casual rock fans possess at least one Love album, but not
many outside the hard core of devotees know much about the
group's history. There are few songwriters as great as Arthur
Lee about whom so little is known. It is as if "Forever
Changes" existed in a vacuum, coming out of a folk-rock
limbo and returning to an acid-rock purgatory.
Arthur Taylor Porter was born in 1945 in Memphis, Tennessee.
(After his parents divorced, he took the surname of his mother's
second husband, Clinton Lee.) When he was five years old the
family moved to California, and Arthur grew up in the Crenshaw-Adams
neighborhood of West Los Angeles. He described himself as
a "lonely only child", whose chief solace was music.
"When I was a little boy, I would listen to Nat King
Cole and look at that purple Capitol Records logo. I wanted
to be on Capitol, that was my goal."
Lee attended Dorsey High School, where he excelled at basketball
and track. After school, he often walked the several miles
from Dorsey to the Capitol building in Hollywood, just to
gaze at the bastion he was determined to conquer. Lee left
school to form his first band, the LAGs, named in honor of
Booker T's MGs. His first recruit was a friend from the neighborhood,
guitarist Johnny Echols. In 1963 they actually did release
a 45 on the Capitol label, but "Rumble-Still-Skins"
was soon and deservedly forgotten.
LAGs were re-named the American Four, and recorded the single
"Luci Baines" for one of Del-Fi's subsidiary labels,
Selma. Lee produced soul and Chicano singles for Selma, then
moved on to the even more obscure F label. One of the songs
he wrote and produced for F has its own place in rock history.
The 1965 Rosa Lee Brooks release,"My Diary" was
the first recording to feature recently-fired Little Richard
sideman Jimi Hendrix on guitar. Lee said,"The sound was
sort of like, well, you take Curtis Mayfield and his riffs,
and turn your amps up full blast, and see what you get."
Lee's early work was well within a strong black R&B tradition.
The switch to white pop took place in 1965, when he first
saw Roger McGuinn and the Byrds. He was entranced by the freedom
of British-influenced folk rock, and the possibilities offered
by the twelve-string guitar. The Rolling Stones and an LA
band called the Rising Sons also greatly influenced his new
direction, which was described by one reviewer as "though
McGuinn and friends had somehow formed a sonic alliance with
Lee and Echols rounded up Bryan Maclean (guitar/vocals), Ken
Forssi(bass), and Don Conca (drums)for a new line-up known
as the Grass Roots. The audition at which Maclean, a former
Byrds roadie, was accepted was notable for the fact that the
only other applicant was Bobby Beausoleil, who went on to
a different kind of fame as one of the Manson Family killers.
Playing in bars, six nights a week, the Grass Roots became
"the king of the street bands" in Hollywood.
However, in the fall of 1965 Lee was forced to change the
band's name. Another Grass Roots appeared on the scene, hitting
the charts with a version of Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin
Man" on the Dunhill label. Rather than go to court about
it, Lee came up with the idea of calling his band "Love."
He said,"It's a big word, it's the best part of life."
It is notable, however, that his definition of love was somewhat
idiosyncratic. "We got to love each other. My preference
is to get along with everybody" he said, and then, "As
long as you do what I say, no problem."
Although Lee was the prime mover of the group, Maclean could
write equally good material. Where Lee had grown up black
in West LA, Maclean was a California Golden Boy whose first
girlfriend was the young Liza Minelli. The differences between
their backgrounds and styles provided much of the creative
tension in their material. As Love built a reputation based
on this blend of R&B and folk-rock styles, they began
to drop their cover work in favor of original material.
Arthur Lee, who has been described as a "black freak
on the white scene" of Sixties LA, has also been credited
with forming much of its style. "Lee cut quite an imposing
figure," wrote Three Dog Night's Jimmy Greenspoon, "dark
glasses, a scarf around his neck, Edwardian shirts and
what was to become his trademark an old pair of army
boots with one unlaced. He had a mesmerizing presence. The
audience became followers of King Arthur Lee. He was a Pied
Piper who would lead them down the road to a different form
of consciousness." Noting the resemblances between Lee
and Mick Jagger, industry veteran Denny Bruce described the
former as "a black American imitating a white Englishman
imitating a black American." The British influence in
Love's music was obvious, but the guitar work of Lee, Echols,
and Maclean was pure LA.
1966, Love became the first rock band to be signed by Elektra
Records, with the proviso that drummer Alban "Snoopy"
Pfisterer replace the drug-addled Don Conca. The band's 1966
album release, eponymously entitled "Love," suggested
a strong future for them. Love's cover of "My Little
Red Book," a Bacharach-David song from the film "What's
New, Pussycat?" gave the group their first U.S. hit.
Encouraged by their first venture into rock territory, Elektra
next signed another Los Angeles act, the Doors. Their hard
R&B sound, overt sexual imagery, and single-mindedness
about making it big challenged Love's position as the label's
great hope. And the Doors had another tremendous advantage;
they were willing to do whatever it took to build up a strong
following. Love, on the other hand, were already known for
their intransigence; they wouldn't gig regularly, and rarely
ventured outside their LA turf. In fact, Love were early masters
of the surly pop attitude; Jones and Rotten a decade before
their time. A reporter who interviewed the band in 1966 concluded
that,"Only when a group really reaches the top can their
career withstand what they may suffer from being continuously
rude and uncaring to fans and reporters alike. In my opinion,
Love will soon be on many blacklists in the music industry."
In the summer of 1966, Love released the single "Seven
and Seven Is," which became their biggest hit. Described
as "an apocalyptic masterpiece," the song made it
obvious that Love had plunged headfirst into the sea of hallucinogens
that was California in the hippy heyday. It was followed by
a second album, "Da Capo," that was much superior
to its predecessor. The stop-start angry rhythms of songs
like "Stephanie Knows Who" and the manic "Seven
and Seven Is" were balanced by the delicacy of "Orange
Skies" and "She Comes in Colours."
In 1967, much of America was caught up in the joy of flowers,
beads, and drugs, swimming in the colours that swirled through
the psychedelic haze. Down on the Sunset Strip, where for
a year Love had reigned as the hippest band in town, kids
floated in a state of cosmic bliss. But Arthur Lee wanted
no part of it. In fact, it was in 1967 that Lee made what
may have been the most professionally self-destructive decision
of his career. He declined an invitation to perform at the
Monteray Pop Festival. There could have been several reasons
for such bad judgement, but one of them was undoubtedly the
increasing involvement of the band with serious drugs. By
the time work on "Forever Changes" began, at least
three members Lee, Echols, and Forssi were strung
out on heroin. Word of this spread rapidly through the music
community, and added nothing to their already intimidating
image. They were regarded as a "bunch of hoods,"
and Peter Albin of Big Brother and the Holding Company said
that the band should be called "Hate" rather than
Love were "hoods," however, they were psychedelic
hoods; the tension between their flower child ethos and their
punk roots was the source of their most compelling creations.
In the summer of 1967 they recorded their undisputed masterpiece,
the album "Forever Changes." When the sessions began,
Lee was not only on heroin but tripping around the clock,
while Maclean didn't even bother to show up for rehearsals.
It was obvious to producer Bruce Botnick that the group was
in no shape to do serious studio work, so he found some session
musicians to sit in. With Hal Blaine (drums), Billy Strange
(guitar), and Don Randi (piano), Botnick recorded "Andmoreagain"
and "The Daily Planet." The shock of seeing other
musicians laying down their tracks was enough to jolt the
band into shaping up at least for the duration of the
decades later, "Forever Changes" is still at the
center of a storm of controversy. Almost every aspect of
the process and the performers is in dispute. Lee has been
known to claim that Botnick did not produce the album, that
he wanted David Angel's string arrangements removed from
the mix, and that he, rather than Angel, did the arranging.
Maclean has said that the effect of the final mix on his
vocals was so awful that he has only ever listened to the
Be all of that as it may, "Forever Changes" almost
immediately attained landmark status. It contained the classics
as "Andmoreagain," "A House is Not a Motel,"
"The Daily Planet," and "Alone Again Or."
"Forever Changes" went where other pop bands feared
to go, using arrangements that teased and twisted around
the melody lines, contorting them into shapes that bore
little relationship to most of the album's contemporaries.
This was partly due to unconventional production; blistering
guitar runs cut through the rest of the sound in a way that
most producers would never allow. There was a dissonance
to the album which spoke to the mental fragmentation of
the drug culture from which it sprang. It mirrored the surreal
distortion of the era with unnerving precision. "With
its intricately crafted arrangements, idiosyncratic time
changes, and overlapping vocal tracks, it fully merits its
reputation as LA's own 'Sergeant Pepper.'"
As it turned out, that album was the high point of the band's
career. "Alone Again Or" failed when it appeared
as a single. The band members were going in different musical
directions, and Lee was too strung-out to be able to pull
things together. They produced one last single in 1968,
"Your Mind and We Belong Together," and then the
group began to implode. Bryon Maclean was the first to jump
ship. He later said, "At least two of the members were
irreparably hooked on heroin
Johnny was showing up for rehearsal without his guitar.
I felt like I needed to get out while the getting was good."
By the end of the summer of 1968, Echols, Forssi, and drummer
Mike Stuart had also quit, and Lee's drug problem had become
so severe that he nearly died of an overdose.
he recovered, Lee sought to regroup a new-look Love around
himself. He ended up with George Suranovich (drums), Frank
Fayad (bass), and Jay Donnellan (lead guitar). In 1969,
Love produced their final Elektra album,"Four Sail,"
which included a song that should have sent their ratings
soaring. "August" eased in with some of Lee's
characteristically plaintive vocals over an intricate backing,
then the band broke into some terrifyingly powerful psychedelic
jamming. The four instrumentalists flew off at tangents
that only Cream had previously explored. On the basis of
that sound, Love should have become one of the top name
psychedelic acts of the late Sixties. Unfortunately, Lee's
unwillingness to perform regularly, or anywhere outside
LA, denied them access to the mainstream of the rock fraternity.
Theaker, the drummer who joined Love for part of the "Four
Sail" recording, recalled the mood of the band at this
time. "It was like a soft rock band with a hard rock
sound. Everything centered around Arthur's house, which
was definitely psychedelic on top of a mountain, with a swimming pool that was both
inside and outside. We used to rehearse every day, but we
only played gigs once or twice a month."
His recollections were supported by Jac Holzman, the founder
of Elektra Records, who said, "Arthur was one of the
smartest and finest musicians I ever met. As great as his
talent, however, was his penchant for isolation and not
doing what was necessary to bring his music to his audience.
His isolation cost him a career." It has been suggested,
in fact, that Lee is a borderline schizophrenic. Holzman
once said, "Arthur is not of this world," and
certainly his management of his life and career bear that
By the end of 1969, Love had switched from Elektra to the
Blue Thumb label, which immediately brought out a double
album of dubious quality entitled "Out Here."
It appeared on Harvest in the U.K., and managed to sneak
into a top 30 placing there. On the strength of it Lee made
a European tour in 1970, in the course of which he did some
studio work with Jimi Hendrix.
In 1971 Blue Thumb records released "False Start."
The only thing that made this album memorable was the appearance
of Hendrix on the song "Everlasting First." Legend
has it that Hendrix laid down more tracks during the "False
Start" sessions, but that his parts were either recorded
over or mixed out of the final masters. In 1974, Lee was
back with one-off deal for RSO Records. He retained the
name Love for the new grouping of Melvan Whittington (guitar),
John Sterling (guitar), Joey Blocker (drums), and Sherwood
Akuna (bass). The "Reel to Real" album, however,
was soul-influenced material about as far removed from the
first Love sound as the line-up was from the original. The
album soon became a bargain bin regular. The fact seems
to have been that the prince of orchestral psychedelic pop
was finding it hard to survive in an era of heavy electric
Discography: Top row Love, 1966 / Da Capo, 1967 /
Forever Changes, 1967 / Four Sail, 1969 / Out Here,
1969 / False Start, 1970
Bottom row Vindicator (Arthur Lee solo), 1972
/ Reel to Real, 1974 / Studio/Live, 1982 / Electronically
Speaking, 2001 /
Five String Serenade, 2002 / The Forever Changes Concert,
1976, Lee had all but quit the music business, and was working
as a housepainter in South Central LA. In 1978 the original
Love line-up reunited briefly, but Arthur couldn't cope
with the changes time had made. As Bryan Maclean said,"He's
one of those people who'd like to go back to the times when
everything was sweet and fresh and new."
was heard of Arthur Lee for a number of years. He was not
in circulation for much of the Eighties, and it began to
seem as if the on-off saga of Lee and Love had fizzled out
at last. It was a disappointing conclusion to a career that
had delivered much and promised more. However, in 1989 news
went out that Lee was back in action. He was playing gigs
in California and intended to undertake a European tour
to promote his new recording, the first in over a decade.
That album, "Arthur Lee and Love," was definitely
a mixed bag; dramatic or "typical" Lee songs were
interspersed with material that can only be described as
then, Lee has done gigs in California and on the East Coast.
In June 1994, he appeared at the Royal Albert Hall in London
in a celebration of the Creation label's tenth birthday.
By September he was working with a new band; "They're
called Baby Lemonade, but when they're with me, they're
Love." He worked with them for three years, and then
his career suffered yet another interruption. There are
various versions of the story, but what is certain is that
in the fall of 1996 Arthur Lee was sentenced to eight years
in prison for illegal possession a firearm. Although no
one was injured and no property destroyed in the incident,
California's "Three strikes and you're out" law
guaranteed him a prison sentence, since he had been convicted
on "a couple of assault and drug charges" in the
While in prison Lee refused visitors and interviews, but
his attorney was said to be contemplating an appeal. He
was finally released on December 12, 2001, and soon afterward
gathered a new group of musicians to begin touring Europe
and North America, eventually deciding to perform "Forever
Changes" in its entirety. The Forever Changes tours
were an enormous success as Lee played to sold out audiences
throughout the world, but as
fate would have it, he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and died
in a Memphis hospital on August 3, 2006 after a year-long
battle with the disease. Lee had spent most of his remaining
months in the hospital undergoing chemotherapy along with
an experimental umbilical-cord blood treatment. After three
rounds of chemotherapy failed, several benefit concerts
were held in Britain and the United States to help cover
his medical expenses. In June, longtime fan Robert Plant
headlined a benefit concert at The Beacon Theater in New
York City which raised over $50,000 (Plant cited the influence
of Mr. Lee and Love in his acceptance speech at the Rock
and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995).
Lee has left us, but his music and his influence will live
on. Speaking about the tragic loss of one of music's finest,
Lee's manager Mark Linn issued the following statement on
August 4, 2006: "Arthur Lee died peacefully at Methodist
Hospital in Memphis, a little after four in the afternoon
August 3, 2006 with his wife Diane by his side. His death
comes as a shock to me because Arthur had the uncanny ability
to bounce back from everything, and leukemia was no exception.
He was confident that he would be back on stage by the fall.
When I visited with him recently, he was visibly moved by
the stories and pictures from the NYC benefit concert. He
was truly grateful for the outpouring of love from friends
and fans all over the world since news of his illness became
public. Arthur always lived in the moment, and said what
he thought when he thought it. I'll miss his phone calls,
and his long voice messages, but most of all I'll miss Arthur
playing Arthur's music."