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Alvin Lee finds his groove

By Ken Burke, September 2004

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"I remember it vividly," Lee recalls with pride. "When I got there, the whole band was playing without Jerry Lee. They had Chas Hodges on piano, who does a pretty mean Jerry Lee impersonation. He's an English guy, and it was rocking then. Then Jerry Lee came in, and the producer came up to us and said, 'Now remember, Jerry Lee really appreciates you doing all this, but he's a country boy, and we want to get as much done as soon as we can.'"

"We all read into that what was probably going down there, because when he arrived he took a whiskey bottle out of his coat and put it on the piano. He said, 'Y'all know my tunes. When I stamp my feet, you play. When I lift my head you stop.' And, he was off. When we finished the first song, he said, 'That sounded good to me, let's go and listen to it.' and, he was off into the control room. I was sitting there with Albert Lee, and we both looked at each other and went, 'Wow...that's rock 'n' roll.'

That sort of play-it-off-the-floor-in-one-take feel is what Lee hoped to rediscover when he went down to Scotty Moore's Blueberry Hill Studios.

"Absolutely! It's the only way to go," exclaims Lee. "The studio is Scotty's house basically. It's a kitchen, a bedroom and an adjoining studio - which is great. I called him up and said, 'Where's the best place to record, Scotty? Any engineers you would prefer to use?' He said, 'Well, let's do it at my place.' That was like a dream come true to me - icing on the cake."

According to Lee, another big asset was the musicianship of former Presley drummer and Nashville session ace, DJ Fontana. "To me, it's like getting on a $10 million horse or something," the guitarist reasons. "You have to give that horse a lot of respect. DJ gets a lot of respect from me, so when I play with him I'm on my best behavior."

Lee was amazed by the 73-year-old Fontana's work on the drums. "He whacks them too. It surprised me, I thought maybe he played them quite lightly. He knows where the groove is - he knows where the roll in rock 'n' roll is. That's why I did this album. I like the ' roll more than the rock. The roll is what gives it the magic, to me."

Although Moore plays on only 3 of the disc's 11 tunes - "Let's Get It On," "Something's Gonna Get You" and "Take My Time" - his no nonsense production style proved quite rewarding. "I booked three weeks to record in Nashville, and it took two days, and we were done," reports Lee. "That's how good those guys are."

Further, in addition to choosing double bass slapper Pete Pritchard and country boogie pianist Willie Rainsford for the sessions, the '50s rockabilly legend also reigned in some of Lee's hard rock instincts.

"He told me to take to the funny, distorted sound off of my guitar and not play so fast," laughs Lee. "He said, 'Alvin, you always play faster than I can listen.' I said, 'What about that solo you did on 'Shake, Rattle, and Roll?' He just grinned and said, 'Oh - that was a long time ago.' But he told me off and said 'you've got to find the pocket.'"

From the start, Lee recognized that Moore respected his abilities. "Scotty, working with me, I think he gave me a bit more reign had he done if it were his own session," he explains.

Moore also displayed sense enough to let Alvin Lee be Alvin Lee, and allowed some extended jams that showed off the English guitarist's trademark musical energy and invention.

"That 'I'm Gonna Make It' track has 11 solo sections on the end," Lee adds. "It was just going on because it felt so good, and everybody was blowing so well. I wasn't going to demand an end it." Further, Lee's song lyrics reveal a certain New Age aesthetic. "One of the sound engineers on the tour, a very scholarly guy, he came up to me and said just that. He said, 'I think you're the first person to record a rockabilly song and use the words entropy and infinity.' I said, 'Thanks very much for noticing.'"

Another remarkable outpouring comes via the Ten Years After concert staple, "I'm Going Home." Did Lee include that for longtime fans? "No, actually, it never occurred to me to include that. Pete Pritchard requested that. He said it was one of his favorite songs, and he always wanted to play it and wanted me to hear it on double bass. So, what could I say?"

Lee had never used a stand up bass before and was mightily impressed. Subsequently, he hired Pritchard - who normally tours with Moore and Fontana when they play abroad - for his own band. "Live, it works out fantastic," he says of Pritchard's bass. "It's a unique sound which I am actually getting off on at the moment."

Still one of the hardest, balls out concert players of any generation, Lee feels he has grown as a musician.

"The passion is there but it takes different forms," he modestly explains. "I used to kind of give 150-percent adrenaline and possibly lacked a bit of taste in my younger days. So, the difference now is that I'm probably more controlled, a little more in the groove."

As a result, Lee's in-studio efforts earned a rare compliment from the man whose guitar work lit up Elvis Presley's best early recordings.

"You know what Scotty said," asks Lee with glowing pride. "He said, 'If you play this album for someone and they don't tap their feet - you'd better bury them because they're dead.'"

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