair began. TYA would ultimately tour the USA 28 times in 7 years, more than any other U.K. band. Appearing at the famed Woodstock Festival, Lee’s virtuoso performance was one of the highlights and remains today a standard for many other guitarists. Captured on film in the documentary of the festival, his playing catapulted him into superstardom, and soon the band was playing arenas and stadiums around the globe.
Although Lee later lamented that he missed the intimacy of smaller venues, the film made a huge impact in bringing his music to a worldwide audience. TYA had great success, releasing ten albums together, but by 1973 Lee was feeling limited by the band’s style.
With American gospel singer Mylon LeFevre and a host of rock talents like George Harrison, Steve Winwood, Ron Wood and Mick Fleetwood , he recorded and released On The Road To Freedom, a highly acclaimed album that was at the forefront of country rock.
A year later, in response to a dare, Lee formed Alvin Lee & Company to play a show at the Rainbow in London and released it as a double live album, In Flight. An energetic mix of rhythm & blues and rock, with a tribute to Elvis Presley thrown in for good measure, Lee once, in his understated fashion, called this band “a funky little outfit”. They were far more than that and various members of the band continued on with Lee for his next two albums, Pump Iron and Let it Rock.
Lee finished out the 70s with a powerhouse trio he called Ten Years Later who also released two albums, Ride On and Rocket Fuel, and toured extensively throughout Europe and the USA. The 80s brought another change in Lee’s direction, with two albums that were strong collaborations with Rarebird’s Steve Gould and an extensive tour with the Rolling Stones’ Mick Taylor joining his band. Lee’s overall musical output includes more than 20 albums, including 1985’s Detroit Diesel and the back to back 90s collections of Zoom and 1994 (I Hear You Rocking). Guest artists on both albums include George Harrison, whose brilliant slide guitar perfectly complements Lee’s lead. Their duet on 1994’s The Bluest Blues led one reviewer to call it “the most perfect blues song ever recorded.” Alvin Lee in Tennessee, released in 2004, was recorded with rock and roll legends Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana. The critically acclaimed album features an upbeat selection of songs that were timely and forward looking, yet borrowed from Lee’s beloved 50s rock and roll. It was followed in 2007 by Saguitar, a varied collection of songs that flowed from blues to raucous rock to an innovative interpretation of rap. His last CD, Still On The Road To Freedom, took the listener on an musical journey to the past and present and back again.
Alvin Lee is survived by his wife Evi, daughter Jasmin and her mother Suzanne (Alvin’s former life partner), also by his two sisters Irma and Janice.
Tributes are already coming in from the music world.
Joe Brown, close friend and musician:
“Alvin was probably the best Rock ‘n’ Roll guitarist I’ve ever met. It is going to be a great loss to us all. I’ll certainly miss him.”
Chris Wright, manager and owner of the Chrysalis label:
“My career, and the foundations of the entire Chrysalis organisation started when Alvin and his group, who soon changed their name to Ten Years After, came up to Manchester in 1966 to play in a small student blues club I operated with a friend. I immediately signed them to a management contract, and later they joined both Chrysalis Records and Chrysalis Music. They went on to be an integral part of the British rock and blues invasion of the States, and starred at both the Woodstock Festival, and in the subsequent film. For a while in the late 60s and early 70s they were on a par with any group in the World in terms of popularity. He was known as the fastest guitarist in the West, but that belied the fact that he was also one of the most talented, and certainly the most proficient. He was also a great on stage performer. It is really sad we will never see him again. His passing leaves a tremendous void in an era of great British music.”
Brian May, musician:
Writing on his website “(Lee was) a legendary and influential guitarist and very nice bloke. His speed and dexterity, in the days when I would go as a student to the Marquee Club to see Ten Years After, was scary and exciting. He was daring enough to play and sing close to his limit every time.”
Roger Chapman, musician:
“Alvin Lee. What a great natural guitar player. Frightened of nothing, just grabbed a guitar & rocked like f***.
Met him in 1961 thereabouts, shared a stage in Nottingham with him & he was on it then. Playing songs, me being a bit snobbish, I never thought any other British muso knew except myself so I was instantly impressed & have been ever since. Always stayed pals even though we were separated by different roles & countries. He did a lot of really good stuff on my albums over the years. “Do you wanna run through Alv” I’d say & he’d reply “nah just sling it down & take it”. What a natural! What a guy! Lotsa love Alvin it was a pleasure knowing you.”
Mylon Le Fevre, musician:
Everybody knows he was a great musician and guitarist but he was a lot more than that to me. He was my brother and friend from the first time I met him in 1970. His was a good man with a good heart. He was an honest man. As far as I know he did everything he ever told me he would do. He never lied to me one time. He was generous, kind and loyal to our friendship. He was a Rock Star and I was just a country boy from Georgia, in an opening band. But from the beginning he treated me like an equal. We met when my band opened for TYA on one of their first American Tours after the Woodstock. At first we just hung out after the gigs, got loaded and jammed. Eventually we started to write some songs together. After one of the five tours we did together we decided while on vacation in Jamaica to lay down some tracks and see where it led us. That was the beginning of “On the Road to Freedom”. During the 43 years that I knew him, I learned to truly love him like a brother and I will miss him. It was an honour to be his friend.
A Few Last Words
We’ve got a great audio clip of some of Alvin’s last words.
Rock Guitarist Alvin Lee, 86, Dies
Written by Cassandra Vinograd at Time Entertainment
Interview with Record Collector