English guitar legend Albert Lee is certainly comfortable looking back at his long career.
To celebrate his 70th birthday and 53rd year performing, Lee is working on a documentary covering his life as a sideman, frontman and virtuoso guitarist.
The film, which is being produced by English company Palm Bridge Productions, will tell the stories of the numerous musicians Lee has performed with over the years — including Emmylou Harris, Eric Clapton, The Crickets, The Everly Brothers and Ricky Skaggs, among many others.
“It’s going to be very easy for me,” Lee said recently from a hotel in New York City, while on a short eight-day tour of the Northeast. “I do guitar clinics with Ernie Ball [guitar strings] and Music Man [guitars], so I’ll be up onstage talking for two hours about my career, how I started. That will be an easy part — I’ve done it so often that I can remember, what year was a turning point, what year I joined a particular band.”
Landing in heaven
with Kate Taylor
When: 7:30 tonight
Where: The Egg, Empire State Plaza, Albany
How Much: $24
More Info: 473-1845, www.theegg.org
Lee’s brief stint with The Crickets, Buddy Holly’s backing band, in the early ’70s was certainly one of those turning points. Holly was one of Lee’s initial inspirations to switch from piano, which he began playing at the age of 7, to guitar. Initially, Lee filled in for piano player Glen D. Hardin for a few nights on one of the band’s U.K. tours and ended up touring with the group for a few years and recording with them, playing with many of his musical heroes in the process.
“I remember going to a little club in Calabasas in the San Fernando Valley [in California], and Don Everly was leading a group with John Hartford . . . and Bobby Emmons on steel guitar,” Lee said. “And here I was in the middle of this group. It was like, I just landed in heaven here — I couldn’t believe that these kinds of jams went on. It was something I never dreamt would happen when I was living in England.”
For the most part, though, Lee is looking ahead. Part of the documentary will also focus on the recording this summer of Lee’s new solo studio album, his first in more than five years. While writing hasn’t even begun on that yet, Lee is gearing up to release his latest album with his British band Hogan’s Heroes, tentatively titled “Fretening Behavior,” later on this year.
In addition to the documentary and album, Lee will also be recording a 70th birthday performance later in the year (his birthday is in December) for a DVD release.
Lee has been fronting Hogan’s Heroes in the U.K. for the past 25 years, but this year he is also branching out as a frontman in the U.S. — something he hasn’t done much of, even though he’s lived in California for almost 40 years. He’s assembled a quartet — featuring keyboardist John “J.T.” Thomas, bassist Will McGregor and drummer Jason Harrison Smith — for this round of U.S. shows, which includes a stop at The Egg tonight.
“This is all relatively new to me, because I’ve never really fronted a U.S. band until relatively recently, and it’s been a great experience,” Lee said. “I’m really enjoying it. Even though people have always accepted me as a sideman here, this is new to a lot of people. People have known the name for years, and at last I get to get out there and do something that I like.”
Audiences can expect a wide range of material at the show, stemming from his solo career, his work with early ’70s septet Heads Hands & Feet and plenty of covers spanning rock, rockabilly, country and blues.
“I’m going over some old ground, old albums, old favorite songs of mine that I’ve done, just to make things a little easier to get started,” Lee said. “But ultimately I’ll be doing new stuff. I’m always looking out for new songs. When I get a quiet moment, which is rare these days, I love to sit down at the piano or guitar and write some songs, too.”
Lee has long pushed the boundaries of his playing, dabbling in many genres. He started out at 16 working for an array of R&B and early rock ’n’ roll artists before joining Chris Farlowe and the Thunderbirds. He stayed with the band for four years, leaving in 1968 to play more country music — and got his chance in Heads Hands & Feet. But even that band pushed the boundaries of genre, playing everything from rootsy rock to blues.
“It seems like I’ve always been plagued, or blessed, with the fact that I like so many different kinds of music,” Lee said. “I think Heads Hands & Feet, we had a problem with that; it was hard for people to pigeonhole the band. Some people remember it as a country band — we did that first version of ‘Country Boy.’ But it was a lot more than that — we had rock ’n’ roll, we had big ballad productions with strings or whatever. I think a lot of the albums I’ve done over the years have always been that way — have been hard to categorize, really.”
Still expanding his base
With the constant genre hopping, Lee often finds audiences — especially U.S. audiences — are surprised at the sound when he steps out as a band leader.
“People come along to hear a guitar player, and they hear a lot of different kinds of songs,” Lee said. “A lot of guys at my age will come along, and some will bring their wives and their girlfriends with them. They’ll come along reluctantly, but often they’ll be surprised that it’s music that they can like and appreciate. I think what I do pleases a wide base, so I really hope that I can expand on that, even this late, late in my career. Things are certainly going well so far.”