He always used to stand in the background but the spotlight is now on guitarist Albert Lee
- Credit: Archant
Guitarist Albert Lee has spent the last half century playing with music royalty. On the eve of his first Suffolk concert he tells Arts Editor Andrew Clarke about life on the road and discovering that he can sing.
Albert Lee is the guitarists’ guitarist. After 50 years as a sideman, playing alongside such luminaries as Eric Clapton, Emmylou Harris, The Everly Brothers and Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings, he is now stepping out of the shadows and into the spotlight.
Stepping away from the backline also means that he has had to find his singing voice. He cheerfully admits that, although he has sung in the past with The Everly Brothers and with Hogan’s Heroes, lead vocals have never been his forte. He has always considered himself a guitar-player first and foremost and then someone who added some back-up harmonies.
Now, at the age of 71, he is hitting the road, fronting his own band for the first time, and relishing the chance to bring his eclectic taste in music to a broad audience.
He can turn his hand to anything from country, to blues, rock’n’roll, singer-songwriter, pop and rockabilly.
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Speaking to this master of the telecaster, what comes across is that here is a man who appears to be very comfortable in his own skin. He has collected all the awards that music can offer and yet there doesn’t appear to be any sign of an ego. He still talks enthusiastically about music. He’s generous in his praise for his friends and former employers and it’s clear he can’t wait to get in front of an audience again.
Also, despite living in California since 1974, he still retains a soft, quietly spoken south London accent. His Dad was a musician in the days of the big, dance-bands and he said that there was never any doubt that he would follow in his father’s footsteps.
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As well as the tour, Albert has also recorded a new album, The Highwayman, which collects together some of his favourite songs in a form of musical autobiography. Recorded in a quiet, acoustic style the songs cover every part of Albert’s career including versions of The Everlys’ Bye Bye Love, Rodney Crowell’s ‘Till I Gain Control Again, which was performed by Emmylou Harris and The Hot Band, Richard Thompson’s The Dimming of the Day and the title-track written by Jimmy Webb.
“I love the simplicity of the album. It’s just my voice, a piano and an acoustic guitar and I get to revisit some of the songs that have meant the most to me over the years. It came together very quickly. It was just a couple of days in the studio and I was delighted with the way it came out. It sounds terrific. Very simple but very honest. I’m not someone who sits down to listen to his own albums but I did listen to this one after several friends told me how good it was and I was genuinely surprised how well it turned out.
“It was nice to be able to let people know I can sing. It was a long time coming. I never sang in the ‘60s. When I was with Emmylou I was a guitar-player, as I was with Eric (Clapton). I did sing a couple of songs with him but it wasn’t until I was in Hogan’s Heroes that I really found my own voice. I was a late bloomer.”
Late bloomer or not Albert Lee’s ability as a guitar player has ensured that he has always had a dazzling career. His love of a wide variety of music has kept him busy on both sides of the Atlantic for more than 50 years. His love for rock’n’roll and country music has meant that he has long been at the top of the rock’n’rollers list for backing musicians.
He says that developing a 20 year friendship and playing alongside The Everly Brothers and replacing James Burton, Elvis Presley’s guitarist, in Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band, were just two of the highlights of his career.
“The Everlys had a fantastic career. They made their name in the 1950s though they kept having hits right through the 1960s. But after The Beatles invaded America and as the sixties wound down, the nature of the music business changed and they found that they weren’t really enjoying it any more. By 1973, they weren’t really getting on and decided to call it a day.
“I first met them in 1962 when they were over here. I was playing at a club in London, in Chelsea, a couple of guys walked in and they seemed to be really interested in what we were playing. We got talking and it turned out they played with The Everly Brothers. I went back to a rehearsal and discovered that Don had got sick and had to fly back to the States. I sat and talked with Phil, played a bit, and he always remembered me.
“When I got to LA in the early ‘70s with Heads, Hands and Feet, I got to know Don and we played a lot of the local bars together. It was a fantastic period for me because the music scene was so busy at the time and Don and Phil introduced me to all sorts of people. You would turn up at a bar with your guitar and you would end up playing with all sorts of amazing performers and session musicians – people who you would hear on the West Coast albums of the period.
“We had Emmylou, Rodney Crowell, Byron Berline, Al Perkins, Buddy Emmons, Roseanne Cash – all fantastic musicians. It was a fantastic time for music and I really landed on my feet. I couldn’t believe I was being accepted by those artists, those people I had admired from afar.”
For Albert, variety has always been the spice of life. If rock’n’roll and the music of Buddy Holly was his first love, country has been his enduring passion.
“I got interested in playing country music in the mid-60s but discovered very quickly that you weren’t going to get rich or have much of a career playing country music in Britain at that time. There wasn’t a huge demand for country at that time and those who did like it were very strict traditionalists and I was more into The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers. We liked country with more of a rock edge.
“Then, ten years later, landing a place in Emmylou’s band was a dream come true. I was a huge James Burton fan, I had seen him play with Elvis in Vegas, and I went to see him play with Emmylou a couple of times and the opportunity came up to fill in for James because he was going out on the road with Elvis, so that was great. I really enjoyed playing with these guys and a temporary job became permanent when James had to make a decision – either play with Elvis or play with Emmylou and he chose to play with Elvis.
“So it was when I was playing with the Hot band I realised that I needed to live in the States rather than just visit, so I moved to LA.”
He said that with Emmylou and the Hot Band, they got the feeling they were tearing up the rule book – redefining what country music was all about.
“Nashville, at that time, was all beehives and sad songs about lost loves. It wasn’t forward looking. We took our inspiration from some of the old country, some of the good stuff, and re-inventing it for the future.”
After five years touring the States with the Hot Band, Albert left Emmylou Harris to record a solo album and during recording met Eric Clapton at the studios.
“At the time I was deciding what I was going to do next. I was thinking about whether I should go back to the Hot Band. I liked the way that the record sounded and what I should have done was form a band of my own and tour the album but Eric was an old friend, from the days at The Flamingo Club in London in the sixties, and we had had a great time playing in the studio and he said did I want to go out on the road with him?
“On his previous tour he hadn’t had a second guitarist and he really missed having someone to play off.
“So, for me it wasn’t a hard decision. It sounded a lot of fun and it stopped me having to make decision about my next move.
“So off I went with Eric and had a great five years playing with him. During that time he fired the band twice but somehow I always survived – and I got to play with Muddy Waters on his last gig with Eric, so that was memorable.”
After leaving Eric in the early 1980s, he was musical director and guitarist for The Everly Brothers’ Reunion concert before going on to play regularly with the pair.
“It was going back to my roots with the Everlys really. I was also playing with Hogan’s Heroes and then in the ‘90s joined Bill Wyman and The Rhythm Kings. Life has always been eventful and now, for the first time, after all these years I am going out on the road and touring as me.”
Albert Lee is appearing at the Ipswich Corn Exchange on October 1.