Country rock hero Albert Lee is still applying his blinding skills on both sides of the Atlantic and preparing to celebrate his 70th birthday with a new album and two sold-out concerts in London. Interview by David Gallant
When Saint Peter asks me to chronicle my time down here on earth, I’ll be able to say – with pride, if that’s allowed – that for a while I played rhythm guitar in a band with Albert Lee.’ So said Emmylou Harris – and it’s a sentiment shared by most of those lucky enough to have shared a stage with one of the finest and most fleet-fingered players of his age. Albert Lee first made his name on the ’60s rock and R&B scene, not with music aficionados, but with his peers.
This man was – and still is – the very definition of the guitarist’s guitarist. A move to the States in the mid -’70s launched a stellar sideman career and the affable, self-effacing Lee is now an undisputed legend, instrumental in shaping the sound of country rock and a major influence on later neo-traditionalist and alt-country artists as well as being rated up there with the pantheon of all-time country guitar greats such as Chet Atkins, Clarence White and Jerry Reed.
Music has always been at the core of Albert Lee’s life. When he was a boy, there was a piano in the house; ‘I bashed away on it’, he demurs. His parents recognised that their son had a musical ear and decided that he should have some lessons. ‘Which I did for two to three years,’ he continues, ‘but then stupidly dropped them.’
Shortly afterwards Lee discovered Lonnie Donegan and borrowed guitars from school friends, as he didn’t actually own one, and started to play. Talented and driven, it wasn’t long before he hit the London scene. ‘A lot of musicians used to gather at the Two 1’s coffee bar in Soho. I didn’t get down there until 1961, but within a few months I’d become part of the house band backing whoever got up on stage.’ Later Lee was to join R&B singer Chris Farlowe as part of his backing band, the Thunderbirds. ‘By the time I joined the Thunderbirds, they were playing down at the Flamingo where Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames were the house band – and they were terrific. There were also lots of great guitar players who used to hang out down there… like Andy Summers, John McLaughlin and Eric Clapton, who I used to meet up with regularly.’
Many of these guitarists also used to hang out in the music shops on Charing Cross Road, and Lee had a friend who was a salesman at Selmer’s. ‘Ray had a band with a friend of his called Tony Colton and they’d written a bunch of songs that they wanted to make into an album. They managed to get a record deal with MGM in the UK, and so we put together an outfit called Poet And The One Man Band. We did a couple of showcases but nothing really happened, and that band eventually became Head, Hands & Feet, with a couple of changes in the personnel. We thought we’d give it another crack and went out to get a record deal, and we had Atlantic and Capitol fighting over us! Eventually we landed a pretty good deal with Capitol and ended up doing an album in 1970 – a double album. First album, a double… how pretentious is that?!’
Within weeks Head, Hands & Feet were in the States promoting their new album. ‘When I got to California I thought, this is where I want to be. I’d started out with rock’n’roll and all the way through the ’60s I’d been playing R&B, so I knew all of that stuff. But I’d always wanted to play country.’
After Head, Hands & Feet broke up in late ’72 Lee ended up with the Crickets, who were doing a tour of the UK. ‘They wanted somebody to take the place of Glen D Hardin for a couple of gigs – he was getting in late for the tour, because he was working with Elvis. We played a gig down at the Speakeasy. They loved it and said “Do you want to do the whole tour?” Okay, great! So there I was off on the road with the Crickets. And then Glen D finally arrived. He stuck around for about a week – I don’t think he liked some of the little places we were playing. After being at the Hilton International in Las Vegas, coming to working men’s clubs in the North of England didn’t appeal to him, so he went back to LA.’
Because Lee was hanging out with the likes of the Crickets, he got to meet up with a lot of his musical heroes in LA. ‘I used to play in this little bar in Calabasas, which is about five miles from where I live now. It was a very small room, but they always had good bands in there – good players who would go in there and just sit in. Jerry Allison from the Crickets took me along there one night and Don Everly was singing and Al Perkins was on steel guitar, and that became a regular gig for me. I went along there almost every night and became Don’s big buddy.’
Lee’s manager from his Head, Hands & Feet days was also in Los Angeles, and he had moved on to managing rock and blues singer Joe Cocker. ‘Joe had been rehearsing this band to go out on a major tour of the US, but it wasn’t working out – they were getting drunk and stoned every night and weren’t getting much work done, and they ended up by having a big fight. So I get this phone call – “we need a drummer and guitar player immediately because we’re going out on the road in two weeks’ time, big arena stuff”. So there I was, out on the road with Joe for about 18 months.
‘Then Joe decided to sell up and go back to the UK, and that left me at kind of a loose end. I knew most of the guys in the Emmylou Harris band, though, and I was a big fan of James Burton, who was playing with her, and I’d met him a couple of times. On the second or third Emmylou gig that I went, to the band said “Oh, Albert, we were just talking about you… what are you doing the next few weeks? James is going off to play with Elvis – will you come and do some gigs with us?” What could I say – and as it turned out, James decided to stay with Elvis. Actually, he really wanted to do both gigs, but there was no way he could – the timing wasn’t working out and Emmylou was on the ascendancy and Elvis was busy. So thanks to James and Elvis, I ended up with Emmylou. I realised, at that very moment, this is it. Here I am, living in LA, playing with the kind of band I like, and working regularly.’
Emmylou Harris had been told by her record company that she needed to get a ‘really hot band’ together if she wanted to make it, and The Hot Band they duly became. The 1976 album Luxury Liner that Albert Lee made with the queen of country rock and her high-temperature backing outfit became a milestone in his career. ‘A lot of people heard that album and said “who’s this guy?”’
Work started to pick up, and by the early ’80s Lee was one of the first-call session players in LA. ‘I left the Hot Band in 1978 – although I needn’t really have done that,’ Lee reflects today. ‘But I took time off to do my Hiding album for A&M, which the whole band played on. Then when I was ready to go back and join Emmylou, she’d got another guitar player and I thought, it’s not really fair of me to blag my way back into the band, so what do I do here? I thought what I should really do is to get my own band together, and go out and do it.
‘But then I found myself back over in the UK working on a session with Eric Clapton. Part of Eric’s regular band was on the session too, and at the end of the four or five days he said “Do you want to go out on the road? I did the last tour without a rhythm guitarist and it didn’t really work”. I thought, this could be fun – why not? So in early 1979 I went off with Eric, and that lasted about five years.
‘Eric was going through some difficult times. He wasn’t a happy guy and he was firing people left, right and centre. In fact, he fired and replaced the whole band twice – but much to my surprise, I managed to survive twice! But eventually, of course, I got fired – that was in 1984.’
A player like Albert Lee, especially one fresh from a huge-name gig, wasn’t going to get left on the sidelines for long. A few months earlier, in 1983, country/pop legends the Everly Brothers had started talking to each other again. ‘They decided that they were going to do a big reunion gig in the Royal Albert Hall and they picked me as their lead guitar player,’ Lee explains. ‘Then the following year they said they were going to do an album and go on the road. I’d just got fired by Eric, and thought well, that’s perfect – and I’ve been touring and recording with the Everlys for the past 26 years!’
Guitar & Bass is catching up with Lee on one of his UK tours with Hogan’s Heroes, a band that Lee fronts with his longtime friend Gerry Hogan. ‘I’ve known Gerry since the mid-’60s. He had this steel guitar festival, which he did for over 20 years. He’d had a number of guitar players turn up to play at these festivals, and in 1987 he asked me to sing some of the songs on my album, which we did. I thought, wow, this is great fun. So we decided to get together and do a European tour every year. And like my gigs with the Everlys, we’ve been doing that for the last 26 – or is it 27 – years.’ When Lee’s in Europe and not with the Heroes, he’s working with Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings. ‘Yeah, I’m going straight out with Bill once I’ve finished this tour with the Heroes,’ he confirms.
Albert Lee was associated with Fender for much of his playing career, his artistry earning him the nickname ‘Mr Telecaster’. ‘I gave my original one to Ray [Smith] from Head, Hands & Feet who went and sold it ’cause he needed the money – I wish he’d told me!’ Albert laughs. ‘That was a ’59, one of the first with the rosewood fretboard. On one of my first trips to the States I found a ’53, and then when I was with Emmylou I found a ’51 – I think it was a Nocaster.
‘Of course I’ve also got some later Teles, but the older ones seem to sustain better – the newer ones sound a little brittle. It could be something to do with the finish, as the law changed regarding the type of finish they used on these guitars. It gives it a different resonance. But Fender do a ’52 reissue model – I have two of them, and they’re pretty good. They also gave me a ’52 Custom Shop relic not so long ago, and it’s just like an old guitar – you wouldn’t know the difference!
‘When I was playing with Emmylou on the Tele I was trying to sound like James Burton, and he used .008″-.038″ strings with a .012″ on the third string. Really light… I don’t know how he did it. But now I’m mostly playing the Music Man guitar, and the frets are a little heavier and so I’m using .010″-.046″.’
Albert playing the Fender Strat’s 50th Anniversary celebration show in 2004 with Theresa Anderson (Photo by Bob Thatcher)
Albert also discovered the B-bender Telecaster, and still occasionally employs its possibilities today. ‘I first heard it with Clarence White, although I did play Carl Perkins’ guitar in the mid-’60s. He had a big old Gibson ES-5 that had a little metal bar, so when he played an open A chord and pressed this little lever with his thumb, it would raise the second string – but he could only do it in that position, of course.
‘Once I heard Clarence I thought, “How’s he doing that?” Then I read about it in the paper and it turned out that it all worked via the strap. And when I was on tour with Heads, Hands & Feet in Chicago we went to see the Dillards, and Billy Ray Latham, the banjo player, had one of these Teles with a B-bender in it, so I went backstage to see how it worked. I just said “I love that, where can I get one?” It turned out that there was a guy called Dave Evans in LA who was making them, so I immediately contacted him when I got back to LA, and bought one. He made the whole body, and you would put your own neck and pickups on.’
Lee now owns three of the Evans instruments and runs these, along with all his other guitars, through a Fender Tone-Master head. ‘They made a run of them for a couple of years about 10 to 12 years ago and I was lucky enough to get a couple. It’s a 100W amp and it’s really good quality. I use 4×12″ cabs and I’ve cut ports in the back so that they’re open-back – I much prefer the sound of an open-back cab.’
In terms of effects, Lee uses a Korg A3 multi-FX. ‘Every effect you need is in that, and it’s nice and clean. I like a bit of reverb, a bit of delay, and a little chorus.’
After a life lived for the most part on the road, as he turns 70 Lee is happy to spend most of his time on home turf. ‘After 40 years living in the US, I’ve finally put a band together! I’m enjoying working with them… and I’m enjoying being at home too.’