The sudden death British guitar superman Alvin Lee this past week after something went wrong after a routine surgery in Spain left the world of his fans and music critics alike stunned. But, in a career that spanned from humble roots playing in a struggling small-time pub band, The Jaybirds, on through the formation of Ten Years After in 1967, and on through many solo and guest appearances on many recordings, and finally ending with the release of STILL ON THE ROAD TO FREEDOM in September 2012, the underrated guitar superstar, who was considered to be in elite league as of one of the ten best rock guitarists of all time, left behind a rich legacy of recordings for generations to come to enjoy.
Alvin Lee was actually born Graham Alvin Barnes near the end of WWII in December 1944 in Nottingham, England, but took to his simplified stage name, Alvin Lee, as he began a career in music just after The Beatles completed their gig at Hamburg’s Beat Club. Alvin Lee was such an impressive musician that he and his early band, The Jaybirds, were immediately offered a gig to play at the club as regulars. But, Alvin Lee was always musically looking beyond just being another Beatles type pop band. He had an intense love of blues and jazz, partially fueled by the enjoyment that he drew from his parents extensive library of record albums. Alvin also added in his new found love for Chuck Berry as well as Scotty Moore to the love he developed for blues and Jazz, and by the age of 13 was playing guitar, and even built his own amplifier by the age of 16. He later met bass player Leo Lyons, and the two put together their first band in 1960.
In 1966 and through to 1967, Alvin Lee sought to keep up with the fast changing pace and evolution of music by changing the name of the band to Jaybird, and then later to Blues Yard. Finally, by 1967 with the line up of his long time friend, Leo Lyons, on bass, Chick Churchill on keyboards, and Ric Lee on drums(Ric wasn’t related to Alvin Lee, although Alvin’s adopted stage name often resulted in that confusion), the band decided to become a blues oriented band that strangely decided to name themselves for being ten years after Elvis Presley, or Ten Years After. But, this name strangely worked well for the band which was sometimes psychedelic sounding in the late 60’s and later spacey sounding during parts of the 1970’s, especially on albums such as A SPACE IN TIME from 1971. Some elements of their music seemed to be slightly inspired by psychedelics at one time, and nearly Pink Floyd and others at a time, although the band’s music was able to take even relatively simple blues or rock and roll inspired music and make it sound incredibly intricate and complex thanks to Alvin Lee’s guitar skills or the keyboard talents of Chick Churchill.
In a career recording studio and live albums from 1967 to 2012, Alvin Lee put together a huge catalog of albums and songs, and probably could have recorded many more if he hadn’t had toured and played so many shows. This is the discography of Alvin Lee’s life works:
TEN YEAR AFTER- 1967:The first Ten Years After album from 1967 was TEN YEARS AFTER. “I Can’t Keep From Crying Sometimes” was a real stand out track from this album, and became a standard song played in concert many times from this band. It was also the beginning of a long contract with Deram Records that would last the band many years until Alvin Lee felt musically boxed in later signed a deal with Chrysalis in the UK and Columbia for U.S. distribution in 1971.
UNDEAD-1968:Alvin Lee’s band was so good live that their second album, UNDEAD, was a live album. A very rare feat for any group. Some like concert promoter, Bill Graham, who owned both of the Fillmore theaters became an early fan of the new blues band from England and encouraged the band to make their first of 28 concert tours to play his San Francisco theater in 1968. With their 28 concert tours of the United States, no other British rock act has ever toured or played as many shows in the United States as Ten Years After, although much of their early radio play was only on the underground radio stations or on some FM stations. “I’m Going Home” was the big standout song on this album, later becoming one of their best live songs as well. The 2002 remastered Deram cd includes some additional and extra noteworthy tracks beyond the five songs issued on the original Lp.
STONEDHENGE-1968:1968 also brought the band back to the studio for another studio album to sequel their first studio album. While mostly blues, this album was also inspired by the psychedelic rock era, but the album included one song which became a single, “Hear Me Calling” which seemed much more like pop group oriented rock and roll much like The Beatles or other vocal group sounds, and seems like a rather strange fit on this mostly FM radio sounding album which seems noncommercial with the exception of this one song. The 2002 remastered cd also includes the single versions of “Hear Me Calling” and “I’m Going Home”.
SSSSH-1969: 1969 was a huge year for Ten Years After. The band lit up the Woodstock music festival with their incredible performance that nearly stole the show from Jimi Hendrix, making Jimi Hendrix into a rival and critic of Alvin Lee, as Hendrix believed himself to be the greatest guitar god of the era. SSSSH got a lot of attention from record buyers and music critics alike, and the psychedelic blues oriented album included the incredibly unconscious bass guitar performance of Leo Lyons on “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl”, along with Alvin Lee’s characteristic lead guitar intensity, energy and vocal work. The album was so good it was later issued on special edition direct master gold cds by Mobile Fidelity that sometimes sold for around $100 on Ebay among collectors. The album was a real masterwork and real gem.
CRICKLEWOOD GREEN-1970: CRICKLEWOOD GREEN continued the popularity of the band among fans, underground radio and the FM stations that played album oriented rock. “Love Like A man” also became one of the band’s most recognized songs, where the single version made it up to #10 on the British rock charts. “50,000 Miles Beneath My Brain” also became another milestone song from the album, which got a strong critical response as another quality effort from this superb band of fine musicians.
WATT-1971:1971 only continued the band’s continued career into blues and fast paced guitar boogie, and “I’m Coming On” and other songs further cemented the career of Alvin Lee as a formidable guitar legend. “Sweet Little Sixteen” also gave Alvin Lee an opportunity for a loving tribute to his idol, Chuck Berry.
A SPACE IN TIME-1971: Alvin Lee and Ten Years After signed a new record deal with Columbia Records hoping to be able to have more creative control rather than being just another blues rock group from the UK. A SPACE IN TIME was the band’s most successful effort, becoming their only platinum certified album ever, and the single, “I’d Love To Change The World”, was their most successful U.S. single ever, and their only true top forty radio hit. The followup single from the album, “Baby Won’t You Let Me Rock And Roll You” didn’t do nearly as well, although it was a great bit of 1950’s retro rock. The album version of the song has a funny and strange phony radio tuning sound effect leading into the off-tune introduction of the song. In the UK the album was released on the Chrysalis label.
ALVIN LEE & COMPANY-1972: Deram Records certainly missed Ten Years After which were now having their greatest period of success over at Columbia, so released this collection of singles and other old material left over at Deram in 1972. It wasn’t hardly the best work of the band, and might have embarrassed the band somewhat after their more polished works on A SPACE IN TIME, but fans of the group loved the album just the same as more classic Ten Years After music history.
ROCK AND ROLL MUSIC TO THE WORLD-1972: Although ROCK AND ROLL MUSIC TO THE WORLD didn’t get quite the sales success of A SPACE IN TIME, it was a real masterpiece and probably the best album ever released by the band with every song a real gem. The album had so many standout songs it was hard to pick a favorite, but “Choo Choo Mama”, “Rock And Roll Music To The World”, “Tomorrow I’ll Be Out Of Town”, “Convention Prevention” and the excellent opening track, “You Give Me Loving” are all some of Ten Years After best songs both on this album, and in their entire career.
RECORDED LIVE-1973: RECORDED LIVE brought the band back to a fresh live recording, where the band was able to release incredible new live performance recordings of some of their newer songs such as “Choo Choo Mama” as well as old standards like “Good Morning Little School Girl”. The band also proved that more spacey songs like “One Of These Days” could be performed live, and weren’t just studio created sound effects and production pieces. It gave the band a fresh opportunity to prove that they were one of the very best live performing bands, bar none.
ON THE ROAD TO FREEDOM(Alvin Lee & Mylon LeFevre)-1973: By 1973, it was becoming obvious that Alvin Lee and the band were beginning to have both creative differences as well as other tensions, and the band members began work on various individual projects. Alvin Lee teamed up with Christian musician Mylon LeFevre, along with other guest musicians like George Harrison, Mick Fleetwood, Ron Wood, Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi and others to produce a new musical experiment that was decidedly different than his previous work with Ten Years After, but was controversial with some fans who were used to the fast fingered guitar solos after Woodstock.
POSITIVE VIBRATIONS-1974: The band attempted to put aside any personal tensions long enough to produce another album for Columbia and Chrysalis. It was a decent rock and roll album that produced good songs like the single, “It’s Getting Harder”, as well as good album tracks like “Nowhere To Run”, “Going Back To Birmingham” and “Positive Vibrations”. It to be the last Ten Years After album for many years as the four musicians left to go in different directions about time the album was released.
IN FLIGHT(ALVIN LEE & COMPANY)-1974: Alvin Lee put together a new group of musician friends as well as Tim Hinkley from ON THE ROAD TO FREEDOM album to do a new live album with many 1950’s time era cover songs and other songs recorded at London’s famous Rainbow Theater. The direction was decidedly unlike previous Ten Years After records, but gave Alvin Lee some creative space to try some new musical efforts out.
PUMP IRON-1975:Alvin Lee’s new solo album in 1975, PUMP IRON, seemed to have some roots in the old 50’s rock as well as the traditions of the ROCK AND ROLL MUSIC TO THE WORLD album. “One More Chance” sure sounded influenced by the funk music of Billy Preston. Sometimes Alvin Lee seemed like a master of taking the influences of others, and creating his own works, but not aways breaking any new ground with his own writing. But, he was a top flight guitarist, singer and performer, where his version of a song like “Midnight Special” always seemed like great fun.
LET IT ROCK-1978: Softer solo release record sales than the Ten Years After days only seemed to give Alvin Lee plenty of time to reflect on his next musical move, and it wasn’t until 1978 that he came back with a new album that looked like it was going to be high energy, but actually opened with the softer bluesy number,”Chemicals, Chemistry, Mystery and More” which seemed much like a more reflective piece than anything.
ROCKET FUEL-1978: Alvin Lee had to know that by 1978, many fans expected him to satisfy them with material more close to Ten Years After guitar rock and roll. The album was a pretty good attempt to satisfy fans, and one of his better solo efforts in recent years, as Alvin Lee started to become more prolific of an artist after a nearly three year disappearance from releasing new albums in between 1975 to 1978.
RIDE ON-1979: Alvin Lee produced yet another album with many live songs to highlight his immense talents as an audience pleasing performer. Side one of this album was recorded with no overdubs live with just a three piece band including Alvin Lee. Audiences wanted to see rock and roll energy from this great guitarist, and RIDE ON was a mostly satisfying effort that was mostly hard rock in nature. Despite Jimi Hendrix having his differences with Alvin Lee, Lee took his hand at doing a version of “Hey Joe” on this album.
FREE FALL-1980: By 1980, Alvin Lee seemed to want to give founding a brand new band a new effort. And although he was the lead guitar on every track, he shared vocal work and writing with other band members like Steve Gould and Mickey Feat. The album did produce the great song, “Ridin Truckin'”, which seemed good enough to be a top forty hit single, but wasn’t. The album also seemed like an uneven mix of Alvin Lee rock music on one hand as well more country flavored songs of the other band members.
RX5-1981: The Alvin Lee band decided that a more rock and roll oriented album was what audiences really wanted, and tried their hand at songs like the old Ike & Tina Turner hit song, “Nutbush City Limits”, here. The album was a more pleasing effort, still failed to have the success of the old Ten Years After period of recordings.
DETROIT DIESEL-1986: Alvin Lee seemed to disappear long from recording new albums until this very good 1986 release that reunited him with members of his old Alvin Lee Band as well as George Harrison and others. Despite many great musicians and songs on this album, it eventually went out of print for a time, but commanded a big price on Ebay partially due to the inclusion of George Harrison. But, the album partially seemed to reflect part of the frustration of being Alvin Lee. He always put up a great effort, but moderate record sales often resulted regardless of that effort. The album also saw the return of Leo Lyons back to play bass, proving that the old wounds of the band were beginning to heal over, making a possible reunion of Ten Years After possible.
ABOUT TIME-1989: The newfound goodwill between Alvin Lee and Leo Lyons made this 1989 Ten Years After reunion studio album possible, and this was a great effort, spurring a couple of singles including the great song, “Let’s Shake It Up” which was great on the album, and as an edited single version, and as a live in concert song. The band’s revival could have been stronger if only Alvin Lee wanted to tour more with Ten Years After.
THE FRIDAY ROCK SHOW SESSIONS-1990: A small record label, Strange Fruit, issued a pretty fine live Ten Years After show from the group from 1983 when they worked together for a short period. It included many of their greatest songs such as “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl”, “Love Like A Man” and “I Can’t Keep From Cryin’ Sometimes”. The packaging looked much like a bootleg recording, and had a little appeal for that reason alone. The band was so good live that a huge number of bootleg recordings exist that were often far better than some moments on the Alvin Lee solo efforts.
LIVE 1990-1992: This was a excellent live album from the short-lived tour of the 1989-1990 revival of Ten Years After, and a great effort, including a rosing opening number version of “Let’s Shake It Up” and “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” and “Love Like A Man”. It is easily one of the best Ten Years After albums of all time, and is very listenable.
ZOOM-1992: Alvin Lee came back in 1992 with a great solo effort that included some very good song writing as well as the return of George Harrison and other friends to help out this excellent effort that opened with the great song, “A Little Bit Of Love”. The album was Alvin Lee at his best and proved to be a really enjoyable piece of music. The album marked the end to yet another short hiatus of the guitar legend from recording a new studio album.
I HEAR YOU ROCKIN'(UK)1994(U.S.)-1994: After yet another two year stretch between studio albums, Alvin Lee put up another excellent effort with I HEAR YOU ROCKIN’ or 1994, depending on whether you purchased the UK or U.S. release of the album. The album also marked the last time that Alvin Lee and George Harrison would work together on a album before Harrison would himself enter a 1997 fight with cancer and began to record less frequently. The album included Alvin Lee’s own pretty good cover of “I Want You(She’s So Heavy), as well as the contagious and upbeat rocker, “Keep On Rockin'”, which included the simple but upbeat lyrics, “When you’re feeling lonely, when you’re down, good ole’ rock n’ roll will turn you around”. Alvin Lee would always end a letter to his manager with the upbeat ending, “Keep on Rocking, Ron”. That always had special meaning to his manager who always found Alvin Lee to be a true gentleman and a real joy to manage as a performer.
LIVE IN VIENNA-1996: Two years after KEEP ON ROCKIN’ or 1994, Alvin Lee released this pretty strong live set of songs from that studio album as well as other older Ten Years After studio classics. The album was a great mix of 1950’s type songs as well as guitar boogie jam songs, and only more proof of the talents and skills of Alvin Lee as one of the world’s best guitar supermen.
SOLID ROCK-2000: This album was mostly a compilation of older Ten Years After and Alvin Lee favorites, but it did include one new previously unreleased song, “I Love You When You Rock And Roll”. The album was also one of several either Alvin Lee or Ten Year After greatest hits compilation albums released between the last Alvin Lee solo album. PURE BLUES was another excellent Alvin Lee blues compilation album.
LIVE AT THE FILLMORE EAST 1970(Ten Years After)-2001: This was to be the last Ten Years After album to be released that included Alvin Lee, although the band later recorded and released two new studio albums without Alvin Lee in 2004 with NOW, and then a live album, ROADWORKS in 2005, and then the studio album, EVOLUTION in 2008, as well as a concert DVD with new front-man Joe Gooch. ROADWORKS featured many old time Ten Years After classics as well as newer songs, with Joe Gooch replacing Alvin Lee on lead guitar and vocals. Alvin Lee seemed a little bit miffed by all of this, and his own website made it clear that he wasn’t part of the current band calling itself Ten Years After. Although, it seemed like relations were once again a little bit strained between the old members of Ten Years After, Leo Lyons was also quick to point out that Alvin Lee was still like a “brother” to him after he died, despite any differences they had.
ALVIN LEE IN TENNESSEE-2004: What great artist doesn’t someday dream of recording an album in Nashville? Alvin Lee fulfilled this dream by working with other musicians such as Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana. The result was a fan pleasing effort with more than a few pretty good songs.
SAGUITAR-2007: Alvin Lee was well able to prove his skills as a musician with this 2007 album in which he played all of the instruments except for the guest appearance of his long time friend Tim Hinkley on just one song, “Motel Blues”. It was a pretty impressive solo effort for sure and only made Alvin Lee fans thirsty for more music. But, the album was sadly to his last new album until 2012.
STILL ON THE ROAD TO FREEDOM-2012: This was to be Alvin Lee’s last album in his lifetime. Strangely, it acted as a sort of life journey and self-eulogy for the guitar great. The album opened with his sequel song to his first solo album he did with Mylon Lefevre apart from Ten Years After, and ended with what sounds like a big band reboot of the old Ten Years After song, done as “Love Like A Man 2”. The album seemed like a sort of homage to all of the blues and jazz records that young Alvin would listen to in his middle class parents home. Unlike many rock stars, Alvin Lee came from a comfortable home and was well educated. He was a true English gentleman and his parents would have probably been disappointed if he ended up as any less than with a true love of music.
Alvin Lee also played as a guest musician on many other incredible albums including a German blues album with Sidney “Guitar Crusher” and on the LONDON SESSIONS with Jerry Lee Lewis, as well as with his longtime friend, Tim Hinkley and others. The album, GUITAR CRUSHER, is one of the best albums never to have a sequel.
This is the rich musical legacy that Alvin Lee leaves behind for his many fans to enjoy. He always kept busy with shows and performances and tours. He was really at home on the stage and with his fans. He had around two dozen songs he had been working on when he released his last album with 13 songs. This means that possibly some posthumous releases may be forthcoming in the future including some life anthology efforts. Alvin was scheduled to play a guitar legend show in France on April 7, 2013 with Johnny Winter, but that will now never be.
Thanks for all the great music, Alvin….