Former Ten Years After frontman Alvin Lee died today (March 6, 2013), and the world is a lonelier place now. Among the great guitarists of the '60s and '70s, Lee accompanied his listeners on a colorful romp through the Elysian fields of blues, rock, jazz, and even country (listen to "Me and My Baby" on Cricklewood Green, the band's fifth album, but the one that launched their modest career in the early 1970s). He could do a mean blues growl ("The Stomp," on SSSSH), fiddle with psychedelia and electronica ("As the Sun Still Burns Away" from Cricklewood Green, or those famous opening measures of "Baby, Won't You Let Me Rock and Roll You," from A Space in Time), or turn damned introspective on a song like "Circles" (Cricklewood Green) or "Think About the Times" (Watt). While Clapton's fans were attributing divinity to that bluesman, famously declaring that "Clapton is God," Lee delivered anointed riff after anointed riff in the midst of a world yearning for the simple musical clarity he laid at their doorstep. Clapton seemed unreachable—still does in many ways—but Lee lived with us on our level, "working on the road" and simply carrying on from one song to the next, delivering mightily and never letting us down. He was a musician's musician, devoted to his craft, always chasing that elusive note and unafraid to try new styles, and musically talented enough to pull it off.

Lee's death hit me harder than any other musician's death, and I'll miss him more deeply than others. Sure, I grieved when Duane Allman was killed in that awful motorcycle crash, and was stunned when Allman Brothers' bassist Berry Oakley died the same way just a year later; when Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and then Levon Helm died, a bit more spirit went out of me with word of each man's passing. When I read about Alvin Lee, though, I felt like I'd lost a close friend who'd accompanied me spiritually through the past forty years.

Even though I'd discovered Ten Years After in the late Sixties through their Undead, a live album on which I first heard the now-iconic Ten Years After song, "I'm Goin' Home," and Stonedhenge, with its wonderful psychedelic-meets-prehistoric-man album cover, the first Ten Years After I owned was Cricklewood Green. I'd already become Lee's disciple long before then, faithfully riffin' on "I'm Goin" Home," doing my damndest to match him lick-for-lick. When I dropped the needle on the first groove of Cricklewood Green, however, I knew Lee and Ten Years After were taking me to a new place. This was no longer the hard blues of those earlier albums, with a little jazz ("Woodchopper's Ball" on Undead) thrown in; this was an album that jumped quite easily and naturally from one style to another, without apology. Lee was inviting me to explore, to pick up my guitar and to learn the freedom of roaming over musical styles from a master. In other words, in those moments, I became Lee's disciple—though he never, so far as I know, would have considered himself a guru and never would have set himself up in such a way; Lee, from everything I have read and heard was never an arrogant musician, solely in it for celebrity and status; he was in it for the love of the music. Lee taught me how to listen closely to notes and to find the most wrenching power from them; he taught me how to be alert to music's beauty and variety. Lee was always one with his guitar, and he taught me how to embrace that unity of player and instrument. His craft and his music changed me in immeasurable ways, just as he brought a new force to rock and roll.

The band's performance at Woodstock, and Lee's lightning fast licks on an extended version of "I'm Goin' Home," raised their visibility, especially after the film of the festival was released. In 1971, Ten Years After released A Space in Time; the band gained some modest commercial success with the song, "I'd Love to Change the World" (probably the only Ten Years After song you'll hear on the playlists of "classic rock" radio stations these days). The song featured Lee on acoustic guitar, and the lyrics took up the spiritual messages that other acoustic songs such as "Think about the Times" and "Circles" had already introduced.

Yet, the little-known, or at least often forgotten 1973 album, On the Road to Freedom, confirmed not only Lee's tremendous musical virtuosity—if anyone had ever doubted Lee's deep talent, this album puts to rest those doubts—but also revealed the ways that Lee could carry us to another plane of existence with his music. In a collaboration with the accomplished southern guitarist Mylon LeFevre, Lee explored themes of hope, loss, sadness, freedom, redemption, and love. Many of LeFevre's fans considered him an apostate for teaming up with Lee for this album (although he’d already started well down the road toward rock with his Holy Smoke Doo Dah Band). Even though LeFevre's first mainstream album, "Mylon, We Believe," is often called the first "Jesus rock" album, he had grown up singing and playing with his family, the LeFevre Family, a famous Southern gospel singing family. By the time LeFevre and Lee got together to make this album, rumors swirled and legends developed; at least one legendary story recounts a roof collapse at the mansion that the two musicians had just left after recording songs on the album.

Despite such stories, the richly layered music and the deftly woven lyrical tapestries of the album evoke a palpable spiritual sense. The opening track, penned by Lee, tells a familiar tale of an individual turning away from the riches of this world—much to the world's disdain—and searching instead for a freedom that comes not from material things but from spiritual happiness. "I'm looking for the road to freedom so I can be free/keep thinking as you walk and one day you will see." In Mylon's song, "Lay Me Back," the singer pleads: "Lord, won't you help me 'n be my friend/ Lord, won't you help me to understand/Lay me back and sing to me a song/'Cause when them angels sing, I love to sing along." George Harrison penned one of the most poignant songs on the album, "So Sad (No Love of His Own”), and he appears as a musician on the track under the name Hari Georgeson. Steve Winwood, Ron Wood, Jim Capaldi, and Rebop, who also join Lee and LeFevre on this and several other tracks on the album, as well. This haunting song explores the transitory nature of life, with a characteristic Eastern musical riff. Fans of bluegrass musician Ricky Skaggs can't help but hear strains of Lee's country-inflected "Funny" in Skaggs' "Honey" (recorded twenty years later).

Listen to this album, or any other Ten Years After or Alvin Lee album, and you'll discover why the world is a lonelier place without Alvin Lee in it. As he once put it in "Circles": "Life is goin' round in circles, wonder will it ever end/if I die maybe you'll miss me, or just find another friend." We'll never find another friend like Alvin Lee.

Henry Carrigan

Views: 3742

Comment by Michael Bialas on March 7, 2013 at 11:22am

Excellent tribute to one of rock's most unheralded guitarists. Still have my original Ten Years After on vinyl, which managed to outlive my record player.  Search begins now for On the Road to Freedom. Thanks for posting, Henry.

Comment by Steve Ford on March 7, 2013 at 7:07pm

Great tribute, Henry. Most will remember Alvin Lee for his blistering speed (check out 'Woodchopper's Ball' from 'Undead') but he could play sweet and lyrical when he wanted. The instrumental version of 'Freedom for the Stallion' (with Mel Collins on sax) from 'In Flight' is just exquisite. 

Comment by Anthony Pecora on March 8, 2013 at 3:37am

Does anyone remember an album he did in the seventies playing Peter and the Wolf? I believe Alvin

played the part of Peter.

Comment by Jim Breeds on March 8, 2013 at 3:38am

Sad to hear of his passing, I saw TYA play on the pier in Hastings (England) in 19seventysomething.  I only have the one album - "Recorded Live", which at the time (1973)  kicked back against the increasing trend for "live" albums to have been tinkered with in the studio before release by being a "truthfull recording" with "no overdubs or additives".  He should have been better known to the world.

Comment by mark yard on March 8, 2013 at 3:57am

This makes me very sad but also brings back some great memories, as a 15 year old sitting in front of my turntable trying to play "I'd love to change the world". I new I'd never be a great lead player but Alvin Lee gave me the confidence to play the acoustic parts and to become a singer. I have that album framed and on my studio wall. One great memory is seeing him play in West Hartford CT around '74 at , I believe the Columbia Music Hall, an old bowling alley, when he was touring as Alvin Lee & company. Bye Alvin.

Comment by mark yard on March 8, 2013 at 4:00am

Oh, one more thing, I still put peace sign stickers on all my guitars !!!

Comment by Steve Ford on March 8, 2013 at 4:07am

@Anthony Pecora: Alvin Lee played guitar on the album, but Peter was Manfred Mann. Bonzo Dog's Viv Stanshall was the narrator. It was a genuine all-star cast -

- Narrator / Vivian Stanshall
- Peter / Manfred Mann
- Bird / Gary Brooker
- Duck / Chris Spedding
- Duck / Gary Moore
- Cat / Stephane Grappelli
- Wolf / Brian Eno
- Pond / Keith Tippett
- Grandfather / Jack Lancaster
- Hunters / Jon Hiseman, Bill Bruford, Cozy Powell, Phil Collins

Additional Musicians:
- John Goodsall, Pete Haywood, Alvin Lee / guitars
- Percy Jones, Andy Pyle, Dave Marquee / bass
- Robin Lumley / keyboards
- Cozy Powell & Phil Collins / drums
- Bernie Frost, Julie Tippetts, The English Chorale / vocals

Comment by Anthony Pecora on March 8, 2013 at 4:13am

Steve, I remember hearing Scott Muni playing Peter and the Wolf on WNEW FM! God, I miss the old days.

Can you imagine such a thing today?

Comment by Jim Barnes on March 8, 2013 at 4:20am

Thanks for the tribute Henry, to my favorite "rock" guitarist.  I am no musician but Alvin Lee brought me endless joy listening to his music.  I became a fan as soon as I bought the first album and have bought everything Alvin Lee since.   Even got the pleasure of seeing him live twice--Newport Jazz Fest ( the ONLY reason I drove from Alabama to Rhode Island--although there were other great musicians there--Jeff beck, Roland Rashaad Kirk etc..) and in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama.  When the film of "Woodstock" came out I saw it at least 5 times ( back then one could watch a movie at a theater as many times as it was shown!!), going in as close to the exact moment that "Going Home" was coming on an staying till I saw it again!!!  I even made a "mix tape" ( 8 track, who remembers those??:):)!!) of "Going Home"--still think it is the greatest piece of concert recording.  Enough rambling, a sad day for me and rock and roll, Mark since I don't play guitar don't have peace signs but I still have the concert pic that came in one his/their albums on the wall in my "record" room, thank you Henry for the fine tribute!

Comment by Richard Brautigam on March 8, 2013 at 4:31am

As a guitar player, Alvin Lee will always be a master of clean high speed playing pre-figuring Eddie Van Halen.  Anthony, I really like your comment.  I remember hearing the Vivian Stanshall "Peter and the Wolf" (somewhere in the basement of the house I have the record, will have to dig it out in the spring).  "Cricklewood Green" was the album I liked, and "Woodchopper's Ball" the piece that was most often in rotation.  There is still good radio out there (Eric Holland on WFUV seems to have a particular gift for combining good taste in longish sets, David Dye on World Cafe) a lot of it seems tame compared to WNEW and WMMR in the 1968-1975 period.

 

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.