So, very, very saddened to learn yesterday of the passing of the great British guitarist Alvin Lee.
who was one of my musical heroes.
When I was first learning the guitar, even before I had an electric, I used to tape record myself vainly trying to replicate his legendary Woodstock performance of "I'm Going Home," which I've always considered by far the very best performance of the whole event.
I finally got the chance to meet Alvin backstage after a New York show around 1995, and after interviewing him in 2007 via telephone to his home in Spain, we regularly exchanged e-mails.
Although I broached the subject of co-writing his biography, he told me he wouldn't want something like that coming out while he was still alive. Whether or not he actually did any writing of it on his own, I don't know.
While he downplayed being called "Captain Speedfingers," no one before or since has ever replicated what he could do on a guitar.
Anyone interested in learning more about Lee is encouraged to read the interview that follows this column, which I was very proud to do with him. It was first published in Vintage Guitar in 2007.
Again, a very, very sad do for the rock music community; the passing of a true gentleman, and fantastic musician.
Alvin Lee Gets a Reaction By Elliot Stephen Cohen
“I’ve always liked to keep an open mind about
things,” explains legendary British guitarist Alvin
Lee, of “The Rapper,” a hip-hop influenced track
on his ninth solo album, Saguitar (Rainman).
“The reason I called it that was to shock a few
people. I mean, the reaction of some bluesers and
purists is one of being horrified, to say the least. A
lot of old rockers who can’t make that cross have
told me, ‘It’s terrible. You shouldn’t be doing that
king of thing.’ “I think that’s great, “he adds with a self-satisfied laugh, “because I’m almost famous for always doing what I shouldn't be doing.”
Before too many of Lee’s longtime followers
start worrying that the revered musician is planning
on trading his renowned long, blond locks
for an Emimen styled “do,” backwards baseball
cap, oversized T-shirt, baggy jeans and lots of
bling, rest assured: most of Sagituar’s other cuts
trade on the blues and boogie-styled rock that has
made him one of those genre’s most sought-after
players for more than 40 years.
Lee composed all 11 new songs and plays nearly
all of the instruments. Modestly, he offers in a
clipped British accent, “I’m no Stevie Wonder, but
I kind of play the kind of rough rock and roll and
blues that I like. I've always been keen on studios
and doing my own engineering and producing,
but it took me about six months to master the
whole computer-recording concept.
Because of this, one of the first things I did
was (the Elvis-styled) ‘Midnight Train.’ I thought,
‘If I’m gonna use a hi-tech computerized digital
studio, I want to make it sound like a good rock
and roll one from the ’50s.”
Born Dec. 19, 1944 in Nottingham, England,
the mythical home of a different type renegade,
Robin Hood, Lee’s discovery of the blues came via
his very cool parents, especially his father whose
impressive collection of 78s included the likes of
Lonnie Johnson, Ralph Wills, Lead Belly and Big
Bill Broonzy. Lee had a chance meeting when he
was age 12 with Broonzy that made a life-altering
impression on him.
“My mom and dad used to go this local pub
called The Test Match. Chris Barber and Lonnie
Donnegan used to play there, but Broonzy was
their favorite, and one night they brought him
back to the house. They woke me up and said,
‘ You've gotta meet this guy.’ It was an amazing
experience for me. Just to have a black man in the
house was pretty amazing. He was a huge, towering
guy, and he picked up the guitar and played. “There was no hope for me,” Lee jokingly admits. “My fate was sealed. I had to be a blues guitarist.”
With support and encouragement from his parents, Lee
began his musical journey on the guitar. Combining the
jazzy styles of Django Reinhardt, Tal Farlowe, Barney Kessell,
the finger-pickings of Merle Travis and Chet Atkins, the
multi-stringed leads of Chuck Berry, and the string-bending
technique of Freddie King, he was soon evolving a personal
style that would later bring world fame.
While blues formed the foundation for his music, he was
surprised to later learn how unaware Americans were of their
own music roots.
“ ... when I came to America, I assumed everybody there
was aware of people like Muddy Waters, because it’s the
American heritage, and I found out that wasn't so. A lot of
people would come up to me after I became known and ask,
‘Where’d you get this English sound from?’ And I’d say, ‘Just
recycled American music that we kind of rocked up a bit.’”
Lee also believes that the British interpretation of the blues
lacks the intensity of the original African-American experience.
“I think the real blues is something that has to come from
a black man in Mississippi who’s been in jail. Things like that
are what I consider real blues.”
However, he also says, “I think that a white boy singing the
blues, as long as he doesn't pretend that he’s killed a black man
in Chicago, and just sings about his own problems… that’s
good enough. There’s a song on my album Motel Blues,’ that
captures a very melancholy moment. I was thinking about
touring and life on the road, so I wrote about something that
was very true and heartfelt that makes me sad. It’s my version
of the blues, of something real, so I think it’s valid.”
The other major component in Lee’s music, besides blues,
is, of course, high-energy ’50s-style rock and roll. “The first
time I heard ‘Rock Around The Clock,’ ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’,’
‘That’s All Right, Mama,’ … even before I realized it was
rock and roll, it was the start of a whole new thing for me,”
he fondly recalls. “It was just good, great music with a beat. I
loved all that.”
As much as Lee admired Elvis Presley, the teenager’s goal
was to be like Scotty Moore, his highly underrated guitarist
with whom Lee actually recorded in 2004 for the excellent In
“That’s right,” he cheerfully acknowledges. “I actually joined
The Elvis Presley Fan Club when I was about 14 or 15 just to
get pictures of Scotty and his guitar. I’d only caught a fleeting
glimpse of it (in the early Elvis movies), and I didn't even
know what it was. It looked like a Gibson, but it had plastic
pickups. I thought that was a bit weird, but overall it looked
Many years later, in 1971, Lee had the chance to see “The
King” perform in Las Vegas, but he admits it was a major
letdown. “It was pretty poor, actually. He kept looking at his watch.
It might have been towards the end of a six-month stay there.
He did all the songs I liked, ‘Hound Dog,’ ‘Don’t Be Cruel,’
‘Rip It Up,’ ‘Mean Woman Blues’… but he did them twice as
fast as they should have been. He basically just threw them all
away. He seemed more concerned with being some kind of
Italian opera singer. It was a very plastic show, very uninspired.
I almost wanted to go to the backstage area, drag him over to
see our gig and say, ‘Look, this is what a proper gig should be
like.’ It was awful the way people were sitting down for dinner
during his show.”
That very year, Lee’s band, Ten Years After, also comprised
of drummer Ric Lee, bassist Leo Lyons and keyboardist Chick
Churchill, was riding high with their biggest American hit, “I’d
Love To Change The World” (which ironically they never performed
live). The success had been gradually building since
1960, when Lee and Lyons first envisioned fusing rock, blues
and jazz into something uniquely their own.
Originally called the Jaybirds, the blossoming quartet
followed the Beatles into Hamburg, Germany’s celebrated
Star Club in 1962. After taking up residency at the London’s
Marquee Club where the Rolling Stones and Yardbirds had
previously held court, the band, whose name wasn't a reference
to coming 10 years after Elvis but rather Britain’s Radio
Times magazine, was signed to the British Deram label in
1966, the same year Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience
made their U.K. debut.
The group’s self-titled LP began attracting attention on underground
radio stations, and the band also became a favorite
of legendary American promoter Bill Graham, who featured
them at his equally legendary Fillmore West and Fillmore East
venues. It was at these famous theaters where the band shared
bills with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.
“She was actually a monster,” relates Lee of the late singer. “I
always thought she was more than one of the boys, you know.
She was a rip-snorting, hard-drinking, hard-living person. I
actually think she had a thing for me, but to be honest, she
scared me off a bit. She wasn't exactly a cutie-pie was she?
She’d walk offstage, grab my ass and say, ‘Hello, baby cakes.’ I
didn't know what that meant for about six months.”
He also points out that both Fillmore venues were nearly as
dissimilar as the 3,000 miles that separated them.
“The Fillmore East was more of a theater situation. It had
the fantastic Joshua Light Show, and Bill Graham ran that
place like a battleship. The Fillmore West was totally different.
That was in fact quite a hippie deal. I remember one time
somebody offered me a joint as I was walking up the steps to
the stage. I soon realized that what I’d just had a toke of was
the stuff they called moondust, or angel dust. The audience
seemed very weird, and after I walked up to the microphone
and played the first guitar chord, I heard it hit the back of the
hall, and I could almost see it happening. It seemed to bounce
off everybody’s head on the way back to me and bounce off
the roof. I just stood there going, ‘Wow!”
However, it was Lee’s blistering, iconic, jaw-dropping, 11-
minute version of “I’m Goin’ Home” that propelled Ten Years
After to superstardom. Fans all over the world soon began
flocking to see the band.
To thousands of aspiring male teenaged guitarists, Lee’s
boyishly handsome looks, long blond shag haircut, vest, and
red Gibson 335 ( adorned with a very prevalent peace sign
— the very same guitar on the cover photo of Saguitar) made
him the ultimate cool guitar hero. Beside the new adulation,
people were also coming to firsthand witness “The Fastest
Guitar In The West.”
“Yeah, ‘Captain Speedfingers,’” he agrees, laughing. “That
wasn't completely untrue, and I could deliver that, anyway.
It’s just that I used to get excited onstage, and the adrenaline
would kick in. When you play to a good audience and connect
with them, they bring that out of you. I’d get them off and
get them high, and they’d get me off and get me high. It’s like
a snowball situation where you just end up raving, and go
through the roof.”
But the new superstardom also began taking its toll on
Lee, who preferred the intimacy of smaller venues like the
Fillmores and The Boston Tea Party. The Woodstock movie
became one big albatross that he couldn't easily shake off.
“That was the beginning of the end for me. I started not
enjoying what I was doing as much. Instead of being a musician,
I was now a ‘rock star.’ I started feeling like a commodity,
and people were jumping on my back and trying to ride on it.
I thought, ‘To hell with this. This is not what Big Bill Broonzy
had inspired me to do.’ We were becoming a traveling jukebox,
plug us in, away we go, and then off to another city.
“I was feeling it was all becoming a waste of my time
because nobody was actually aware anymore of what I was
doing. I’d play a great gig, come offstage, and everybody’d
say, ‘That was good.’ Then I’d play a terrible one, and people
would say the same thing. The audiences would shout and
cheer as soon as I got onstage. There was no reality to it. I
didn't have to win them over and build them up anymore.
It was just, “Hooray! Hooray! Hooray!” I’d come out and
someone would shout, ‘I’m going home,’ and I’d say, ‘OK. Go
The new success also vastly increased the corporate side of
music, which Lee, still a rebellious kid in many ways, found
distasteful. “I was getting the wrong kind of attention. I was meeting
people who were just interested in me because I was
famous. or because they thought I had some kind of power or
something. Instead of hanging out with musicians, it became
lawyers, manager and accountants all telling me what they
could do for me. It was just an overdose of (b.s.)
“Of course, as a young musician, I’d wanted to be noticed,”
he also readily acknowledges. “I’d have stood on my head and
played if I thought it would have helped. I wanted to be a famous
rock star with lots of cars and big houses in the country.
It’s just that upon achieving the reality of your dreams, it’s
never quite as good as you imagined it.”
Despite such hit albums as Ssssh, Cricklewood Green,(
featuring the single “Walk Like A Man”) and A Space in Time,
the resulting pressures, plus relentless touring — some 28
American tours in seven years, which puts them in the Guinness
Book of World records — and some unwelcome criticism
all led to the band’s premature implosion in 1975.
“One night after a show, we ran into the guy who produced
the Woodstock movie, and he said, ‘Ah, I see you’re still playing
that (b.s.) rock and roll.’ We used to get that a lot, and it used
to annoy me, because to me it was just high-energy rock and
roll. I shouldn't have let it get to me, but it did,” Lee explained.
“Even someone like George Harrison, who was a good
friend of mine, didn't like Ten Years After. He said, ‘You should
be doing something better than this crap.’ Those things start
to get to you after a while, and you start thinking, ‘Maybe it
is true.’ I personally didn't think it was crap, but I did think it
was time to move on.”
Since then, Lee has managed a successful career, fronting
The Alvin Lee Band and Ten Years Later and producing nine
fine solo albums. Harrison contributed some fine slide guitar
to both 1974’s In Flight, and 1994’s I Hear You Rockin’.
“Probably the most famous guy I ever met,” he recalls with
both noticeable sadness and admiration for the legendary
musician who passed away in 2001, “and probably the most
humble as well. He never said, ‘Let’s do it this way, because
that’s the way I want it.’ He was totally the opposite.”
It wasn't just Harrison’s unassuming personality that impressed
Lee. It was also his prowess on the instrument that Lee
himself is probably more renowned for.
“A fantastic slide guitarist,” he marvels. ” I've always been a
kind of gunslinger guitarist. I play from the hip, by instinct,
whereas George would sit down and write a solo like a tune.
It might have taken him ages, but at the end of it, he’d have
this fabulous solo that was like a tune you could sing. That
brought out another side of me. I would turn up at his house
around one in the morning, and we’d play ’til like five or six
just for the sake of playing. I think he appreciated that I didn't
treat him like a ‘Beatle,’ which a lot of people did. He had his
heroes, too, like Bob Dylan. He once said to me, ‘Fame is like a
big, flapping fart that blows on anybody… I should know.’”
Something that is a current sore point with Lee is the fact
that his three ex-bandmates are now touring and recording
under the Ten Years After banner, especially since they make
no attempt at letting fans know that their main member is no
longer with them. “You have to buy their CD and take the shrink wrapping off to find out it’s not the original band,“ he fumes, referring to the fact the cover only features a psychedelic drawing. “Yeah, I think it’s pretty seedy. I could have spent a fortune on lawyers to try to stop them from using the name Ten Years After. They could call themselves something like ‘Eleven Years After, ‘Ten Years After Mark 11’ or something like that. I’m actually sur they weren't a little more honest. It’s all kind of sneaky and nasty, but that’s just the way they are.
“I know they did these gigs in America, and they were
dreadful,” he says with barely disguised acrimony. “There was
one place where only about 30 people showed up, and I was
told half of them wanted their money back. I've got no respect
for those guys. I don’t think what they’re doing is a cool thing
Mentioning an institution like the Rock and Roll Hall of
Fame, a place were scores of artists with far fewer accomplishments
have been inducted, draws similar ire from Lee.
“ I've got no ambition to be stood up there next to the Bee
Gees and The Dave Clark Five. That’s the rock and roll hall
of shame in my book. To me, that epitomizes the whole (b.s.)
side of show business. It’s got nothing to do with music or
who’s good. Is Meade Lux Lewis in it? Is Louis Prima in it?
Are the Treniers in it? When Cream was inducted and ZZ Top
were standing the background grinning away and clapping…
I can’t even think of a word bad enough to describe it — just
Hollywood showbiz crap.”
As to how long Lee, who still considers himself “a longhaired
hippie with a few wrinkles,” wants to keep performing,
can he envision himself like Chuck Berry, one of his early
heroes, still out there at 81? “I actually love to see some of these guys keep playing,” he acknowledges. “I mean, John Lee Hooker was an inspiration to me, because he was still doing it at 82… and he was still good. That’s the crux of the matter, but I saw B.B. King recently, and it was sad to see. He was singing out of tune. He didn't look good. He wasn't playing that good, and why do that? Is it the money? The adulation? I don’t know. Unless you’re gonna go out there and say to the crowd, ‘Look at me. I can still do it.’ Some people just go through the motions, and that’s sad. If I’m still playing hot music in 20 years, and I still feel cool onstage, I’ll still be doing it. If I don’t, then certainly not.”
Alvin Lee has come a long way from the sleepy-eyed 12-
year-old who sat in awe of Big Bill Broonzy. He has created an
impressive musical career for himself. However, he concludes
with considerable modesty, “Most of what I've accomplished
was just a matter of luck, not because of any judgment on my
part. I am proud though to have made a living at being a musician,
because when I was 20, I was told, ‘When are you gonna
get a proper job? You can’t be doing this all your life.’”
He adds, laughing, “I’m kind of proud I've proved them all
wrong. Haven’t I?”