Guitarist Lee celebrates 70 years

By Gary Linehan, The Union Democrat January 16, 2014 07:18 am
Guitarist Albert Lee, a Shropshire lad now celebrating his 70th birthday, will perform in concert Friday at the Black Oak Casino in Tuolumne.

 Lee’s career spans more than 50 years with some of the top artists in the music business and includes two Grammy Awards. 

He will appear in Tuolumne as part of his birthday tour, which will culminate in March with two sold out shows at the Cadogan Hall in London.

The casino show begins at 9 p.m. Admissoin is free for ages 21 and over.

Lee has been a professional guitar player since age 17 and said he has no plans to stop.

“It’s getting more and more crazy the last couple years,” Lee said by telephone from his home in Malibu. “I’ve lived in California for 40 years and only last year put my own band together. Before that I was solely concentrating on working with other people.”

That would include Eric Clapton, Emmylou Harris, the Everly Brothers, Earl Scruggs, Joe Cocker, Bill Wyman and dozens of others.

Born Dec. 21, 1943, in Shropshire, England, Lee grew up in London and was first introduced to music with the piano at age 9. Listening to the likes of Lonnie Donegan, Buddy Holly and Gene Vincent later inspired him to take up the guitar.

Lee received his first guitar, a second-hand Hofner President, as a Christmas gift at age 14.

“I left school when I was quite young — you could leave at 15 back then — and by the time I was 15 I was starting to play more and more,” he said. “I went on the road when I was 16 and was beginning to be a professional guitar player at 17. By the time I was 18 I was fairly proficient.”

Lee honed his chops with a friend who would go on to lead the band Led Zeppelin.

“Jimmy Page and I started out at the same time,” Lee said. “We’d hang out at each other’s houses and listen to records. We learned from the records — there were no teachers of rock and roll, so we just got our hands on all the American records we could.”

Lee traveled to Hamburg in 1962 at age 18 for further training.

“There were lots of bands from all over the UK there,” he said. “Germany was a really happening place back then. We played six or seven days a week, six or seven hours a night. You’d go over with an OK band and came back with a really tight band.”

Lee first experienced commercial success as lead guitarist with Chris Farlowe and the Thunderbirds. He left that band in 1968 to form Poet and the One Man Band, which evolved into Heads Hands & Feet, with Lee emerging as a “guitar hero” by playing a Fender Telecaster at breakneck speed.

Lee moved to California in 1974 to become part of the Crickets, the backup back for one of Lee’s early heroes, Buddy Holly. Bandmates Sonny Curtis and Jerry Allison were later inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Lee has been in demand by A-list performers ever since.

“I was on the road with Joe Cocker for 18 months, then I got the gig with Emmylou Harris,” he said. “It was only supposed to last a week or so, but it lasted 2 1/2 years. The only reason I left was I got a really good record deal.”

Lee released his solo debut, “Hiding,” in 1979, showcasing his country-rockabilly styles. The 1982 follow-up, “Albert Lee,” was produced by Rodney Crowell, his former bandmate in Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band, and is more rock-oriented.

Lee also became part of Eric Clapton’s band in 1979.

“I ran into him at a recording session we were doing for someone else,” Lee recalled. “I’ve known him since the ’60s and he said, ‘I just did a tour without a second guitarist — do you want to go out on tour?’ I said, ‘Well, how can you refuse?’ and that lasted five years.

“It was great fun,” Lee said. “He was a lot of fun back then — he still is, but he’s grown up a bit, as we all have.”

Lee and Clapton came to be known as the “Fabulous Duck Brothers” as a result of their obsession with duck calls.

“One day I showed up with a duck call to punctuate certain moments during the day and he thought that was great fun, so he went out and bought a couple of duck calls and we drove everybody mad,” Lee said. “We were known as the Fabulous Duck Brothers — I was Bombay Duck and he was Peking Duck. We had T-shirts and guitar picks made up and had Duck Bros. stenciled on all our tour cases. I’m sure they’re quite collectible now.”

After leaving Clapton’s band, Lee was asked to back the Everly Brothers in their 1983 reunion at Royal Albert Hall in London.

“I’ve known Phil since 1962 and met Don in 1970 when they were not talking to each other,” Lee said. “I was invited to their reunion and to my surprise it lasted 20-odd years.”

Phil Everly died Jan. 3 in Burbank, 16 days before his 75th birthday.

As Lee’s time with the Everlys was coming to end, former Rolling Stones bassman Bill Wyman asked Lee to join his Rhythm Kings outfit, an association that has lasted 14 years and counting.

Lee also has toured with friend Gerry Hogan’s band, Hogan’s Heroes, for the past 26 years.

In 2002, Lee received a Grammy Award for best country instrumental performance for “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” from the CD “Earl Scruggs and Friends.” He won a second best country instrumental Performance Grammy in 2009 for his part on Brad Paisley's "Cluster Pluck."  

Sharing the stage with the world’s top musicians is all in a day’s work for Lee.

“I came to terms with the way I play and the way other people play and I think for what I do I’m pretty good, so I don’t get fazed playing with too many people any more,” he said.

On stage, Lee plays his signature Ernie Ball Music Man model, though his collection at home is like a timeline of rock and roll history.

“Ive had some fabulous guitars over the years,” he said. “I don’t think of myself as a collector, but if you’ve got 40 or 50 of them hanging around, I’d have to say I was a collector.”

Among them are Don Everly’s Gibson J-200 and one of Eric Clapton’s prize Les Paul Customs he played with Cream. Both were given to Lee by their original owners.

“The last one I bought in the last 25 years, Elvis played in a number of movies,” Lee said. “A friend of mine who worked in movie props had it. I first played it in 1981 and was just in awe of this guitar and told him if he ever wanted to sell it to let me know. Two or three years ago he called me up and asked if I still wanted it. It’s a blonde J-200 that he played in ‘Loving You,’ ‘King Creole’ and ‘GI Blues.’ It’s one iconic guitar from his early movies.”

Now that he is 70, Lee said he wouldn’t mind slowing down a bit.

“I’d like less gigs for money, but I’m going to keep doing this until I can’t do it anymore,” he said.