Maybe Alvin Lee was not as well known as his fellow countrymen Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck, and was often confused with Albert Lee, but his rapid-fire fingerstyle on his Gibson ES-335 certainly turned heads, and he would become a legend soon enough.
Born Graham Anthony Barnes (December 19, 1944 - March 6, 2013) in Nottingham England, started playing the guitar at 13, and two years later formed a band called the Jaybirds with his mate Leo Lyons on bass. The boy was lured to music by the sounds of Big Bill Broonzy and Lonnie Johnson on his father’s records, something he would mention years later on tour in America, “The strange thing was we had gone to what I considered the home of the blues, but they never heard of most of them, and I couldn’t believe it, - ‘Big Bill who?’ We were recycling American music and they were calling it the English sound.”.
But in the early years the Jaybirds played mostly the club scene in Hamburg Germany, following in the Beatles footsteps, yet it wasn’t until they moved to London, and changed their name to Ten Years After (TYA) did things start to take off. Fun fact: the band took its name from the emergence of Elvis Presley 10 years before; Alvin was a massive Elvis fan. In fact in 2004, he would record In Tennessee with Elvis’ lead guitarist Scotty Moore, and drummer D.J. Fontana. Things got rolling when they were invited to play at the Windsor Jazz & Blues Festival in 1967. It led their first recording contract, a self-titled record that found its way to some San Francisco radio station, which tweaked the ears of one Bill Graham, the famous promoter, and he invited them to the U.S.. The American public were enthralled by his mercurial playing, and the material was a creative blend of blues, rock, and swing jazz; the romance was on! They landed ‘the big stage’ at the fabled Woodstock Festival in 1969, where Alvin put on a virtuoso performance by shredding a cover of I’m Going Home that was captured on film and put into the documentary about the event. He set a new standard that day, a must see for guitarists the world over. Pretty soon they were playing stadiums and arenas globally, and they toured the USA 28 times in 7 years, more than any other British band.
Perhaps their most notable albums were Cricklewood Green (4th record), engineered by Andy Johns whose “studio tricks and sound effects, blues-based song structures, a driving rhythm section, and Alvin Lee’s signature lightning-fast guitar licks into a unified album that flows nicely from start to finish” (AllMusic), and Watt (5th record) which includes a cover of Sweet Little Sixteen by Chuck Berry. Their top 40 hits were I’d Love to Change the World, written by Lee, but he wasn’t so sure it was their style, “I hated it because it was a hit. By then I was rebelling and I never played it live, to me it was a pop song”, and Love Like a Man (#10 U.K.). As for albums, they reached the top 40 U.K. charts 8 times, and made 12 entries on the U.S.Billboard 200.
In the early 70s Lee grew tired of the band’s limits and went looking elsewhere. He teamed up with American gospel singer Mylon LeFevre and a host of others such as George Harrison, Mick Fleetwood, Steve Winwood and Ron Wood to record On the Road to Freedom which won accolades from the critics, and led the way in country rock. He formed Alvin Lee & Company a year later and played at the Rainbow in London which became a double album release called In Flight. It is a rousing mix of rock, rhythm and blues, and an Elvis number just because. He called the band his “funky little outfit”, and they would be with him for 2 more releases, Pump Iron and Let it Rock.
In the late 70s he put together a trio and called it again, Ten Years After, with Tom Compton on drums, and bassman Mick Hawksworth. They would burn 2 albums Rocket Fuel and Ride On and hit the road once again in the early 80s, filling venues across Europe and the U.S.. Then he went through yet another twist in direction collaborating with Rarebird’s Steve Gould and Mick Taylor joined hooked up on another tour.
Mr. Lee amassed over 20 albums, featuring two side by side 90s collections called Zoom and 1994 (I Hear You Rockin), with guest George Harrison, whose delicious slide guitar mixes with Lee’s solos, especially on 1994’s The Bluest Blues, which has been described as the most perfect blues song ever recorded.
All in all, he stayed true to his roots, completely independent and without any outside influences. He did it his way, and the world responded enthusiastically, proving that he certainly was the real deal, and even if the Pages and Becks got most of the limelight, it was just the way he wanted it, a low profile, with high quality material.
Alvin Lee passed away on March 6, 2013, of heart operation complications in southern Spain. In response to his I’d Love to Change the World, you certainly did Alvin, you certainly did.