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Remembering Alvin Lee (December 19, 1944 – March 6, 2013): A Personal Tribute

During the night of March 6th 2013, a musician friend from Indianapolis rang to let me know the breaking news over there of the sudden death of the legendary UK blues and rock guitarist Alvin Lee. Surely this could not be possible as I had just returned from the States where, on visiting the Slippery Noodle blues venue wearing an Alvin tee shirt, I was mobbed by middle aged men thrusting bottles of Bud in my hand. I listened intently to their animated tales about the Ten Years After front man, nicknamed “Captain Speedfingers,” who made numerous appearances across America at the height of his fame. 
I was in shock when I learned of his passing because Alvin was invincible and in any case he was due to perform with Johnny Winter in Paris the following month. I already had the tickets and knew how enthusiastic Alvin was about the forthcoming gig from a recent interview with him:
Photo courtesy of Evi Lee
“I’ve done a bunch of gigs with Johnny Winter on the same bill over the years, but we’ve never played together. Probably won’t this time either. I was at the L’Olympia a couple of years ago with Tony Joe White and the packed house generated a great atmosphere.”
Sadly, it was not meant to be, so instead of arriving in the French capital to see the best blues rockers either side of the pond I found myself at The American Church, 65 Quai d’Orsay on the banks of the Seine on 7th April for an Alvin Lee memorial service. Lifelong devotee, Norwegian Pieter Kentrop had organized this event on behalf of a close-knit community of loyal fans known as “the gang” who had traveled to Paris from all over Europe. Pastor Bruce Morgan gave an inspirational introduction whilst Pieter spoke eloquently and passionately about Alvin’s qualities and lifetime achievements.
American Gospel Music Hall of Fame inductee and one of Alvin’s musical collaborators Mylon LeFevre, now a Pastor, had submitted a reading for the occasion: “Alvin was a good man with a good heart.  He was honest, creative, intelligent, kind and loyal.  He was a rock superstar, it was an honor to be his friend.”  Whilst the grief was unbearable, the sound of the church band quietly sound checking in the background for the next service gave this short, informal ceremony an unexpected but uplifting musical vibe. 
The concert at L’Olympia that evening had been rescheduled as Johnny Winter and Guests to be preceded by a moment of silent reflection in tribute to the globally acclaimed musician. As the audience filed into the auditorium, “I’m Going Home” was playing at full volume and for a moment it seemed that Alvin was on stage and all that had happened was just a bad dream.  Fans around the world were invited to respect the silence at 7 pm local time, a moving experience honored reverentially by the full house of over 1500 in the auditorium. Alvin Lee would have appreciated the concert, notably the guitar wizardry of Tommy Emmanuel and the technicality and innovation of Robben Ford. Johnny Gallagher played at 100 miles per hour like a young Alvin Lee, Manu Lanvin provided the Americana of Alvin’s In Tennessee album whilst Johnny Winter brought some of the nostalgia of Ten Years After’s rock and roll and R&B.  
Turning the clock back, the first time I saw Alvin Lee perform was in 1968 when I was a trainee teacher in Nottingham. Like most students in the 60s, I was in a band and started playing small venues in the city including the Milton’s Head where Alvin had jammed with local aspiring musicians. Everyone I met waxed lyrical about Nottingham’s favorite son and expressed pride and joy in his achievements. I found out why when I saw Ten Years After return from their base in London to perform at The Boat Club on the River Trent which hosted the best progressive rock bands of that era such as King Crimson and Deep Purple. The set reflected the first live album, Undead, an incredible combination of blues and jazz jams culminating in what was to become the band’s national anthem, “I’m Going Home.” Standing there in the crowded, compact, sweaty venue, the home fans roaring Lee on like football supporters, I was in musical heaven.
The 1969 Woodstock festival in New York State is universally regarded as the most important rock concert ever held by becoming a defining symbol of the baby boomers generation and a catalyst for young people’s escapism into music. It was a significant landmark in Alvin’s illustrious career, his high-energy, virtuoso performance in front of an estimated audience of 500,000 propelling Ten Years After to international stardom.  When the smash hit documentary, Woodstock was released the following year, Lee’s reputation as an iconic axe man was preserved for posterity on film. Not only that, his distinctive red Gibson E-335 adorned with a peace symbol sticker and dancing hippie man motif made “Big Red” almost as famous as its owner. Alvin was one of the first popular musicians to promote universal peace and love, reinforced through songs such as “I’d Love to Change the World.”
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It surprises most aficionados who saw him play that Alvin never achieved the world-class accolades that he deserved. A major music magazine did not even include him in a list of 100 greatest guitarists, nor did he or his band gain entry to the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. This did not appear to faze Alvin as he was more concerned about the opinions of his genuine, knowledgeable fans than to follow the path of the Bee Gees and the Dave Clark Five.
Alvin never sought commercial success and hated the prospect of being a pop star at the expense of his musical integrity, preferring to remain true to his roots. However, he did gain satisfaction from Gibson nominating him as the greatest ever exponent of its ES 335 model ahead of such luminaries as Chuck Berry and BB King. From a personal perspective I have watched most blues and rock guitarists perform live over the past half century from Clapton to Page, Beck to Bonamassa, and never seen anyone better than Lee. Even more surprising is that his immense feeling for the blues was not universally recognized despite immortal compositions such as ‘The Bluest Blues” featuring his friend George Harrison on slide. Alvin was brought up listening to his father Sam’s collection of jazz and blues 78s.
“My dad was an avid blues collector so I was brought up with Leadbelly and Big Bill Broonzy. The music was around me all the time and seeped into my brain and fibers; thank God he wasn’t playing James Last. I figured for a white guy to sing and play the blues you have to write and sing about what is personal to you.  As much as I like to sing about getting the freight train from Mississippi to Chicago I have never done it.  I can imagine the situation but the blues to me is generally real thoughts which go through my mind, like in ‘Motel Blues’ and ‘The Bluest Blues.’ The blues is a way of getting melancholy moments out of your system. It is better than taking it out on your friends and pets.”
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Fast-forward to the year 2000 and I am living in Spain, on the Costa del Sol. It was an idyllic existence enhanced when, from a neighboring property, I heard the feint sound of a guitar. Someone who had clearly mastered blues, jazz, rock, and even classical Spanish acoustic styles was playing this superb music for at least two hours every day. It was several weeks before I caught sight of Alvin Lee heading for the beach, the unmistakable swagger and aura of his stage presence instantly confirming his identity.  Alvin and his wife Evi were enjoying a well-deserved semi retirement in the sunshine interspersed by the occasional festival gig. Over the next decade we became acquaintances, Alvin granting me several interviews since I had started a second career writing for a little known UK blues magazine. I was amazed at his warm, unassuming manner and lack of ego; he was the antithesis of what I had expected from such a famous musician.     
Photo by Bjorn Tore Moen
Alvin released two classic albums in the noughties. In Tennessee was recorded in Nashville where Alvin teamed up with his childhood guitar hero Scotty Moore and favorite drummer DJ Fontana for some good old retro rock and roll. On Saguitar, not only had Alvin Lee written all the songs, he composed most of the music for every instrument which makes the album unique and a real treasure chest. 
During the last decade of his life, Alvin teamed up with bass player Pete Pritchard and drummer Richard Newman to form a power trio which toured the UK and played at festivals across Europe. Alvin’s last show, the Ribs and Blues Festival in Holland on 28th May 2012, turned out to be a breathtaking display of pure genius by a musician at the peak of his career and one of his best live performances, subsequently released on CD as The Last Show. The self-penned “Slow Blues In C” and Al Kooper’s “I Can’t Keep From Crying Sometimes” confirm that Lee was an exceptional exponent of the blues. “Love Like A Man” with its guitar pyrotechnics and one of the most distinctive, innovative riffs in rock history is a reminder he was right at the top of his game. As Pete summarized later, “Not for Alvin to gradually diminish and fade like a dying ember.  He finished still playing brilliantly, still shooting from the hip, still the classic guitar slinger.”
Since 2013, Alvin’s close family has ensured that his legacy is perpetuated for future generations. Evi works tirelessly to keep the official website and Facebook page continuously updated and to oversee new content and releases. She discovered the original never before heard recordings from The Cap Ferrat Sessions in Alvin’s studio and had them re-mixed by producer Chris Kimsey for inclusion in the 1967-74 Ten Years After 10-CD box set. Alvin’s daughter Jasmin is managing director of Dean Street Studios in Soho, London, one of the world’s most famous recording venues. She grew up in studios and started running the family business with her mother, Suzanne Lee Barnes who has vast experience in the music business as a promoter and manager. 
“There were always musicians round at our house and Jasmin has a natural empathy for working with musicians and understands what kind of environment they need to bring about the best results. I am very proud of her because she is following her natural path.”
Suzanne is currently music director for Rocking and Racing at The Silverstone Classic, the world’s largest classic motor racing festival organized by Goose Live Events. In July 2019, The Fifty Years After Party was held there to celebrate Woodstock and over 100,000 people attended the legendary Formula 1 Circuit. Fancy dress had been encouraged and hot air balloons lit up the arena for the appearance of Ten Years After bassist Leo Lyons who had graced the Woodstock stage 50 years ago. This time he was with his latest band, the excellent Hundred Seventy Split. This supreme spectacle was the ultimate tribute to Alvin, Ten Years After and the peace, love and music ethos of a festival which both changed the world and the role of youth in society. 
The spirit of Woodstock with its very special sense of freedom generated by the hippie counter culture of the late 60s stayed with Alvin throughout his life. His solo career started with the album, On The Road To Freedom in 1973 and ended just under 40 years later with Still On The Road To Freedom, the latter taking the listener on an engaging musical journey linking past and present.  Today, “freedom” resonates with making it through the current crisis after a twelfth successive month of living through a coronavirus pandemic. What would Alvin have made of lockdowns? Possibly, he would have welcomed the opportunity to continuing composing, recording and performing his great music.  As he told me in our final interview: “It’s too late to get a proper job.”
Photo courtesy of Evi Lee
“There was a time when for me being on tour with a Rock & Roll band playing practically the same thing every night got boring, and believe me if that gets boring you have a big problem because where do you go from there? That’s where the road to freedom comes in.”
The increasing respect and recognition from across the world since he passed away 8 years ago is a tribute to what Alvin achieved in his lifetime. There will only ever be one Alvin Lee and his absence has left a huge void.  He really did change the world through the evolution of his timeless and classic music and his promotion of peace. Alvin’s music transcends his mortality and will be remembered and enjoyed for generations to come thanks to the love and dedication of his precious family, Evi, Suzanne Jasmin and all of his fans.
“Music is magic and I can’t think of a world without music when you think about what it does to people.  I still wake up on my birthday and play Jerry Lee’s ’Whole Lotta Shakin’, that’s my kind of rock and roll. When I think of music when I was a teenager, for example, when I hear Buddy Holly’s ‘That’ll Be The Day,’ I can see myself standing on the waltzer at Goose Fair in Nottingham watching the girls, I can hear the loud, blaring music and see the flashing lights from the fairground rides and I can smell hot dogs and diesel fumes; the memories all come back from the song. And when I hear Del Shannon’s ‘Runaway’, I am standing in the Locarno Ballroom watching the girls spinning round on the dance-floor with their petticoats flying and their bee-hives bobbing, the memories, the smells and the atmosphere all come back, its pretty amazing.  Being involved in music is a privilege and being able to create it, write it and then make it still gives me a big buzz.”    
Alvin Lee, RIP.
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*Feature image credit: Simon Ritter/Redferns

Robert Finley to Release Dan Auerbach-Produced Album, ‘Sharecropper’s Son,’ On May 21st

Today, Robert Finley announced Sharecropper’s Son, the career-defining new album from “the greatest living soul singer,” released on Easy Eye Sound/Concord, on May 21 2021. A soulful masterpiece written by Finley and co-written and produced by Dan Auerbach, Sharecropper’s Son features blues veterans and studio legends who have worked with everyone from Elvis to Wilson Pickett. 
Photo courtesy of Steve Karas
The announcement was accompanied by “Souled Out On You,” the album’s debut track, which was released today, along with a striking video directed by Tim Hardiman, which featured Dan Auerbach on guitar.
“Souled Out On You,” is “the story of a relationship that’s ending,” Finley explained, adding, “It’s about someone who takes on everything in the relationship. All the good and the bad and even after all of that, they notice that it just isn’t going to work out and the relationship has run its course. I took all I could take and I’m starting my life over.” 
 Finley has always been a consummate entertainer and sensational soul singer, but when he lost his sight, he became an overnight success after 67 years of hard work. Finley has a voice that has stood the test of time and can glide from a gut-deep growl to a transcendent falsetto, all in a single phrase. Rooted in the vintage sounds of southern soul, country, rhythm and blues, Sharecropper’s Son showcases Finley’s formidable vocals, which take centre stage and encapsulate his remarkable life story and reflect on his childhood during the Jim Crow era south. Finley’s stories of pain and joy will uplift as he shares his belief that you are never too young to dream and never too old to live. 
Finley is an army veteran and was a skilled carpenter before losing his sight in his 60s to finally pursue his musical dream. Finley has overcome divorce, house fires, an automobile accident and is legally blind following losing his sight due to the medical condition, glaucoma, which forced him to retire from carpentry and finally pursue his long delayed music career. Finley believes his sight was improved by the power of prayer and Finley’s faith has also helped him focus on launching his music career in his 60’s. According to Finley, “losing my sight gave me the perspective to see my true destiny.” 
His ascent has been swift. His Auerbach produced previous album, Goin’ Platinum, received widespread critical acclaim. Auerbach saw Finley’s potential straight away, proclaiming him “the greatest living soul singer.” “He walked in like he was straight out of the swamp.” Auerbach recalled, adding, “He had leather pants, snakeskin boots, a big country & Western belt buckle, a leather cowboy hat and a three-quarter-length leather duster. The final touch was the folding cane the legally blind Finley wore on his hip, in a holster. Basically, he was dressed for national television.”  
Currently living in Bernice, in North-Central Louisiana, Finley is one of eight children, and was born in Winnsboro, Louisiana in 1953. Song’s including Sharecropper’s Son’s title track, were inspired by Finley’s childhood. His family were Sharecroppers and he was unable to regularly attend school and often worked with his family in the field picking cotton. He later attended a segregated school but dropped out in the 10th grade to go into employment.
 “I was ready to tell my story, and Dan and his guys knew me so well by then that they knew it almost like I do, so they had my back all the way.”  Finley stated, reflecting back on his childhood stories that inspired the record, “Working in the cotton fields wasn’t a pleasant place to be, but it was part of my life. I went from the cotton fields to Beverly Hills. We stayed in the neighbourhood most of our childhood. It wasn’t really all that safe to be out by yourself. One of the things I love about music is that, when I was a boy growing up in the South, nobody wanted to hear what I had to say or what I thought about anything. But when I started putting it in songs, people listened.” 
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With songwriting by Finley, Auerbach, Bobby Wood, and contributions from respected country songwriter Pat McLaughlin, Sharecropper’s Son also features an all star band including guitar expertise from Auerbach himself, Mississippi hill country’s Kenny Brown – a blues veteran of R.L. Burnside’s band, and studio legends Russ Pahl, Billy Sanford and Louisiana guitarist Billy Sanford. They are joined by other notables: keyboardist and songwriter Bobby Wood and drum legend Gene Chrisman, who both played a historic role in Memphis and Nashville music. The line-up was completed by bass contributions from dap king Nick Movshon, blues legend Eric Deaton and former Johnny Cash bandmate Dave Roe, as well as a full horn section, and percussion from Sam Bacco. 
The fire behind the conflagrant performances on Sharecropper’s Son is ignited by 67-year-old Finley, who has cited a range of vocal influences, including Al Green, Jimmi Hendrix, Ray Charles, Elvis, James Brown and The Beatles, all inspiring his genre diverse approach. Finley stated, “I want people to understand that I can’t be kept in a box. I like to do all kinds of music—everything that means anything to me, from gospel to blues to soul to country to rock ‘n’ roll.”
Sharecropper’s Son will be released on May 21 on Easy Eye Sound. There will be an exclusive sunrise yellow vinyl, available from the Easy Eye Sound store only.
Tracklist:
 1 Souled Out On You 
2 Make Me Feel Alright 
3 Sharecropper’s Son 
4 Better Than I Treat Myself
5 Country Child 
6 Starting To See 
7 I Can Feel Your Pain
8 My Story 
9 Country Boy 
10 All My Hope

*Feature image courtesy of Steve Karas 

Interview: Corky Siegel Previews Chamber Blues Extravaganza/Chicago City Winery

Mark your calendars for Saturday, March 6 when Corky Siegel — one of Chicago’s most renowned blues harpists, keyboardists and composers — invites you to participate in the streaming of his Chamber Blues Extravaganza, where he and a unique community of musicians unearth their signature songs and stories. 
The featured acts are names you’ve heard before, but perhaps never in one expressive and explosive night: blues artist Toronzo Cannon, City Winery super star Lynne Jordan, Poi Dog Pondering’s poetic Frank Orrall, jazz saxophonist Ernie Watts, vocalist/songwriter Marcella Detroit, Cantor Pavel Roytman and soulful Grammy nominee Tracy Nelson.
Corky Siegel and Toronzo Cannon (Credit: © Phil Solomonson)
Corky and his wife, Holly Siegel, exceeded expectations by mastering this technological feat during the height of the pandemic. So, what happened behind the scenes? And what can we expect during this one-off performance? We caught up with Corky prior to the show to find out.   
Lisa Torem for ABS:
Holly said, “Culturally, this is probably the most important thing we’ve ever done.” Can you elaborate? 
CS:

Well, this didn’t happen on purpose but our group is probably as diverse as you can imagine. We have African-American, someone from Taiwan, someone from India and someone from Wheaton College (laughs). They are diverse, both culturally and artistically. 
The concept of bringing blues and classic together was Seiji Ozawa’s in 1966. 
He felt it was important because it brought two very seemingly opposing cultural forces  together and that for me, was experienced most acutely when I was performing with the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center in 1969. The audience, of what we would have called “the establishment,” saw these hippies onstage and started booing and hissing. 
And then, when the concert was over, the president of the symphony association reported that it was the longest and most intense standing ovation he had ever seen in all his time at Lincoln Center. And he said the only thing that reminded him remotely of it was Enrique Caruso’s last performance. That’s what he told me, so, as a young twenty-year-old, I’m thinking, a few of these people were really angry, and in the end music brought everyone together. 

ABS:
Lynne Jordan shares a story about her ancestor’s resilience during the era of Jim Crow. Instrumentally, she combines forces with Kalyan Pathak’s tabla, as well as the chamber quartet. You heighten the suspense by sweetening her vocal part with your blues harp. These are just a few of the incredible moments that people will witness during the live stream, but how did you work out the technology? 
CS:

First, each solo artist that we chose, we had done one, if not many shows with them individually. So, every time we were going to do a show, for instance, with Tracy Nelson, I would have to write three or four or five or six special arrangements of their tunes, or tunes that they could sing so we could do a show with them. 
So, I chose my favorite artists and my favorite pieces of theirs and I just did a composition around their song that was still a chamber blues classical style composition but that included their genre. 
And so, I had all of these pieces—the first thing I had to do was get the string quartet to record them, and I used the electronic score and had audio pumped out of the score. Then, I sent an audio of the score to each individual musician. And we played along with the score as if they were playing along with each other. And none of the people involved thought it was going to work, but I was pretty sure it was going to work and it did. 
Usually when you get together to rehearse and perform, there’s a leader of the band who takes responsibility for everything that’s happening and each musician has the responsibility for getting their part right, but in a situation like this, each individual becomes 100 percent responsible for the whole production that they’re sending to Corky and Holly Central. So each individual is a choreographer, a cinematographer, a staging director, a lighting director; they’re doing everything, They’re taking full part in the production; therefore they get a sense of collaboration like never before. 

ABS:
I was struck by the beautiful melody of “Hine Ma Tov” that cantor Pavel Roytman sang in Hebrew. Can you share with us the meaning behind the song? 
CS:

“How beautiful it is when brothers can sit together in peace.” And because of that song, when I was writing the arrangement for it, which, by the way, is based on Muddy Water’s ‘Hoochie Coochie Man,’ and then going into some classical wanderings, I was trying to understand the words. I was writing the introduction to it, to make it more acute. So, the introduction was: “The universe just weeps with joy when every mother’s girl and every father’s boy lives in this world as one.” 
And then I decided, hey, that’s a song. So, my wife and I sat down and wrote a song called: “One” which is on the last Chamber Blues album. 

ABS:
When listening to saxophonist Ernie Watts, I feel the presence—the spirits of Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis…  
CS:

That’s how we feel about Ernie because he’s played with everybody. His whole life is an amazing story. Having him is an added depth. And that’s true, too, of the other artists. We did a live stream on Marcy Detroit and people were just blown away by her musical history. Elton John chose her to do a duet with him; there’s a video of it, and the same thing with the Bee Gees. Bob Dylan wanted her to be in the band; she turned him down. It’s a funny story. “Bob, who?” she said. 
I played a solo and I sent it to her. I left space in it for her to play and that’s what she did. That’s what she does. She’s amazing. 

ABS:
You studied saxophone at Roosevelt University but performed live using keyboards and blues harp. In retrospect, did your saxophone experience inform your arranging skills?  
Credit: © Phil Solomonson
CS:

I got a lot of my first harmonica licks from what I was doing on the saxophone but the saxophone didn’t fit in my pocket. My studies at Roosevelt did give me an advantage because I did learn basic music theory but I never got beyond that because it didn’t make sense to me and now I understand some of the things I could have learned, but back then, nothing fit into my world of how I approached music. 
I remember, I was actually in a composition class. I failed. I failed all my classes. But I also took this composition class because I started composing starting from measure one and then going ahead. The professor, who was a jazz person, told me that I couldn’t compose that way. So, I didn’t really get anything out of the class. Like I said, I failed it, but I have not stopped composing in the same way, which is starting from measure one and moving on. It’s not the traditional way, but mostly I would just take it one measure at a time.  So, I did have a leg up. A basic understanding of music theory is really all anyone really needs to be able to compose symphonic music and a good book on orchestration.

ABS:
Thank you, Corky. We’ll see you at the Chamber Blues Show! 
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Corky Siegel’s Chamber Blues EXTRAVAGANZA – “Closer than in-person” is a virtual event that will debut on Mandolin on Saturday, 3/6 at 7 PM CT. It features Corky Siegel’s Chamber Blues with a slew of featured artists who also happen to be City Winery favorites. This is a 100% donation-based virtual performance where people can RSVP for free to watch on Mandolin and they can donate via Paypal. 
*All images: © Phil Solomonson / Philamonjaro Studio

Tom Petty’s ‘Finding Wildflowers (Alternate Versions)’ Announced

Tom Petty’s Finding Wildflowers (Alternate Versions) — curated with help from his family, bandmates and collaborators — features 16 studio recordings of alternate takes, long cuts and jam versions of Wildflowers songs as Tom, band members and co-producer Rick Rubin worked to finalize the album in 1994.
The release offers fans further deep access into the writing and recording of Wildflowers, as well as realizing the full vision of the project as Tom had always intended.

Today sees the release of “You Saw Me Comin’.” The previously unreleased song and recording from 1992 and the final track on the collection premieres alongside a video directed by Joel Kazuo Knoernschild and Katie Malia.
Reflecting on the recording, Benmont Tench notes, “There’s this kind of longing in the song, in the way that he wrote the chord structure, the melody and the lyrics. It’s wistful, and it would have been the perfect way to end the disc.”
Finding Wildflowers (Alternate Versions) Limited Edition gold vinyl is available now.
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*Feature image courtesy of the artist’s site