A guitar player’s guitarist, Albert Lee is universally championed as one of the most tasteful and consummate six-string slingers to ever strap on an instrument.
His stellar work both as a solo artist and performing with the likes of The Everly Brothers, Eric Clapton, Emmylou Harris, Dave Edmunds, Jackson Browne, Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Crickets, Dolly Parton and countless others, speaks volumes to an immensely gifted talent and man who knows his way around the fretboard.
Rock Cellar Magazine caught up with Lee ahead of his participation in the Get Together Foundation’s holiday fundraising concert at California State University Northridge on December 13, 2015.
Rock Cellar: You started off playing piano at age seven, what pulled you towards guitar?
Albert Lee: Well, I mean there was no guitar when I started in piano. This was like 1952, ’53 (laughs) and we didn’t see many guitars in England back then. But it was Lonnie Donegan who had a number of hit records in the UK in the mid ‘50s. So we were school kids and heard these records and thought, wow, this is cool! (laughs) and put together a skiffle group. Everybody had a skiffle group. The Beatles played in skiffle groups and the Stones and anybody of my age would have done the same thing.
Rock Cellar: So that fired your interest in playing guitar?
Albert Lee: Oh yeah, absolutely. In fact I played guitar for 18 months without actually owning one, I was borrowing them form school friends until my folks eventually bought me a cheap Spanish guitar which I traded shortly afterwards. I got a decent guitar for Christmas; this was 1958 and that’s when I realized guitars were a little easier to play because prior to that I’d been playing guitars that were almost unplayable. (laughs)
Rock Cellar: Can you recall the first time someone told you that you were a really good guitar player?
Albert Lee: Pretty soon actually.
There was no one around who played better than me for a long time (laughs).
I was just listening to records and had no one to learn form; I was just playing by ear. I did see a couple of people I admired. I saw Duane Eddy in 1958, ’59 in the UK ad there was a guy on TV called Joe Brown who was a couple of years older than me. He was on TV regularly and he’d be bending the strings and I thought, Boy, how’s he doing that? Of course, I realized shortly after that there were ways of manipulating the strings (laughs) so that they were lighter gauge. I think Eddie Cochran kind of spread the word when he came over in about 1960.
Rock Cellar: Did you ever get to see Buddy Holly & The Crickets when they played in the UK?
Albert Lee: No. You know what, I was so disappointed. I had my mind set on it and he played locally and I had totally forgotten about it. The next day I ran into my friends and they said, “Buddy Holly was great last night!” and I said, “Oh no!”
Rock Cellar: You made up for it years later playing with the Crickets.
Albert Lee: That’s right.
Rock Cellar: Among your early formative influences was Buddy Holly. You were fortunate to have gotten a chance to record with his band, The Crickets in the early ‘70s on their album, Long Way From Lubbock, The Crickets and Their Buddies. Was that a “pinch me, this can’t be happening” moment?
Albert Lee: Of course. I was just great fun. They were really fun guys too. They were so easy to get on with. We’d just sit around and talk about what was going on here in the States in the late ‘50s and I’d hear all these great stories. They were just wonderful story tellers. Joe B. Mauldin (bass player) was in the band when I played with them. I think he had kind of retired from the Crickets and I think he had a recording studio and a number of business things that he was involved in. But he eventually got back with the Crickets later on.
Rock Cellar: Did any of the Crickets share any interesting Buddy Holly stories with you?
Albert Lee: Oh yeah. They did talk about when they were recording and their trips. Like they were on their way back from a tour and they stopped at this store and the three of them bought motorcycles.
Rock Cellar: Having made your name as a guitar player in England, what prompted your move to Los Angeles in the mid ‘70s and how did that play into the arc of your career?
Albert Lee: I guess it must have been ’62. I was playing a cellar club in London where a lot of the bands used to play. One night a couple of guys came in and they were really interested in what we were doing and they looked a bit different to most of the English kids that were around. We got to talking in one of the breaks and I discovered that they were American and they were musicians. We said, “What are you doing here?” and they said, “We’re here with the Everly Brothers.”
This was Don Peake, their guitar player, and Chuck Blackwell who was their drummer. Through them I got to meet Phil Everly. This was the tour where Don Everly was sick and had to fly back to L.A. So I got to talk to Don Peake quite a bit about Los Angeles and music and the guitar players that he knew. He was showing me stuff that was really interesting; I did learn a lot from him about guitar playing and other guitar players and what was going on in L.A. He said, “You should come to L.A., you’d do really well.” I said, “Well, you’re kidding aren’t you?” And he said, “No, no, you’re a good player.” I said, “Well, what about all those great players there?” And he said, “Oh no, you’d do fine.”
He told me that he used to get lessons from Howard Roberts and of course he knew James Burton and a guy named Glen Campbell who I’d never heard of. I started to follow these guys avidly looking for stuff that they played on and thought about Los Angeles. Then came the British Invasion and of course all of the bands were coming over to America and I was really envious. I thought, when am I gonna get over there? (laughs)
Rock Cellar: You finally made it.
Albert Lee: Well, it took me a while. I was envious of all the guys who went over to the States and would come back with arms full of instruments and old guitars. I was very envious. But I finally made it over in the ‘70s. I was with a band called Heads Hand and Feet and we signed a major record deal with Capitol Records and flew over here and played at the Troubadour and met up with a load of people. I’d met Phil Everly in London and he came to see us play at the Troubadour and took me on my first trip to Disneyland. So we sort of hung out together. It took me a while to eventually make the move to America because I was with the band Heads Hands & Feet and I was back and forth to England. Then I left Heads Hands & Fete and joined The Crickets over in England.
They came over and we did a couple of tours and I came back to L.A. with them to do an album. We went off to Nashville to do an album and the following year we did another album here in L.A. Through them I got to meet a lot of musicians around town here. Jerry Allison got a call from Don Everly inviting him out to the Sundance Saloon in Calabasas. Jerry Allison was on the phone with Don and this was by the time the Everlys had split up. Don called Jerry and Jerry said, “I’ve got Albert Lee here form England” and there was a kind of silence at the other end of the line and Don said, “That’s Phil’s friend, isn’t it?” (laughs) We went out to the Sundance Saloon and I sat in with Don and had a great time and I immediately became Don’s friend (laughs).
Rock Cellar: Don later gave you his classic Gibson J-200 acoustic guitar, right?
Albert Lee: Yeah. That’s right. I did quite a few things with him. I think he really liked having a sidekick there because he missed his brother in a way. So he was happy to have someone there to rely on and we got on really well. He loaned me a bunch of guitars when I was doing a few sessions here and there ‘cause I didn’t have any acoustics. Then we did a tour of the UK opening for Marty Robbins. I was playing guitar with Don and ended up singing with him. There I was, an Everly Brother on live TV in the UK. (laughs)
So I think he really enjoyed my company and having me there as a musical sidekick. He and his wife discussed the fact that I really loved that J-200 acoustic guitar of his and they thought, ‘why don’t we give it to Albert?’ And he gave it to me and I could not believe it.
Rock Cellar Magazine: You were the band leader for the Everly Brothers’ celebrated 1983 reunion tour. Thinking back, what stands out for you about that tour?
Albert Lee: I felt very honored. I had to pinch myself a number of times. You start to take it for granted, not only being able to play with the Everly Brothers but it was a great band too. We had Buddy Emmons for a long time and Larrie Londin; they were two of the best there ever was. But it was always a good band no matter who was in it. When they were in a good mood we’d have a few beers after a show and they’d be telling stories. I always think that it’s a tremendous loss because they’d be telling stories about when they were growing up and doping these little shows. Unfortunately, it’s all lost now, you know?
Neither of them enjoyed doing interviews so it was a shame that people missed out on those moments.
Rock Cellar: For those shows, what was the one songs you looked to playing the most each night?
Albert Lee: Oh Lucille, we did that towards the end of the set and that always had a great groove. They always sang great. It depends how interested in the show Don was because Phil didn’t have a lot of control over it (laughs). It was Don who was the lead singer.
Rock Cellar: How did you come to become involved in the “ROCK-N-ROLL CHRISTMAS SHOW” for the MusiCares® Foundation going on at CSU Northridge on December 13?
Albert Lee: Well, Lauri (Reimer) originally spoke to my wife about the show. I’ve done a couple of charity things around town here and I guess the word gets around, “Oh yeah, well, he does those kind of things. Why don’t you give him a call and see if he’s around?” (laughs) So Lauri called up and told us about it. I know some of the guys in the band and I’m really looking forward to it. It’ll be fun.
Rock Cellar: What can attendees look forward to with that show?
Albert Lee: Well, I’ve just seen the list of the artists and the songs they they’re doing and it seems quite varied actually because it is a Christmas show after all. It won’t all be wild rock and roll; it’ll be quite a varied mixture. The only Christmas song that I know is Santa Claus Is Back in Town. (laughs) I did that on a Christmas show in Sweden a number of years ago with a band called the Refreshments. They were a good rock and roll band and unfortunately they broke up. I’m gonna go on Tuesday night to the rehearsal for the show and there are a lot of musicians there so they can’t have everybody on stage at the same time. But I’m sure they’ll give me a chance to do something with them. (laughs)
Rock Cellar: Rockpile were one of rock’s greatest and most unsung band sporting two extremely gifted guitar players in Dave Edmunds and Billy Bremner. Take us back how you came to play lead guitar on the song Sweet Little Lisa, which featured backing by Rockpile, and which appeared on Dave Edmunds’ solo album?
Albert Lee: I’ll go back a bit further actually, I was doing an album with Emmylou Harris. In between tracks there was always music going on in the house. One day one of the engineers and the steel guitar player had been writing a song together called Sweet Little Lisa. They said, “Would you put a guitar solo on this song for us? and I said, “Yeah of course, love to,” which I did. They said, “You know Dave Edmunds don’t you?” And I said, “Yes I do.” They said, “Do you think you can get this song to him? We think this would be perfect for him.”
I told them I would do my best. I didn’t know him that well but we knew each other. So I got it to him and then they went in and cut it. I was back over in England a while later and Dave got in touch with me and said, “We’ve done that track and we’ve came to the conclusion that we really love what you did on the demo. Would you come in and play on it?” So I said, “Yeah, love to.” I drove over to Eden Studios and walked in there with my guitar and they’d been doing the documentary (Born Fighters) and I think they had pretty much finished with the filming but they decided to get the cameras in to document this overdub and that’s what you see in the clip. I just walk in, listen to the track, plug in and play.
Rock Cellar: Was that amazing solo you laid down on “Sweet Little Lisa” a first take?
Albert Lee: Yeah, it’s pretty close to it. I knew the song and I had my B-bender guitar which seemed to work perfectly on that. Yeah, we didn’t run it many times.
Rock Cellar: You’ve released over 10 solo albums. For someone unfamiliar with your work, what album would you steer them to and why?
Albert Lee: Hmm … good question. Well, I like them for different reasons. The first album, Hiding, I thought was a really nice bit of production Brian Ahern did. But with the earlier albums I have to say that my vocals weren’t really…well, I wasn’t an experienced singer, put it that way. (laughs) That came later once I formed my English band back in ’87, ’88. That’s when we did our first couple of tours and then it was a regular trip to Europe. I’d go at least twice a year. But looking back on all of my albums, I have to say that I like what I did on the Like This album. There’s some tracks on there where I’m really pleased with my vocals and with the guitar playing.
Rock Cellar: In 2015, who are the guitar players that are catching your ear?
Albert Lee: Boy, I don’t listen to a lot of guitar players, to be honest. There are a lot of great players out there. There are guys that play in the style that I like but then in my opinion there are far too many who are really into metal and playing with a lot of compression and distortion, which can cover up a whole number of sins. But having said that, there are a number of guys out there who really play well. We all learned from the guys we heard when we were growing up; you stand on the shoulders of the guys who went before. Now I hear a lot of guys do what I do and they do it really well. There are lots of them in Nashville. (laughs) That’s probably why I don’t get to fly there very often. (laughs)
Rock Cellar: Having played guitar for over 60 years, as a player, how do you manage to keep things fresh?
Albert Lee: Well, it’s nice to take a little break from it although I can’t take too long a break. I don’t lose my technique but it’s nice to have the calluses there. (laughs) I discovered that last week. I did a show with Emmylou Harris; it was show on Thanksgiving night. It was a dog rescue charity thing and I was playing acoustic guitar and my fingers were killing me because I hadn’t played acoustic guitar for a while. (laughs) I’ll take a little break my playing guitar and then it’s nice and fresh when I come back to it. I don’t like to take too long away from it.
I like to think that my playing has improved over the years because I’ve been playing all the time. There hasn’t been a month where I haven’t been gigging. I think that’s been to my benefit because when I think about my peers who made a lot of money in this business they may not play for six months and all of a sudden they’ve got to rehearse for a tour band they haven’t been playing and I think it shows too. (laughs) There are definitely guys out there that are not as good as they were when they first made it. But I like to think that my playing has been consistent over the years if not improved.
Rock Cellar: We’re doing this interview on November 29th which marks the 14th anniversary of the untimely passing of one of rock’s greatest legends, George Harrison. You took part in 2002’s Concert For George.
Albert Lee: I met George a number of times. In fact, I posted a picture today on Facebook of us together at the Adelaide Grand Prix in 1985. I was down there with the Everly Brothers and fortunately the Grand Prix was going on as well and George and Barry Sheene, world champion motorcycle rider, and two of the Ferrari drivers came to our show. Then we got to talking to them and asked. “Hey, any chance of coming to the Grand Prix tomorrow?” and they said, “Oh yeah, come on, we’ll get you passes.”
So that was a great experience. I’ve met up with George at Eric (Clapton’s) house after one of Eric’s shows when I was playing with Clapton. It’s the 14th anniversary of George’s passing which I didn’t realize until I opened up Facebook today. So I took it upon myself to send a little email to Olivia, George’s wife, and she just wrote back to me about an hour ago saying, “Oh Albert, you cheered me up! I was just going out to lunch with Dhani; we must get together.” As for the Concert for George: show, it was pretty amazing. Actually, I invited myself. I read somewhere that Eric was putting together a gig for George and of course I had no idea of how big it was gonna be.
So I wrote to Eric saying that I’d love to be involved but I didn’t hear back from him for a couple of weeks. A friend of mine kept pestering me asking, “Have you heard back from Eric yet?” and I’d say, “No, I haven’t. I don’t like to keep bothering him ‘cause I’m one of the few people that has his email.” But I did write back again and he got to me a day or so later and he said, I’ve spoken to Olivia and she’d love for you to be there.” Luckily I was in the UK anyway when that was going on—I was there with my band. I came over early to do George’s thing. We rehearsed for about three weeks. It was a big band, as you will remember.
They gave me a couple of things to do and it was just a thrill to be up there. To be in the middle of that big band it kind of gets lost; they did a really good job of mixing it because there was so much going on.