Sign up for newsletter
 

Alvin Lee finds his groove

By Ken Burke, September 2004

"Well, I had to go to the masters to get that," says Alvin Lee of the strong rockabilly groove exhibited on his new album "In Tennessee." "I could have tried forever to do that in England or anywhere else in the world. But, you have to go where it is done best."

Best known as the primal force behind Ten Years After, Lee enlisted the aid of Elvis Presley's original '50s band mates, Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana. Speaking from his home in Spain, the '60 and '70s guitar god envisioned working with the duo from the moment they first met at an all-star gathering.

"Yeah, it was from meeting Scotty, first in 1995," explains Lee. "I met him as a fan. I had a camera, and I got his autograph. I asked him how he played the second guitar solo in 'Hound Dog.' Then, I met him again in 1999 with (documentary film-maker) Dan Griffin and DJ over at George Harrison's house. George had invited them down, and I think they had done a radio interview with my friend (pioneer English rocker) Joe Brown in England. So, we basically all went down to pay homage to Scotty and DJ, and we had dinner and then went up to the studio."

"Then, rather uncoolly but what the hell, I grabbed a guitar and thrust it at Scotty and said, 'Show me how you play the intro to 'That's All Right Mama.'' That turned out to be the icebreaker because everybody suddenly gathered around, and guitars came out, and we had a session with the master."

"I then was invited to this jam session in London, and it was in aid of the Scotty Moore guitar being put out by Gibson. He was there with his band and Pete Pritchard on bass, and I got up and jammed with them. Jeff Beck was there. Jimmy Page was there. Jack Bruce was there and a lot of people paying homage to the maestro. That was just a blast. I enjoyed it so much. I just said, 'Any chance I can get you guys in the studio?'"

Lee's admiration of Moore's work with Presley is just part of his stockpile of influences. Like many British stars, the 59-year-old Lee is incredibly knowledgeable about American roots music. When asked how he became exposed to these sounds, the native of Nottingham, England responded cheerily.

"Well, through my dad's record collection. I was brought up listening to chain gang songs, Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy. That was always kind of just playing around the house. So, basically I thought that was what music was all about. That's why I got very excited in the mid-60's when John Mayall made progress with a blues band. I said, 'Aha, now here is way to play all that stuff that I really love and play what I want within the music.' So, in a way, John Mayall, who is the father of British blues, kind of started that for me, but I had already been turned onto the real thing."

Surprisingly, Lee did not begin his musical life as a guitar player. "I did a year on the clarinet when I was 12," he admits with a chuckle. "I listened to Benny Goodman and became more aware of (pioneer electric guitarist) Charlie Christian than Benny Goodman. So a part of me started moving to the guitar from the clarinet. That, and you couldn't be a rock star playing the clarinet."

During the mid-60s, he and Leo Lyons transformed their group, Britain's Largest Sounding Trio, into the seminal blues-rock group Ten Years After. Employing remarkable speed and shading on his instrument, Lee earned a reputation as "The Fastest Guitar Alive."

With his fame rapidly spreading, Ten Years After began to tour overseas. However, Lee's hopes of finding the pulsating rural blues and folk music of his dad's record collection in their land of origin, were quickly dashed.

"When I first got to America in 1967, I thought everybody in America would be aware of those guys and hardly anybody was. About 10 percent of people I met had even heard of Big Bill Broonzy. I was saying, 'Man, this is your whole heritage.'"

However, whether working with Ten Years after (1967-1974), or on his own, the superstar guitarist reveled in that heritage. "I have tended to play a lot of styles through the years. I did that solo album with Mylon LeFevre (1973) which was really quite country," he admits before adding, "I did actually play with the Earl Scruggs Revue in 1976 on an album and did a live gig with them. That was great too. There was old Earl picking his banjo, and the band was cooking, and the audience was raging. It was like a Rolling Stone's audience. They were jumping, screaming and shouting. Young girls were there. It was great."

How did Scruggs' traditional bluegrass audience react to the long-haired English rocker? "They were kind," Lee laughs, "but you have to go in and fill your space carefully."

Lee was part of a more famous roots tribute when he along with a whole galaxy of English super pickers guested on rock pioneer/country comeback king Jerry Lee Lewis' 1973 double album "London Sessions," which has recently been reissued on CD.

1   |   2 NEXT PAGE »