When it comes to hiring drummers, the Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant has always been a hard taskmaster since John Bonham's death in September 1980 precipitated the end of the legendary rock group. Throughout his solo career, Plant has probably had his late friend and bandmate at the back of his mind, and has performed and recorded with musicians such as Phil Collins, Cozy Powell, Barriemore Barlow and Richard Hayward behind the kit.
The British drummer Michael Lee joined Plant during the recording of his 1993 solo album Fate Of Nations, and toured with the singer that year. So impressed was Plant with Lee's drumming that he asked him to be part of his next project, a collaboration with the Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page. Ostensibly billed as Page and Plant (rather than a Zeppelin reunion), what started as an MTV Unplugged special showcasing the acoustic, orchestral and world music strands rather than the hard-rocking side of the Zeppelin canon quickly became a major event.
The programme followed the musicians to Morocco and Wales but majored on two performances filmed in London in August 1994. A live album entitled No Quarter: Jimmy Page and Robert Plant Unledded was issued in November 1994, and a video and world tour followed. Lee formed a tight rhythm section with the bassist Charlie Jones, and the pair also participated in the creation and recording of Walking Into Clarksdale, the album Page and Plant made with the alternative producer Steve Albini. Released in April 1998, Clarksdale was a collaborative effort credited to all four musicians and proved a great showcase for Lee, whose drumming propelled the "Most High" single into the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.
Born Michael Gary Pearson in Newcastle in 1969, he grew up in Scarborough and left school at 16 to work in a music shop. He saved up to buy his first kit and played in cover bands and with a group called Holosade before travelling to California in 1988. On his return, he auditioned for the heavy rock band Little Angels, who had a big following in the North East and were on the verge of a major contract. Lee, the 66th person to audition, instantly impressed the frontman Toby Jepson.
"He arrived last in the only clothes he owned, a pair of sticks and a huge grin," the singer recalled. "He then proceeded to play the life out of the rubbish kit we had hired for the auditions. He was so good that he actually made me laugh! It was the only honest reaction I could muster. I had never experienced such raw unadulterated talent, nor have I since; it was an incredible display that quite simply took my breath away. He was awesome to behold. He was simply one of, if not the, greatest drummer of his generation. He had everything: groove, power, musical precision, technical ability, sass, and he made it all look so easy."
With Lee joining Jepson, Bruce John Dickinson (guitar), Dickinson's brother Jimmy (keyboards) and Mark Plunkett (bass), Little Angels signed to Polydor and released the albums Don't Prey For Me (1989) and Young Gods (1991). Several singles – most notably "Radical Your Lover" and "She's A Little Angel" – made the Top 40 but Lee was already plotting his next move and auditioned for The Cult behind his bandmates' back. When they found out, he was sacked and replaced by Mark Richardson. Lee helped The Cult promote the Ceremony album throughout the rest of 1991 and into 1992 before joining Plant. In 1997, Lee drummed on Evergreen, the Echo and the Bunnymen comeback album – and their anthemic Top Ten hit "Nothing Lasts Forever" – and also contributed to their 1999 effort, What Are You Going To Do With Your Life?
More recently, Lee toured with the reunited Thin Lizzy in 2004 and played on Gillan's Inn, the solo album by Ian Gillan of Deep Purple fame.
A tall drummer, Lee played a Ludwig kit, like Bonham, and used a 26in diameter bass drum and a 14in x 14in snare drum. Paying tribute, Plant said: "Michael was the rhythm bridge between the 1970s and the 21st century. On the work which was not original, he had a tough gig to visit Bonham-driven classics and present his own imprint. He mastered and transfigured, introducing an inherent swing mixed up with his drum-and-bass leanings; he always encouraged. His ideas were sharp and bright. It was not unusual for him to rehearse with Page, myself and Charlie Jones in London until 6pm, then head to Liverpool to set up his kit to accompany a midnight DJ mixers session – always cutting loose, looking for a new way. I lost him years ago and I regret it."
Michael Gary Pearson (Michael Lee), drummer and songwriter: born Newcastle upon Tyne 19 November 1969; died Darlington 24 November 2008.
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