Singer, songwriter, guitarist
At the peak of his musical career in the 1960s and 1970s, Alvin Lee was hailed as the "Fastest Guitar Alive." A hard-edged rock and blues guitarist with the fretboard speed of a jazz player, he brought fresh excitement to the second wave of the fabled 1960s British Invasion. After a slow start in his native country with Ten Years After, Lee got the drop on every other guitarist with his stunning display of guitar pyrotechnics at the 1969 Woodstock festival. Once his fame spread, he left Ten Years After to explore a solo career. Still one of the finest in-concert pickers of any generation, he continues touring the world long after many from his generation have died or packed it in.
Started on Clarinet
Born Graham Alvin Lee, the Nottingham, England, native did not begin his musical life as a guitar player. "I did a year on the clarinet when I was 12," he told Country Standard Time. "I listened to Benny Goodman and became more aware of [pioneering electric guitarist] Charlie Christian than Benny Goodman. So a part of me started moving to the guitar from the clarinet. That, and you couldn't be a rock star playing the clarinet."
Like many future British stars, Lee became knowledgeable about American roots music. How did he hear these sounds? "Through my dad's record collection," Lee recalled. "I was brought up listening to chain gang songs, Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzey. That was always kind of just playing around the house." He added, "My dad had a collection of the jazz stuff too, and the blusiest stuff I liked—Meade Lux Lewis, the boogie woogie piano and the stuff out of New Orleans."
Lee turned professional at the age of 13, playing a movie theater with Alan Upton and the Jailbreakers, where he was billed as Alvin Lee and His Amazing Talking Guitar. The youngster garnered experience with a series of rock and roll bands during the late 1950s and early 1960s, including Vince Marshall and the Square Caps, the Atomites, Ivan Jay and the Jay Men, the Jay Cats, and Alvin and the Jaybirds. With the latter group, Lee took on the lead vocal chores. Most of these groups played flat out three-chord rock 'n' roll, mostly cover versions of popular American tunes. Sometimes they succeeded—as with their five week stint at the fabled Star Club in Germany—other times they nearly starved.
Became a Star with Ten Years After
Working as a back-up band for various British pop groups and touring Americans, Lee and bassist Leo Lyons got a boost when they hired drummer Ric Lee (no relation) away from another group, the Mansfields. For a time they billed themselves as Britain's Largest Sounding Trio. The addition of keyboard player Chick Churchill soon followed, and the group was complete. Digging the new blues-oriented sound that was permeating the London scene as exemplified by John Mayall, the group changed their musical approach and began the search for a new name. Briefly they became Blues Trip, then performed one gig as Blues Yard before setting on a name they had picked from a local radio listing—Ten Years After.
A successful residency at London's Marquee Club led to an appearance at the Windsor Jazz Festival in 1967, which impressed Deram Records enough to sign the act. The group was quite prolific in the studio and toured ceaselessly, but their moment arrived when they played the Woodstock festival in 1969.
Amid the rain, mud, and backstage confusion, Ten Years After wasn't even sure they were going to perform that day. Ten Years After hit the stage as relative unknowns, and when Lee finished his glittering take on the concert staple "I'm Going Home," he was a bonafide guitar hero. The following year, the filmed version of the event spread his fame further.
In contrast to his intense instrumental accomplishments, Lee was the personification of the peace and love generation. One of the group's more successful tunes from the era was "I'd Love to Change the World." In 2004 the song was used on the soundtrack to Michael Moore's documentary Farenheit 911.
For the Record …
Born Graham Alvin Lee on December 9, 1944; son of Sam (a builder) and Doris (a hairdresser) Lee.
Guitarist, singer, songwriter, and bandleader, 1957–; played guitar for bands including Vince Marshall and the Square Caps, Alan Upton and the Jailbreakers, the Atomites, Ivan Jay and the Jay Men, the Jay Cats, and Alvin and the Jaybirds, 1957–64; Jaybirds became Blues Yard and Ten Years After, 1966; appeared at Woodstock festival, 1969, and in Woodstock movie, 1970; with TYA, appeared on such international TV programs as Beat Club, Color Me Pop, and Music Scene, 1968–70; recorded first solo album with Mylon LeFevre, 1973; appeared on such TV programs as Midnight Special, Speakeasy TV Show, and Rockpalast, 1973–78; left Ten Years After, 1975; recorded for Decca subsidiary Deram, 1967–72; recorded for Chrysalis, Columbia, Atlantic, 21 Records, Viceroy, Repertoire and Rainman Records, 1973–2004.
Awards: Total Magazine poll of the 12 Greatest British Guitarists, voted East Midlands' Best Guitarist, 2001.
Addresses: Record company—Rainman, Inc., 315 South Beverly Dr., Ste. 407, Beverly Hills, CA 90212, website: http://www.rainmanrecords.com. Management—Ron Rainey Management, 315 South Beverly Dr., Ste. 407, Beverly Hills, CA 90212; phone: (310) 557-0661, fax: 310-557-8421, website: http://www.ronrainey.com. Website—Alvin Lee Official Website: http://www.alvinlee.com.
Flush with fame and cash, Lee bought himself a mansion equipped with a recording studio, and started partying hard. Drug use ruined most of these private sessions. "We would be in the studio for three days at a time non-stop," he told the Nottingham Post, "and I don't think we recorded anything worth keeping that whole two years." By 1974, Ten Years After was tapped out and Lee had emerged from rehab ready to start again.
Went Solo During the Mid-1970s
Once shed of Ten Years After, Lee dabbled in some notable solo work. "I have tended to play a lot of styles through the years," he told Brutrarian Quarterly. "I did that solo album with Mylon LeFevre  which was really quite country," he admitted, adding, "I did actually play with the Earl Scruggs Revue in 1976 on an album and did a live gig with them. That was great too." How did Scruggs's traditional bluegrass audience react to the long-haired English rocker? "They were kind," Lee recalled, "but you have to go in and fill your space carefully."
Lee was part of a more famous roots tribute when, along with a whole galaxy of English superpickers, he guested on rock pioneer/country comeback king Jerry Lee Lewis's 1973 double album London Sessions. A longtime fan who plays Lewis's recording of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" every birthday, he was in awe of the early rocker. Lee remembered Lewis saying, "'Y'all know my tunes. When I stamp my feet you play, when I lift my head you stop.' And, he was off," recalled Lee in Country Standard Time. "When we finished the first song, he said, 'That sounded good to me, let's go and listen to it.' And, he was off into the control room."
Without keyboardist Chick Churchill to provide atmospheric counterpoint, Lee's later groups, including Alvin Lee & Company and Ten Years Later, lacked the nuance of his earlier recordings. The Rolling Stone Album Guide summed up his solo years: "Basically a strong instrumentalist and an undependable songwriter, Lee remains a talent who haphazardly dazzles, but more often parlays his only expertise."
Balancing an occasional Ten Years After reunion with solo albums for various labels, Lee's star faded during the late 1980s. Spain, where he attempted Flamenco guitar studies, became his full-time home during the following decade. Recording for his management label, Rainman, the clean and sober Lee has periodically emerged from hiding to record and tour like the madman of old. One of his best later albums featured two of his rock 'n' roll heroes from the 1950s, Elvis Presley's original sidemen Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana.
Although Moore played on only three of the Alvin Lee in Tennessee album's eleven tunes, his no-nonsense production style proved quite rewarding and expeditious. "I booked three weeks to record in Nashville and it took two days and we were done," Lee told Brutarian Quarterly. "That's how good those guys are." He also chose double bass slapper Pete Pritchard and country boogie pianist Willie Rainsford for the sessions, and the 1950s rockabilly legend Rainsford also reigned in some of Lee's hard rock instincts. "He told me to take the funny, distorted sound off of my guitar, and not play so fast," Lee laughed. "He said, 'Alvin, you always play faster than I can listen.'"
Still a flashy guitarist, Lee feels he has grown as a musician. "The passion is there but it takes different forms," he explained. "I used to kind of give 150% adrenaline and possibly lacked a bit of taste in my younger days. So, the difference now is that I'm probably more controlled, a little more in the groove."
With Ten Years After
Ten Years After, Deram, 1967; reissued, 2002.
Undead, Deram, 1968; reissued, 2002.
Stonedhedge, Deram, 1968; reissued, 1997.
Sssh, Deram, 1969; reissued, Chrysalis, 1997.
Cricklewood Green, Deram, 1970; reissued, Chrysalis, 2002.
Watt, Deram, 1971; reissued, Chrysalis, 1997.
A Space in Time, Deram, 1971; reissued, Chrysalis, 1997.
Alvin Lee & Company, Deram, 1972; reissued, 1994.
Rock & Roll Music to the World, Chrysalis/Columbia, 1972; reissued, Chrysalis, 1997.
Recorded Live, Chrysalis/Columbia, 1973; reissued, Chrysalis, 1997.
Positive Vibrations, Chrysalis/Columbia, 1974; reissued, BGO Records, 2004.
About Time, Chrysalis, 1989.
The Friday Rock Show Sessions—Live at Reading '83, Raw Fruit, 1990.
Live 1990, Code 90 Ninety 3, 1992.
Live at the Fillmore East 1970, EMI, 2001.
Ten Years After Anthology, Hip-O, 2002; reissued, BGO Records, 2004.
(With Mylon LeFevre) On the Road to Freedom, Chrysalis/Columbia, 1973; reissued, Repertoire, 2003.
(As Alvin Lee & Company) In Flight, Chrysalis/Columbia, 1974; reissued, Repertoire, 1998.
(With Ten Years Later) Ride On, Polydor, 1979; reissued, Repertoire, 2002.
(With Alvin Lee Band) Free Fall, Atlantic, 1980; reissued, Repertoire, 2000.
(With Alvin Lee Band) RX5, Atlantic, 1981; reissued, Repertoire, 2001.
Pump Iron, Chrysalis/Columbia, 1975; reissued, Repertoire, 1998.
Rocket Fuel, RSO, 1978; reissued, Repertoire, 2000.
Detroit Diesel, 21 Records, 1986; reissued, Viceroy, 1996.
Zoom, Viceroy, 1992.
I Hear You Rockin', Viceroy, 1994.
Live in Vienna, Viceroy, 1996.
Alvin Lee—the Anthology, Rainman, 2003.
Alvin Lee in Tennessee, Rainman, 2004.
DeCurtis, Anthony, James Henke, and Holly George-Warren, editors, The Rolling Stone Album Guide, Random House, 1992.
Rees, Dayfadd, and Luke Crampton, VH1 Music First: Rock Stars Encyclopedia, DK, 1999.
Stambler, Irwin, The Encyclopedia of Pop Rock and Soul, St. Martin's Press, 1989.
Blues Matters, April-June 2004.
Brutarian Quarterly, Fall 2005.
Nottingham Post, July 13, 2002.
"Alvin Lee," Country Standard Time, http://www.countrystandardtime.com (September 12, 2006).
"Alvin Lee Finds His Groove," Country Standard Time, http://www.countrystandardtime.com (September 12, 2006).
"Alvin Lee," Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com (July 10, 2006).
Alvin Lee Official Website, http://www.alvinlee.com (July 9, 2006).
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