Alvin Lee Dies; Guitarist Electrified Woodstock
Alvin Lee, the British singer-guitarist whose fiery performance at Woodstock was immortalized in the subsequent film and soundtrack album, has died. He was 68.
A posting on his website says Lee died early Wednesday of "unforeseen complications following a routine surgical procedure." No other details were given.
Lee’s blues-rock group Ten Years After already was big in England before rocketing to international fame with its wild show at Woodstock in 1969. The band’s 10-minute rendition of Lee’s “I’m Going Home” became a cornerstone of Michael Wadleigh’s film about the festival and its soundtrack album, which would spend four weeks at No. 1 in the U.S. in 1970.
"I just heard about Alvin Lee's passing," former Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash tweeted Wednesday. "He was the 1st badass, super fast lead guitarist I remember hearing as a kid. legend. RIP."
Writing on his website, Queen's Brian May called Lee a "legendary and influential guitarist and very nice bloke. His speed and dexterity, in the days when I would go as a student to the Marquee Club to see Ten Years After, was scary and exciting. He was daring enough to play and sing close to his limit every time."
Having grown up on his family’s jazz and blues records but inspired by ’50s rock ’n’ roll, Lee, born Dec. 19, 1944, formed the Jaybirds in his midteens in his hometown of Nottingham, England. The group had some success after following The Beatles to Hamburg, Germany, but took hold after changing its name and relocating to London. The newly christened Ten Years After played a residency at Marquee Club, where The Rolling Stones had debuted a half-decade earlier. A gig at the 1967 Windsor Jazz & Blues Festival led to a record deal with Denam. The band’s 1967 self-titled debut album -- an innovative mix of rock, blues and swing jazz that featured “I’m Going Home” -- failed to chart but received some airplay in San Francisco’s burgeoning FM radio scene.
That led legendary promoter Bill Graham to bring the band across the pond for a U.S. tour -- the first of more than two dozen American jaunts during the next seven years. About that time, Ten Years After’s live LP, Undead, broke the group in the U.K., reaching the national top 30. Its next two studio records -- Stonedhenge and Ssssh, made the British top 10 and, fueled by the touring, also cemented the band on the U.S. charts.
Lee and the group -- which also included bassist Leo Lyons, drummer Ric Lee and keyboardist Chick Churchill -- rode that success to Upstate New York, where they played on the third and final day of the Woodstock Music & Arts Festival in August 1969. Ten Years After followed Country Joe & The Fish, who had been the first act to play after a thunderstorm delayed the concert for three hours. Lee electrified the soaked and muddied crowd with his vocals and guitar histrionics. He introduced the band’s final song by thanking the audience and saying, “This is a little thing called ‘I’m Going Home’ -- by helicopter.”
"The solo on the movie sounds pretty rough to me these days," Lee told Guitar World this month. "But it had the energy, and that was what Ten Years After were all about at the time."
The band rode that wave to two more hit albums and a U.K. top 10 single, “Love Like a Man,” before a track on its sixth studio LP gained the interest of U.S. radio programmers. The melodic “I’d Love to Change the World,” fueled by Lee’s blistering guitar work, peaked at No. 40 on the Billboard Hot 100 but took off on FM, later becoming a staple on classic rock outlets. (Listeners of KLOS Los Angeles ranked it No. 20 on a recent list of all-time favorite rock songs.) It drove A Space in Time -- the band's major-label debut, on Columbia -- to become its sole platinum album.
"Rest in Peace Alvin Lee," blues guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd tweeted. "One of the greatest guitar players ever. We lost you too soon. Thanks for the music."
Ten Years After ultimately released 10 albums before splitting in 1973. Lee soon teamed with American gospel singer Mylon LeFevre for a country rock album, On the Road to Freedom, which featured such guests as George Harrison, Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi, Mick Fleetwood and Ron Wood. Lee would spend the rest of the ’70s touring and making solo records. During the decade’s waning years, he formed Ten Years Later, which released a pair of albums, and he continued to play gigs in the U.S. and Europe.
During the ’80s, he teamed with Rare Bird vocalist Steve Gould and toured with ex-Stone Mick Taylor in his band, and his ”90s albums include Zoom and 1994 (I Hear You Rocking).
In 2004, he released the rootsy Alvin Lee in Tennessee, teaming with Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana from Elvis Presley’s band. His most recent record, 2007’s Saguitar, flowed from hard rock to slow blues to a take on rap. His 14th solo album, Still on the Road to Freedom, was released in August. A new compilation album, Best of Alvin Lee, was issued in May.
Lee was scheduled to play an April 7 concert in Paris with bluesman Johnny Winter; it would have been the first time the two guitarists shared a bill since 1983.
Lee told Guitar World that he still played his guitar “pretty much every day. I write and record all the time; it’s my hobby and my passion.”