Happy Birthday, Arthur Lee

Friday, March 7, 2014
Happy Birthday, Arthur Lee

We just got out our little red book and realized that today is Arthur Lee’s birthday, so we thought we’d better offer up a brief tribute to the late Love frontman, a singer, songwriter, and musician who’s influenced a lot of folks without ever becoming the sort of household name he had the potential to be.

Born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1945, Lee – birth name Arthur Taylor – came by his musical ability honestly (his father, Chester, played the jazz cornet), but in high school he was much more likely to be found playing basketball than an instrument. In fact, it wasn’t until 1963 when he first entered a recording studio as a member of a band called the LAGs, the lineup of which featured fellow future Love member Johnny Echols. Lee took to the studio quickly, however: by the following year, he was already doing a bit of producing for other artists, including a single for singer Rosa Lee Brooks, whose band included none other than Jimi Hendrix.

After being introduced to the Byrds, Lee set out on a quest to meld the R&B-styled material he’d been writing to the folk-rock that was all the rage at the time. In short order, Love was born, kicking off their live career in April 1965 and quickly becoming recognized as a concert act that wasn’t to be missed. Signing to Elektra Records the following year, the band released their debut single, “My Little Red Book,” which – despite the fact that its co-writer, Burt Bacharach, absolutely hated it – proved to be their first hit. Others would soon follow, including “7 and 7 Is” and “She Comes in Colors.”

If there’s a definitive Love album (and there is), it’s Forever Changes, which is the sort of absolute classic that any band would kill to have in their catalog. Generally described as a song suite, it was recorded in only 64 hours, with some of the musical parts played by session musicians rather than the actual band members, but the end result is hard to argue with. Regrettably, mainstream audiences didn’t embrace the album the way the critics did, leading it to stall at #154 on the Billboard album charts, but its status as one of the best albums of the 1960s – or, if you ask Rolling Stone, one of the 500 greatest albums of all time – is pretty much set in stone at this point.

Although Love released several albums after Forever Changes, the problem with creating a classic album and watching it fail to shift mass units, however, is that you’re still left with a reputation that’s hard to live up to. Lee probably didn’t help things by kicking everyone else in the band to the curb and rebuilding the lineup from scratch, nor did it do much for his career when, in 1995, he went to prison for six years for firearms offenses. After doing his time, Lee joined forces with the band Baby Lemonade, playing shows with them and performing Love songs, and Lee also buried the hatchet with Echols and did some dates with him as well. (Unsurprisingly, they often played Forever Changes in its entirety.)

Sadly, Lee died of acute myeloid leukemia on August 3, 2006, but despite suffering through more lean years than he or his fans might’ve liked, he nonetheless left the world with a musical legacy that lives on.