Arthur Lee

Enigmatic frontman of Love
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Arthur Porter Taylor (Arthur Lee), singer, guitarist, songwriter and producer: born Memphis, Tennessee 7 March 1945; married; died Memphis 3 August 2006.

The psychedelic band Love were best known for the 1967 albums Da Capo and Forever Changes, with defining songs of the late Sixties like "Seven and Seven Is", "She Comes In Colors", "A House Is Not a Motel" and the much-covered "Alone Again Or" (a hit for the Damned in 1986). They were the first rock group to sign to Elektra Records, the label set up by Jac Holzman, who would later discover the Doors and Tim Buckley.

Arthur Lee, ostensibly Love's leader, referred to himself as "the first so-called black hippie, maybe the first hippie" but he was a difficult man to work with and the multi-racial group never managed to capitalise on their early reputation as the ultimate garage-folk-rock band. Lee subsequently led several incarnations of Love, issued a few solo albums and toured Europe backed by the Liverpool group Shack in 1992. However, he experienced drug and mental health problems and eventually spent five and a half years in jail on firearm offences as a result of California's "three strikes and you're out" policy.

Love's music had always been popular, with Robert Plant especially, and was championed in Britain in the late Sixties by the underground disc-jockeys John Peel and Bob Harris, but by the time Lee came out of prison in 2002, he had become a cult figure second only to Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. Love's Elektra catalogue was remastered and Lee played live again, this time with the LA indie group Baby Lemonade, though he insisted: "I was Love from the beginning, I am Love now."

He had a point, since Bryan MacLean, Love's composer and the lead voice on "Alone Again Or", had died in 1998. Love's lead guitarist Johnny Echols rejoined the new line-up but in 2005 found himself the only original member when Lee stopped touring altogether, citing ill-health. Lee was diagnosed with leukaemia and underwent a bone marrow transplant. In June, Robert Plant headlined a benefit concert for him in New York which also featured Ryan Adams, Ian Hunter, Nils Lofgren, Garland Jeffreys and Yo La Tengo.

Born Arthur Porter Taylor in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1945, he was the son of Chester Taylor, a white trumpeter, and Agnes, a black schoolteacher. The couple divorced and, in 1949, Arthur's mother moved to Los Angeles where she met and married Clinton Lee, a builder, carpenter and decorator who adopted Arthur. At Dorsey High School, he was a tall teenager with dreams of playing basketball professionally.

An injury put paid to that and he began spending more time raising pigeons and listening to Nat "King" Cole and Johnny Mathis. He harboured dreams of signing to Capitol, whose label and distinctive round-shaped building in Los Angeles fascinated him. At first, he played the accordion but moved on to piano, organ and guitar with Arthur Lee and the LAGs, an instrumental group with ambitions to become Los Angeles' answer to Memphis's Booker T & The MGs.

In 1963, they signed a one-off deal with Capitol Records and issued "The Ninth Wave/Rumble-Still-Skins", two surf instrumentals. When they disbanded, Lee formed a new band called the American Four with the guitarist Johnny Echols. In 1964, they cut one single, "Luci Baines", and Lee began showing promise as a producer and arranger with Li'L Ray and Ronnie and the Pomona Casuals. He worked with the young Jimi Hendrix on "My Diary" by Rosa Lee Brooks and was impressed by the guitarist's musical ability and freaky afro.

One day in 1965, he wandered into Ciro's on the Sunset Strip and saw the folk-rock band the Byrds. "When I saw them, it all just clicked in terms of my own creativity," Lee said later. "Up until then, everything was rhythm'n'blues but they were doing their own material and it sounded like the music I was writing on my own. I knew something was happening. I wanted to be the best pop artist in the world, that was my ambition."

Lee and Echols recruited the Byrds roadie Bryan MacLean and became the Grass Roots but soon realised that two other groups were already using that name. By the time they signed to Elektra in 1966, Ken Forssi (bass) and Alban "Snoopy" Pfisterer (drums) had joined, and they had become Love and were the toast of LA with sell-out gigs at the Whisky A Go Go. Explaining the name Love to Sylvie Simmons of Mojo magazine in 2002, Lee said, "Everybody is Love, that's the way I feel about it. I'm part of everybody. Everybody is Love. It's a great name."

In June 1966, Love's first single, a punked-up cover of the Burt Bacharach and Hal David composition "My Little Red Book", and their eponymous début album - which contained a version of "Hey Joe" several months before Hendrix released his own cover of the Leaves' track - both made the US charts and they seemed to be on their way. The exciting single "Seven and Seven Is" reached the US Top Forty in the autumn and Da Capo, the album which followed in March 1967, confirmed Love's status as darlings of the alternative scene.

They had begun to incorporate baroque elements like Latin rhythms and Tjay Cantrelli's flute and were definitely on to something, though they were loath to venture away from their base on the West Coast. Instead, they went back into the studio and cut the ambitious Forever Changes, which featured mariachi brass, strings arrangements and acid-rock guitars galore. Originally released at the tail end of 1967, Love's third album made the UK Top Thirty the following year (and would eventually be hailed as a masterpiece) but, by then, their reputation in the US had been eclipsed by their labelmates the Doors.

This rather rankled with Lee, even though he had been the one who had convinced Holzman, the Elektra boss, to take a second look at the Doors. "Jim Morrison used to sit outside my door when I lived in Laurel Canyon," Lee told the rock writer Barney Hoskins. "He wanted to hang out with me, but I didn't want to hang out with anybody."

Although Love lived in a communal "castle" - a decaying mansion which had been used for horror films - and their name fitted the flower-power era like a glove, their music often had dark, sinister undertones and Lee showed anything but love to his fellow band-members. I interviewed him in 1992 and, in between glaring at me and saying "Are you calling me nuts?", Lee admitted that, by the time of the third album, he was competing with MacLean. "We were like Lennon and McCartney, trying to see who would come up with the better song. It was part of our charm . . . Eventually, the others couldn't cut it."

In 1969, Lee led a completely new line-up of Love and recorded the albums Four Sails and Out Here but then he nearly died of a drug overdose. "I didn't like heroin," he said, "I went a different way. Some friends of mine found me dead. Luckily, they were paramedic types who knew what to do to save my life. I mean, I was lying in the bathtub, blue."

Love finally reached Britain in February 1970 for a series of concerts and Lee renewed his friendship with Hendrix, who guested on False Start (1971) a few months before his death. Lee subsequently went solo with Vindicator in 1972 and resurrected the Love name for Reel to Real in 1974 but, by 1976, he was painting houses with his stepfather.

He returned fitfully to recording and made the occasional live appearance until 1995, when he was arrested after firing a gun in his Los Angeles apartment. Since he had two previous convictions on assault and drug charges, he was sentenced to eight years in prison.

On his release in 2002, Lee, who had been hailed as a genius and as influential a figure as Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett, enjoyed a belated renaissance and was even welcomed to the House of Commons by the Labour backbencher Peter Bradley. With the help of the guitarist Mike Randle, Baby Lemonade and a string and horn section, he could finally play Forever Changes in all its glory, the way he'd always heard it in his head. "I am the music," he said. "In 1967 I thought Forever Changes was going to be my last words. My last words to this world would be forever changes because this world forever changes. If someone asked me if I was on my way to another planet or another incarnation, or whatever, and they asked me how I feel about earth, I'd say, "forever changes"."

Pierre Perrone

Comments