Ten Years After The Passing Of Blues & Rock Guitar Legend Alvin Lee
On March 6th, 2013 the music world mourned the unexpected death of Alvin Lee at the age of 68 following routine hospital surgery. Alvin was one of the world’s most recognizable and respected guitarists as front man of UK blues rockers Ten Years After and subsequently throughout his long and successful solo career. The outpouring of grief from his fans and the accolades he received from his peers across the whole blues and rock spectrum in the days after his passing, together with his continued popularity over the past decade, confirm the global esteem in which he is held.
Queen’s Sir Brian May wrote: “Alvin was a legendary and influential guitarist and a very nice bloke. His speed and dexterity…were scary and exciting. He was daring enough to play and sing close to his limit every time. As a man off-stage his persona was modest and gentle. On stage – a giant who will be missed greatly.”
Joe Bonamassa posted a clip of Alvin’s vintage guitar playing on social media and commented: “Another hero gone this week, this is a very sad night.” Kenny Wayne Shepherd referred to Alvin as, “One of the greatest guitar players ever.” Black Sabbath’s Tommy Iommi described Alvin as “a brilliant guitarist who inspired me in the early days but more importantly he was a good friend.” According to Guns N’ Roses’ Slash, “He was the first badass, super fast lead guitarist. I remember hearing him as a kid. A legend.”
Not surprisingly, Ten Years After bassist Leo Lyons also remembers Lee fondly. “I still haven’t really taken it in. I feel very sad. He was the closest thing I had to a brother. We had our differences, but we shared so many great experiences together that nothing can take away. I will miss him very much. He was an inspiration for a generation of guitar players. Keep on rockin’ Alvin!” Added to these sentiments is the fact that his status amongst his fellow musicians was such that Alvin’s company was sought by the most famous band in music history as a close friend of, and music collaborator with, The Beatles’ George Harrison. George brought Ringo and Paul to The Rainbow Theatre in London to watch Alvin perform with his new band in 1974.
Like most fans, I was in shock when I learned of his passing because Alvin was invincible and in any case he was due to perform with Johnny Winter in Paris the following month. I already had the tickets and knew how enthusiastic Alvin was about the forthcoming gig from a recent interview with him. “I’ve done a bunch of gigs with Johnny Winter on the same bill over the years, but we’ve never played together. Probably won’t this time either.” Sadly, it was not meant to be, so instead of arriving in the French capital to see the best blues rockers either side of the pond I found myself at The American Church on the banks of the Seine on 7th April for an Alvin Lee memorial service. Pieter Kientrop, a loyal fan from Norway, had organized this event on behalf of a close-knit community of other devotees known as “the gang” who had traveled to Paris from all over Europe.
American Gospel Music Hall of Fame inductee Mylon LeFevre, who teamed up with Alvin for On The Road To Freedom and is now a Christian Evangelist Minister, had submitted a reading for the occasion: “Alvin was a good man with a good heart. He was honest, creative, intelligent, kind and loyal. He was a rock superstar, it was an honor to be his friend.” The concert at L’Olympia that evening had been rescheduled as ‘Johnny Winter and Guests’ to be preceded by a moment of silent reflection. As the audience filed into the auditorium, the national anthem “I’m Going Home” was playing at full volume and for a moment it seemed that Alvin was there on stage and all that had happened was just a bad dream. Fans around the world were invited to respect the silence at 7 pm local time, a moving experience honored reverentially by the full house of over 1500 in the auditorium.
Alvin was steeped in the blues from an early age as his first influences were his dad’s rare collection of jazz and blues 78s. He explains, “My dad Sam was an avid jazz and blues collector and he and my mum Doris both played the guitar so I was brought up listening to Leadbelly and Big Bill Broonzy.” This mainly American influence stayed with Alvin; he loved America and Ten Years After would ultimately tour the USA 28 times in seven years. The 1969 Woodstock Festival in New York State was the ultimate tribute to, and triumph for, Alvin who was one of the first popular musicians to promote universal peace and love, the ethos of this rock extravaganza which both changed the world and the role of youth in society. The spirit of Woodstock with its very special sense of freedom generated by the hippie counterculture of the late 60s stayed with Alvin throughout his life.
His incendiary performance in front of an audience of around half a million propelled Alvin to superstardom, gaining a reputation as ’Captain Speedfingers’ and the ‘fastest guitarist in the west.’ In fact, through constant practice and listening to a wide range of influences Alvin developed into a skillful, versatile guitarist of immense intricacy and subtlety who could play a variety of genres including jazz. Woodstock was a significant landmark in Alvin’s illustrious career particularly when the smash hit documentary of the festival was released the following year. Lee’s reputation as an iconic axe man was preserved for posterity on film, specifically his adrenalin-fueled vintage blues and rock and roll extravaganza “I’m Going Home.” Not only that, his distinctive red Gibson E-335 adorned with a peace symbol sticker and dancing hippie man motif made ‘Big Red’ almost as famous as its owner.
Long before becoming a blues writer, I had seen Alvin perform live when I was a student in Nottingham, England in the late 1960s when Ten Years After played at The Boat Club, a venue which had hosted every big name in progressive rock such as King Crimson, Led Zeppelin, and Deep Purple. Having watched all of these bands, they were a pale comparison to Ten Years After as nothing could have prepared me for the spectacle of Alvin performing in the city where he had started his career with The Jaybirds. Standing there in the crowded, compact, sweaty space, the home fans roaring Lee on like football supporters, I was in heaven. I already possessed what I still regard as my most treasured vinyl album, Ssssh, so it was a thrill listening to extended live versions of “Good Morning Little School Girl” and “I Woke Up This Morning.”
What amazed me most was not just Alvin’s sheer strength, charismatic stage presence and abundant energy, but the depth of feeling and the emotion which he channeled through every note. The synergy between Alvin and Leo was breathtaking, the speed incredible, the grooves thunderous and the jamming inventive whilst retaining a melodic structure without missing a beat. Although I followed his career assiduously, the next time I met Alvin was in 2001 when I moved to Spain where he was living peacefully and out of the limelight with his wife Evi. Not surprisingly, their accommodation included a recording studio as Alvin was also an exceptionally talented recording engineer, mixer and producer.
It surprises most aficionados who saw him play that Alvin never achieved the world-class status that he deserved, neither winning a Grammy award nor gaining induction to the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. This did not appear to faze Alvin as he was more concerned about the opinions of his genuine, knowledgeable fans than to just follow the paths of the high profile popular bands of the time. From the outset it was never part of Alvin’s plan to become a rock or pop star, to be famous and to earn a fortune. He eschewed commercialism, and was reluctant to sell clothing merchandise at his gigs because, as he told me; “I’m a musician not a tailor.”
Rather he maintained the integrity of his music and remained true to his roots. However, he was pleased when Gibson nominated him as the greatest ever exponent of its ES 335 model ahead of such luminaries as Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton and B.B. King. Even more surprising is that Alvin’s immense feeling for the blues was not universally recognized despite virtuosic tracks such as “The Bluest Blues” featuring George Harrison on slide, a work of pure genius. Alvin described it as one of George’s best ever solos: “It is a masterpiece, so sensitive, and this made me play more sensitively. He created such a tender, melodic sound and this inspired me to change my approach too.”
During the last decade of his life, Alvin teamed up with bass player Pete Pritchard and drummer Richard Newman to form a power trio which toured the UK and played at festivals across Europe. Alvin’s last show, the Ribs and Blues Festival in Holland on 28th May 2012, turned out to be a breathtaking display by a musician at the peak of his career and one of his best live performances, subsequently released on CD as The Last Show. The self-penned “Slow Blues In C” and Al Kooper’s “I Can’t Keep From Crying Sometimes” confirm that Lee was indeed an exceptional bluesman. “Love Like A Man” with its guitar pyrotechnics and one of the most distinctive, innovative riffs in rock history is a reminder he was right at the top of his game. Pete summarized later, ‘Not for Alvin to gradually diminish and fade like a dying ember. He finished still playing brilliantly, still shooting from the hip, still the classic guitar slinger.’
Since 2013, the unparalleled devotion of Alvin’s family has ensured that his legacy is perpetuated for future generations. Evi Lee works tirelessly to keep the official website and Facebook page continuously updated and to oversee new content and releases. In the vaults of their home she discovered the master recordings of what became known as ‘The Cap Ferrat Sessions’ from 1972 which have been remixed and are included in the 50th anniversary box set, Ten Years After 1967-1974. Alvin’s daughter Jasmin and her mother Suzanne Lee-Barnes perpetuate the music tradition as joint owners and managing directors of Dean Street Studios in Soho, London, one of the world’s most renowned recording venues. Jasmin is CEO and Suzanne is Chief Strategic Officer, the latter combining this role whilst currently music director for the annual Silverstone Festival classic car event.
Some of Alvin’s memorable quotes from our interviews about his love of music:
“Music is magic and I can’t think of a world without music when you think about what it does to people. I still wake up on my birthday and play Jerry Lee’s ‘Whole Lotta Shakin,’ that’s my kind of rock and roll. When I think of music when I was a teenager, for example, when I hear Buddy Holly’s ‘That’ll Be The Day,’ I can see myself standing on the waltzer at Goose Fair in Nottingham watching the girls, I can hear the loud, blaring music and see the flashing lights from the fairground rides and I can smell hot dogs and diesel fumes; the memories all come back from the song. And when I hear Del Shannon’s ‘Runaway,’ I am standing in the Locarno Ballroom watching the girls spinning round on the dance-floor with their petticoats flying and their bee-hives bobbing, the memories, the smells and the atmosphere all come back, its pretty amazing. Being involved in music is a privilege and being able to create it, write it and then make it still gives me a big buzz.
“I write all the time, my inspiration comes from within my mind. George Harrison once said that I have a very avant-garde mind to which I answered “Yes, avant garde a clue!” Writing, recording and playing with other musicians is both a labor of love and a hobby. Maybe even an obsession. It certainly beats playing bowls or darts.
“When I was 12 years old and living at home, I heard two people talking downstairs at about two in the morning so I went to investigate and there’s my dad drinking whisky with Big Bill Broonzy – he had brought him back from the show he had gone to see! So the music was around me all the time and seeped into my brain and fibres; thank goodness he wasn’t playing James Last. I figured for a white guy to sing and play the blues you have to write and sing about what is personal to you. As much as I like to sing about getting the freight train from Mississippi to Chicago I have never done it. I can imagine the situation but the blues to me is generally real thoughts which go through my mind, like in ‘Motel Blues’ and ‘The Bluest Blues.’ The blues is a way of getting melancholy moments out of your system. It is better than taking it out on your friends and pets. Good music is still there but the motivation now is to be a pop star whereas in the 60s the motivation was to be a musician. That romanticism to be a working musician and to lead a musician’s life was more intriguing to me than being a rock star.“
When asked about the superb original paintings adorning his property, Alvin replied “I am nowhere near good enough. I only paint for fun. I pretend I’m Salvador Dali. What is interesting though is the range of reactions I get from people who look at the pictures on the Web and tell me what they see in them. Often their interpretations are totally different from what I imagined or intended.“
And talking about his daughter Jasmin: “There were always musicians round at our house and she has a natural empathy for working with musicians and understands what kind of environment they need to bring about the best results. She has a management company and has opened a new recording studio complex with her mother in the heart of Soho called Dean Street Studios. Jasmin can give a band the time and space to discover their own creativity and help them develop their own style and sound. I am very proud of her because she is following her natural path.“
Alvin’s search for freedom: ‘There was a time when for me being on tour with a Rock & Roll band playing practically the same thing every night got boring, and believe me if that gets boring you have a big problem because where do you go from there? That’s where the road to freedom comes in. I have always been On The Road To Freedom and 40 years later I am Still On The Road To Freedom. I have been searching for it all of my life and when I think I have found it, I find that I haven’t and the road continues and that is what it is all about.’
When asked about his epitaph Alvin was characteristically self-deprecating: “I like Spike Milligan’s ‘I told them I was ill.’ I have got nothing to say when I am dead and to boil it all down to one little phrase to put on a stone when you’re dead is a tough one. I tell my friends, put me in the dustbin when I die because it’s all over. I am not interested about what the history books say; I live for the present. Enjoy life while you have it as it’s a very precious thing to have, waking up in your own body. I just hope nobody writes my life story and does something terribly embarrassing like these movies of pop stars’ lives where Hollywood does a new cheesy version.“
Like it or not, long term friend and producer Chris Kimsey when talking about Alvin’s legacy came up with a statement which would have made a glorious and appropriate epitaph:
The increasing respect and recognition from across the world since he passed away is a tribute to what Alvin achieved in his lifetime. There will only ever be one Alvin Lee and his absence has left a huge void. He really did change the world through the evolution of his timeless and classic music and his promotion of peace. Alvin’s music transcends his mortality and will be remembered and enjoyed for many decades to come thanks to the love and dedication of his precious family and loyal fan base. The positive news is that Alvin’s indomitable spirit and unique talent will be passed down the line through his grandson Jaxon. What is certain is that Alvin Lee will continue to be an inspiration for future generations including Jaxon who will be bursting with pride for the rest of his life. It is reassuring that until the end, Alvin was still composing, recording and playing great music and, above all, closing in on his ideal of freedom.
And finally, the tributes from Alvin’s close family
“Alvin and I were very devoted to each other and his sudden passing made my whole world collapse. While we lived together he was constantly honing his craft to meet his own extremely high standards, always exploring new ways to create beautiful music and to paint. I feel very blessed and am forever grateful for many happy years together. It is a great honour to share the responsibility of continuing to bring his musical heritage into the world for old and new fans alike.”
“My Dad was my greatest fan, and I was his. Nothing will ever fill the void of losing the most loving and amazing man in my life. But I have a legacy to look after and it fills with me with joy to be able to preserve Alvin Lee the artist and share this all with his grandson.”
“A truly great musician and one of the best guitarists ever: an insightful, intelligent, artistic and creative soul. I was fortunate enough to spend over 20 years with this amazing man and it is so important that our beautiful daughter Jasmin and her son Jaxon are here to carry on his incredible legacy. Alvin, much loved and still missed every day.”