Remembering Guitarist Alvin Lee: 1944-2013

Thursday, 07 March 2013 06:10 AM Written by 

1968 was a time when parents and kids were throwing down about nearly everything. But my mother, a genuine 1930's Benny Goodman fan and swing kid from the 30's. liked it nearly as much as I did. More than often, I'd come home from school and notice Undead by Ten Years After on the turntable, either that or BB King's Blues Is King.  I didn't leave it there. She'd been playing one or the other during the day. TYA became one of my favorite listening experiences, especially the explosions from their singer-guitarist Alvin Lee, who died Wednesday at 68.   You can read his biographical details elsewhere.  This isn't so much a history lesson as a personal reminisence.

Undead, loose collection recorded live at London's once-legendary club Klook's Kleek, included the original "I'm Going Home," the song that made the band famous at Woodstock in 1969.  Oh and the band, originally known as the Jaybirds, became Ten Years After in 1967 to mark a decade since the Elvis explosion in Britain.  At the time, I didn't even try to emulate Lee on the guitar.  His velocity was so far beyond what I could ever do that it was best to just sit back and bathe in his rapidfire virtuosity.   

Undead stayed on my turntable a lot during my senior year in high school, my hardcore blues period. Lurching toward high school graduation, totally bored with the educational part. I preferred to ignore homework and play Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf records, to strap on my Gretsch Double Anniversary electric and rehearse licks I picked up from Clapton, that he'd learned from BB, Albert and Freddy King.

But my favorite tracks on Undead didn't include "Home," but the first two: "I May Be Wrong (But I Won't Be Wrong Always)," a tune that Lee, whose dad was deep into jazz and blues, appropriated from an old Count Basie record.  It's nothing profound, just 12-bar blues.  But damn, did it pack a wallop.  For me, it still does.  This version, from European TV in late 1969, a few months after Woodstock, is just as good, maybe a bit better than the album.  A few other tunes are included, too, including "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl."

Then there was his ripsaw take on Woody Herman's big band standard "Woodchopper's Ball" from Undead.  You see part of the cover in the opening of the video.

Of course, what really established them was their explosive 1969 Woodstock performance of "I'm Goin' Home."

 

I'd soured a bit on Alvin by 1970. At the time I was in a phase where I starting to explore country and felt rapidfire licks played by any guitarist were often self-indulgent and not always musical. I felt he was overdoing it; obviously, given the band's post-Woodstock popularity, many didn't agree. I begged off for a long time. Not that my views mattered. Lee persevered with the Gibson ES-335. emblazoned the peace sign decal he played at Woodstock. Gibson later faithfully, meticulously reproduced every detail of the instrument for a Lee commemorative model.   Lee and the original TYA parted ways, but in 1983 reunited and stayed together until a decade ago.

A 1988 interview with Lee.

About ten years ago, after parting ways with TYA (who inexplicably continued with another guitarist in Alvin's place), Lee went to Nashville and recorded a sadly underrated rockabilly/country boogie album titled Alvin Lee In Tennessee (2004) a set that's still available. His sidemen: original Elvis guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer D.J. Fontana.  The first run through, I found I enjoyed it as much as I'd enjoyed Undead 36 years before. It kind of closed the circle.

Here he is 2012, in full rockabilly mode singing the Elvis Sun favorite "My Baby Left Me"

Lee's death was apparently all the more tragic because of the fact he died of unexpected complications after routine surgery.  His passing is a reminder of the mortality of boomer icons. But discovering Lee the way I did, walking away then rediscovering him and finding the same excitement I had at the beginning, felt good.

He symbolized an era much-romanticized, but he could deliver up to the end. Not every performer is that fortunate. 

Peace, Alvin.

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