Alvin Lee: Guitar hero with rockers Ten Years After
Thursday 07 March 2013
In the early 1970s Alvin Lee was a guitar god, up there with Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townshend. Ten Years After, the British blues-rock band he had been leading since 1966, went from underground favourites to international fame and fortune after their show-stopping performance of "I'm Going Home" at the Woodstock Festival in 1969 was edited by Thelma Schoonmaker into the split-screen centrepiece of the 1970 award-winning documentary directed by Michael Wadleigh. Woodstock transformed the good-looking, fast-playing Lee into a guitar hero, whose picture, complete with his trademark "Big Red" Gibson ES-335 and its Peace stickers, adorned bedroom walls.
"Flying in by helicopter, I had a safety harness on and was hanging out over half a million people. Not the kind of thing you forget easily," he recalled of Woodstock. "But, even after it was declared a national disaster by the US government it didn't seem that big a deal. The movie is what made it big. We were doing 5,000 seaters the year after Woodstock, and when the movie came out, we were catapulted into the 20,000-seat bracket."
Born Graham Anthony Barnes in Nottingham in 1944, Lee enjoyed listening to his father's jazz and blues 78s, discovering material he would later adapt to the rock idiom. He eschewed his father's guitar and his mother's ukulele for the clarinet until skiffle made him switch to guitar.
In 1960, he restyled himself Alvin Lee and formed the Jaybirds with the bassist Leo Lyons. Like the Beatles, they served their apprenticeship at the Star-Club in Hamburg, before returning to the UK and adding drummer Ric Lee and keyboard-player Chick Churchill. By 1966, they were gigging with three-hit wonders the Ivy League but their manager Chris Wright was much more taken with the blues repertoire they performed on their own.
Having renamed themselves after a newspaper headline referring to the emergence of Presley, Ten Years After had secured an engagement at the Marquee and became such a word-of-mouth sensation that Wright moved to the capital to manage them. Wright was a former Manchester University entertainment officer who teamed up with Terry Ellis to form the Chrysalis agency and Chrysalis Records. Income from Ten Years After helped finance Chrysalis, while Wright ensured that the band reaped the rewards of a punishing schedule, including a dozen US tours in less than five years.
Wright recalled: "I got them a record deal with Decca, I got £1,000 advance, a fortune in those days, and we made an album produced by Mike Vernon, the father of recording British blues groups like John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. In fact, we released Ten Years After in October 1967, before we even issued a single. They were the first group to do that. It sold out within a day. We developed a career outside the UK, especially in Holland and Scandinavia.
"In February 1968, totally out of the blue, I received a letter from Bill Graham, the San Francisco promoter, asking if Ten Years After could go and play there. The American FM stations were featuring these long album tracks by the band and had got a buzz going... Our first US tour was an amazing experience. We were at the epicentre of the counterculture. It was the foundation of the Chrysalis organisation."
Constant touring helped Undead, their 1968 album recorded live at London's Klooks Kleek club, and the 1969 studio sets Stonedhenge and Ssssh sell steadily. The "Woodstock effect" coincided with their 1970 album Cricklewood Green – named after a roadie's "special herbal supply" – and helped the atmospheric rocker "Love Like A Man" reach the UK Top 10.
Over the next couple of years, the group issued Watt, A Space In Time and Rock & Roll Music To The World. Their wistful and wonderful single "I'd Love To Change The World" became a belated hippie anthem in 1971.
The guitarist was becoming a restless soul and trying to come to terms with the deaths of his friends, Hendrix and Janis Joplin. "Janis used to call me 'Babycakes', whatever that meant. She was like one of the boys, an ass-kicking rock'n'roller. I first met her at the Fillmore East in New York. She was great. She turned me on to Southern Comfort. Got me drunk as a skunk."
Thankfully, even if after watching Lee pick up a watermelon on stage at the end of the Woodstock sequence, many well-wishers brought watermelons spiked with LSD backstage at Ten Years After concerts, he stayed away from hard drugs, and indicated as much in his composition "Hard Monkeys" from A Space In Time.
In 1970, Lee bought Robin Hood Barn, a Tudor house replica in Berkshire. Offered a fortune by a developer to move on, he acquired Hookend Manor, an even grander Elizabethan house and Oxfordshire estate. There, he built a studio – subsequently owned by Pink Floyd's David Gilmour and then Trevor Horn – and recorded On The Road To Freedom with Mylon LeFevre, whose country-gospel group Holy Smoke had supported Ten Years After.
It featured many of Lee's friends then residing in the "rockbroker belt" – George Harrison, Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi, Ron Wood and Mick Fleetwood – and proved there was more to Lee than the flashy playing which had earned him the "Captain Speed Fingers" sobriquet.
After Ten Years After's 1974 Positive Vibrations he launched a solo career, interrupted by a couple of short-lived reunions. In 2004 he enlisted Scotty Moore, the Elvis Presley sideman, to record the In Tennessee album. In recent years he had seldom toured and seemed happier ploughing his own furrow, as he intimated on his last album, last year's Still On The Road To Freedom. Lee, who had lived in Spain for many years, died from complications following a routine surgical procedure.
Graham Anthony Barnes (Alvin Lee), guitarist, singer and songwriter: born Nottingham 19 December 1944; partner to Suzanne (one daughter), married Evi; died Madrid 6 March 2013.
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