Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix were avowed fans of Love’s Arthur Lee, one of the key figures in West Coast psychedelia during the 1960s. The legendarily wayward Lee, who improbably outlasted many of his peers, died yesterday afternoon in Memphis after a prolonged bout with leukemia. He was sixty-one. After his diagnosis became public, several artists — including former Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant, Yo La Tengo and Ryan Adams — took part in a benefit show for Lee at New York’s Beacon Theatre on June 23rd.
Though never a great commercial success — the band made the Top Forty just once, with the tough 1966 single “7 and 7 Is” — Love was at the very center of the fertile Sunset Strip scene of the mid-Sixties. The group’s ambitious third album, 1968’s Forever Changes, still a critical favorite, stands among that era’s seminal records. Lee was Love’s driving force, hiring and firing collaborators at will and pushing them to explore their various musical inclinations. Love’s first four albums ranged wildly, from prototypical garage-punk and jazzy experimentation to Spanish guitar, Broadway-style melodicism and deceptively “easy” listening. In later years, as he struggled with mental and physical issues and his own missed opportunities, Lee often complained about getting less than his due. “Without me there’d be no Jimi Hendrix, no Sly Stone,” he once said. “I was the first so-called black hippie.”
Arthur Lee Porter was born in Memphis on May 7th, 1945. His family moved to Los Angeles when he was a child. By his teen years, he was forming local bands. One of them, Arthur Lee and the LAGs (named in tribute to Booker T and the MGs), recorded an instrumental single for Capitol Records in 1963. The following year, Lee engineered what was perhaps Hendrix’s first studio session, hiring the young guitarist to play on “My Diary,” a song Lee wrote and produced for R&B singer Rosa Lee Brooks.
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Although many of his models were black soul singers — Sam Cooke, James Brown, Jackie Wilson — Lee began to head in another direction when he recognized an affinity for Beatlesque pop and the folk-rock of fellow Angelenos the Byrds. Forming a band he named the Grass Roots, he recruited fellow Memphis-born guitarist Johnny Echols, bassist Johnny Fleckenstein and drummer Don Conka and began playing such L.A. fixtures as Brave New World and the Whisky A Go Go. Bryan MacLean, road manager for the Byrds, soon asked to join; he would became the group’s second songwriter.
Beaten to the name the Grass Roots by another Los Angeles act that went on to some success, Lee rechristened his band Love. Bobby Beausoleil, a friend and future member of the Manson Family, would claim that the name was drawn from his own nickname, Cupid.
With its fearless innovation and flamboyant stage presence, Love quickly became the toast of the Strip. Their residency at Brave New World attracted a celebrity clientele — “the Yardbirds, Mick Jagger, Sal Mineo,” according to Lee. Morrison would later claim that the Doors’ original goal was to be as big as Love. Lee and his band became the first rock group to sign to Jac Holtzman’s folkie Elektra label, releasing a self-titled debut in April 1966. The album featured an early take on “Hey Joe,” recorded almost simultaneously with the hit version by another L.A. group, the Leaves, and a raw adaptation of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “My Little Red Book.” Bacharach was reportedly furious with Love’s hard-edged rendition.
The debut reached No. 57 on the charts, selling 150,000 copies. The band, already contending with the hard drug habits that would plague it for years, moved into a communal home in Laurel Canyon, a house once belonging to Bela Lugosi. Bassist Ken Forssi, a former member of the Surfaris, replaced Fleckenstein, who would go on to join the Standells. Drummer Alban “Snoopy” Pfisterer replaced Conka, later moving to keyboards with the addition of drummer Michael Stuart.
Love’s second album, Da Capo, notable for the success of “7 and 7 Is” and the eighteen-minute jam of “Revelation” (one of the first rock tracks to span an entire album side), came out in early 1967. Neil Young was briefly enlisted to co-produce the next record, 1968’s Forever Changes, though that association, like much of the session, was problematic. With the band increasingly unreliable, Elektra brought in several session men, including drummer Hal Blaine. The band took the move as a wake-up call, and the result was a unique creative outburst, marked by complex song structures, archly mannered singing and dark, obtuse lyrical material.
Forever Changes was not a success; the dramatic, flamenco-style single “Alone Again Or” barely cracked the Top 100. Much of the failure was attributed to Lee’s refusal to tour. Holtzman, in his Elektra memoir, speculated that the singer wanted to be near his drug connections. (Lee had already declined to perfom at the Monterey Pop Festival.) Shortly after the release, Lee parted with his band mates, beginning a long cycle of rotating band members. Four Sail was Love’s last record for Elektra; subsequent releases found Lee flailing to retrieve the sound of his original band. In England, he cut lengthy jams with Hendrix, but the tapes were bogged down in legal disputes. One track from those sessions, “The Everlasting First,” eventually appeared on Love’s “False Start” album.
Meanwhile, past band mates were struggling. Forssi and Echols were rumored to have fallen into lives of petty crime, holding up a series of coffee shops, for which they were dubbed the “Doughnut Bandits.” Maclean suffered a nervous breakdown and became a Christian, occasionally performing with his half-sister, Maria McKee of Lone Justice. He died of a heart attack on Christmas Day 1999.
After dropping out of sight in the 1980s, Lee attempted several comebacks, beginning with the release of “Arthur Lee and Love” on the French New Rose label in 1992. A conviction for unlawful possession of a firearm resulted in a prison sentence; upon his release in 2001, he toured accompanied by the Los Angeles group Baby Lemonade.
Despite Love’s enduring status as a cult act with little commercial success, the band cast a long shadow. Syd Barrett called Love a defining inspiration for early Pink Floyd. Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant specifically mentioned Lee at the 1995 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. A film company in London is currently finishing work on a documentary entitled Love Story.
And it was Arthur Lee’s headling rush into a fantastic variety of music that defined the group. “I’d love to hear Johnny Mathis do ‘Foxey Lady,'” he once said, “or Howlin’ Wolf do ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!'”