ALVIN LEE (BORN GRAHAM ANTHONY BARNES, 19 DECEMBER 1944 – 6 MARCH 2013) WAS A BRITISH GUITARIST AND SINGER, BEST KNOWN AS THE LEAD GUITARIST AND LEAD SINGER WITH THE BLUES-ROCK BAND TEN YEARS AFTER.
He was born in Nottingham and attended the Margaret Glen-Bott School in Wollaton which was a precursor to Comprehensive Schools with grammar and secondary modern streams. He began playing guitar at the age of 13, and with Leo Lyons formed the core of the band Ten Years After in 1960. Influenced by his parents’ collection of jazz and blues records, it was the advent of rock and roll that sparked his interest, and guitarists such as Chuck Berry and Scotty Moore provided his inspiration.
Lee began to play professionally in 1962, in a band named the Jaybirds, who enjoyed popularity in their native England, but moved on to seek a wider fan-base. They began that year to perform in the Star-Club in Hamburg, Germany, following closely behind The Beatles. There, with Alvin Lee assuming the permanent role of lead vocalist in addition to that of lead guitarist, they began to build a following. It was not until the band moved to London in 1966 and changed its name, first to Jaybird, dropping ‘The’ and ‘s’ to make it sound more contemporary; then to Blues Yard (for one gig at the Marquee Club); and finally to Ten Years After, that international success beckoned. The band secured a residency at the Marquee Club, and an invitation to the Windsor Jazz & Blues Festival in 1967 led to their first recording contract. The self-titled début album received airplay on San Francisco’s underground music radio stations and was embraced by listeners, including concert promoter Bill Graham, who invited the band to tour the United States for the first time in 1968. Ten Years After would ultimately tour the US twenty-eight times in seven years – more than any other UK band.
Lee’s performance at the Woodstock Festival was captured on film in the documentary of the event, and his ‘lightning-fast’ playing helped catapult him to stardom. Soon the band was playing arenas and stadiums around the globe. The film brought Lee’s music to a worldwide audience, although he later lamented that he missed the lost freedom and spiritual dedication with his earlier public.
Lee was named “the Fastest guitarist in the West”, and considered a precursor to shred-style playing that would develop in the 1980s.
Ten Years After had success, releasing ten albums together, but by 1973, Lee was feeling limited by the band’s style. Moving to Columbia Records had resulted in a radio hit song, “I’d Love To Change the World”, but Lee preferred blues-rock to the pop to which the label steered them. He left Ten Years After after their second Columbia LP. With American Christian rock singer Mylon LeFevre and George Harrison, Steve Winwood, Ronnie Wood and Mick Fleetwood, he recorded and released On the Road to Freedom, an acclaimed album that was at the forefront of country rock. Also in 1973 he sat in on the Jerry Lee Lewis double album The Session recorded in London featuring many other guest stars including Albert Lee, Peter Frampton and Rory Gallagher. A year later, in response to a dare, Lee formed Alvin Lee & Company to play a show at the Rainbow in London and released it as a double live album, In Flight. Various members of the band continued on with Lee for his next two albums, Pump Iron! and Let It Rock. In late 1975, he played guitar for a couple of tracks on Bo Diddley’s The 20th Anniversary of Rock ‘n’ Roll all-star album. He finished out the 1970s with an outfit called “Ten Years Later”, with Tom Compton on drums and Mick Hawksworth on bass, which released two albums, Rocket Fuel (1978) and Ride On (1979), and toured extensively throughout Europe and the United States.
The 1980s brought another change in Lee’s direction, with two albums that were collaborations with Rare Bird’s Steve Gould, and a tour with the former John Mayall and Rolling Stones’ guitarist Mick Taylor joining his band.
Lee’s overall musical output includes more than twenty albums, including 1985’s Detroit Diesel, 1989’s About Time (Ten Years After album), recorded in Memphis with producer Terry Manning, and the back to back 1990s collections of Zoom and Nineteen Ninety-Four (US title I Hear You Rockin’ ). Guest artists on both albums included George Harrison.
In Tennessee, recorded with Scotty Moore and D. J. Fontana, was released in 2004. Lee’s last album, Still on the Road to Freedom, was released in September 2012.
Lee died on 6 March 2013 in Spain. According to his website, he died from “unforeseen complications following a routine surgical procedure”. He was 68. His former bandmates lamented his death. Leo Lyons called him “the closest thing I had to a brother”, while Ric Lee (no relation) said “I don’t think it’s even sunk in yet as to the reality of his passing”. Billboard highlighted such landmark performances as “I’m Going Home” from the Woodstock festival and his 1971 hit single “I’d Love to Change the World”.
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