American rock musician and songwriter Arthur Lee (1945–2006) was the leader of the band Love, which gained a cult following during the 1960s among fans of psychedelic rock. A Los Angeles–based contemporary of the Byrds and the Doors, as well as one of rock's first multiracial bands, Love had few hits in the United States. However, critics have more recently labeled its 1967 album Forever Changes as one of the best rock albums of all time.
Arthur Lee was born Arthur Porter Taylor in Memphis, Tennessee, on March 7, 1945. He was of mixed race: his father, Chester Taylor, was a white trumpet player, and his mother, Agnes, was an African-American teacher. “I lived in Tennessee until I was five years old, and it was segregated,” Lee later recalled, according to Adam Sweeting in the London Guardian. “A multiracial band was my thought from the beginning.” Lee's parents eventually divorced, and he and his mother moved to Los Angeles. Six years later, Agnes married Clinton Lee, a carpenter and plumber, and young Arthur took his stepfather's last name. He also took accordion lessons and began playing the piano at age ten. By his mid-teens, Lee was playing keyboard in Los Angeles clubs.
Lee's teen years coincided with the popularity of several rock styles, and during the early 1960s, he performed surf and dance music in Los Angeles and wrote songs for hire. In 1964, he wrote the song “My Diary” for singer Rosa Lee Brooks, and performed during Brooks's recording, along with Jimi Hendrix, who was beginning work as a studio musician.
By the mid-1960s, Lee was playing rhythm and blues with guitarist Johnny Echols, a childhood friend who also hailed from Memphis. After seeing a concert featuring the Byrds, one of the first folk-rock bands, Lee and Echols decided to play folk-rock as well. “We didn't want to be stuck playing the Chitlin' Circuit,” Echols later told Mike Boehm in the Los Angeles Times. “We wanted to play this new kind of music.” The two musicians recruited the Byrds' road manager, Bryan MacLean, as a second guitarist and songwriter and formed the band Love. Characterized by its changing lineup of bassists and drummers, Love was one of rock's first multiracial bands: Lee and Echols were black and MacLean and the band's percussionists were white.
By late 1965, Love's concerts in clubs on Los Angeles' Sunset Strip and in Hollywood had earned it a reputation as an exciting live act. The band's performances also impressed Jac Holzman, the head of Elektra Records, who wanted to add rock bands to what was then a folk label. Shortly after Holzman signed Love to Elektra, Lee suggested that he check out another Los Angeles band, the Doors. Elektra soon signed the Doors, and they became a bigger commercial success than Love.
The band's self-titled first album, Love, released in 1966, reflected the influence of the Byrds and the Rolling Stones. Their single, “My Little Red Book,” was a cover of Michael Putland/Getty Images a song written for the movie What's New, Pussycat? and it became a small radio hit. Love's next single, “Seven and Seven Is,” was a short, ferocious rock song that ended with the sound of an exploding bomb; it became the band's only song to reach the U.S. Top 40 charts. According to Sweeting, Lee later described “Seven and Seven Is” as “the first punk song,” recognizing that it anticipated the punk-rock sound of the next decade.
“Seven and Seven Is” also appeared on Love's second album, Da Capo, which was released in early 1967. “The first side was psychedelia at its best,” wrote Richie Unterberger for Allmusic.com , “with an eclectic palette encompassing furious jazz structures, gentle Spanish guitar interludes, and beautiful Baroque pop with dream-like images.” The band's ambition turned excessive, critics felt, in “Revelation,” a 19-minute song that took up the album's entire B-side.
Lee became “the first black rock star of the post-Beatles era,” as Mike Boehm noted in the Los Angeles Times. The musician would agree: he was quoted by James Sullivan in Rolling Stone as claiming that, “Without me there'd be no Jimi Hendrix, no Sly Stone. I was the first so-called black hippie.” Lee's stardom was relative, however. Love did not tour, performing only in Los Angeles, likely, in part, because of Lee's eccentric reluctance to travel. The band's inability to draw a national audience through touring “ensured their failure to land a hit single or album,” according to Unterberger, “though in truth the band's vision may have been too elusive to attract mass success anyway.”
Recorded during the summer of 1967, Love's album Forever Changes forsook their electric-guitar sound for songs with ornate acoustic instrumentation and inward-looking lyrics. The music reflected the dreamy, psychedelic influences of the era, including the “Summer of Love,” the musical and cultural “happening” held in sunny San Francisco. Lee's lyrics for Forever Changes were reflective, inward-looking, and often dark. “Thematically, the album gave an emotionally undulating, impressionistic take that captures sweet hopes from the ‘Summer of Love’ giving way to paranoia and dread,” observed Boehm in the Los Angeles Times.
Lee wrote all but two of the songs recorded for Forever Changes. Though he was only 22 at the time, he seemed obsessed with death. “When I did that album, I thought I was going to die at that particular time, so those were my last words,” Lee explained to Ben Edmonds, who quoted him on the liner notes of Rhino Records' 2001 reissue of Forever Changes. “I'd always had this thing about when I was going to die, man, or physically deteriorate.”
A mix of sunny music and pessimistic thought created much of the album's tension. “By the time that I'm through singing / the bells from the school of war will be ringing,” Lee sang on “A House Is Not a Motel” (as recorded in the Forever Changes reissue liner notes). “More confusions, blood transfusions / the news today will be the news for tomorrow / And the water's turned to blood.”
The recording sessions for Forever Changes high-lighted several problems within the band. For one, many of Love's members were taking drugs, according to some accounts, and were not performing at their best, musically. “We used to work every night,” Lee later admitted to Edmonds. “After we started making money, the more we made, the less we worked, the less we were as a unit, and Love deteriorated. People's personal habits started to come before the music.” Bruce Botnick, the album's producer, responded by hiring studio musicians, intending for them to accompany Lee's vocals and perform the guitar solos on his songs, leaving MacLean to perform on the two songs he contributed to the album. Fortunately, after two songs were recorded with studio musicians, the band rallied. “It caused them to forget about their problems and become a band again,” Botnick recalled of his bandmates. The members of Love recorded the rest of Forever Changes together.
Although Forever Changes only reached number 154 on the Billboard albums chart, it was eventually viewed by many critics as one of the best rock albums of the 1960s. Rolling Stone ranked it as 40th on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, and some critics included it in their list of best rock albums of the 20th century.
The classic lineup of Love recorded one more single in early 1968, “Your Mind and We Belong Together,” backed with “Laughing Stock.” Lee, who was still upset with the dynamics of the band, fired every original band member. He went on to record three albums as Love, joined in the studio by several friends and session musicians: 1969's Four Sail (Love's last album for Elektra) and Out Here, as well as 1970's False Start. The first track on False Start, “The Everlasting First,” was a collaboration with Hendrix and was recorded in March of 1970, a few months before Hendrix's death of a drug overdose. “People say I was a strict leader with Love,” Lee maintained during a 1972 interview later printed in the Guardian. “I have everyone's part all planned out. Some people disagree with their parts. But I want what I wrote …. That's why I've changed groups so many times. I try to get cats who want to participate in things I've written.”
The early 1970s was a difficult time for Lee, and he responded by increasing his use of drugs. After False Start, he resolved to end the band and record on his own. His first solo album, Vindicator, was released in 1972 to mixed reviews. In 1973, he recorded the album Black Beauty for Buffalo Records, but the company went out of business and, although bootleg versions circulated, the album was not officially released until the 2010s, after Love's death. He recorded another album under the Love name, Reel to Real, in 1974.
After the tepid critical reaction to Reel to Real, Lee took a break from recording, although he toured as Love and was joined on stage by a changing roster of musicians that sometimes included early band mate MacLean. He performed in 1989 as part of a nostalgic Psychedelic Summer of Love tour, and in 1992, he returned to the studio and produced Five String Serenade, which was billed as Arthur Lee & Love.
In 1993, Lee befriended the multiracial Los Angeles rock band Baby Lemonade and dubbed them the newest incarnation of his band. He toured with them under the billing “Love with Arthur Lee.” The following year, Lee recorded a single, “Girl on Fire”; on the B-side was “Midnight Sun,” a 1974 recording from his as-unreleased album Black Beauty. Meanwhile, Lee's musical legacy was growing as Rhino Records released compilations and reissues of Love's music. When the rock band Led Zeppelin was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, lead singer Robert Plant acknowledged Lee and Love as influences during his acceptance speech.
Ultimately, a series of criminal convictions halted Lee's career for years. He was convicted on a drug charge in the 1980s, and in 1995, he broke into an ex-girlfriend's apartment and attempted to set it on fire. The following year, Lee was convicted of illegal possession of a firearm after firing a gun near his home during an argument with a neighbor. Because of California's “three strikes” law, which mandated long prison terms for people with three major criminal convictions, a judge sentenced Lee to eight to 12 years in prison on the firearm charge. He served time at California's Pleasant Valley state prison, but a judge ordered Lee's release in December of 2001 due to prosecutorial misconduct at his trial.
After Lee was diagnosed with leukemia in February of 2006, prominent rock musicians who had been influenced by him—including Robert Plant, Ian Hunter, and Ryan Adams—performed a benefit concert in New York City. Shortly before his death, he married his longtime girlfriend, Diane. Lee died on August 3, 2006, in his hometown of Memphis, at age 61.
Guardian (London, England), August 6, 2006, Adam Sweeting, “Arthur Lee: Flower-Power Myth Maker”; March 15, 2015, Danny Holloway, “Arthur Lee: A Classic Interview from the Vaults.”
Los Angeles Times, January 24, 1989, Mike Boehm, “Arthur Lee Finds Love Once Again”; August 5, 2006, Mike Boehm, “Arthur Lee, 61; Forceful Leader of Influential '60s Band Love.”
New York Times, August 5, 2006, Ben Sisario, “Arthur Lee, 61, a Pioneer of Psychedelic Rock,” p. C10.
Rolling Stone, August 4, 2006, James Sullivan, “Arthur Lee (1945-2006).”
Allmusic.com , https://www.allmusic.com/artist/love-mn0000314600/biography (December 23, 2017), Richie Unterberger, “Love.”
Love, Forever Changes (sound recording), Rhino Records, 2001.□