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Albert Lee

Albert Lee

Article from Music UK, September 1983

The man behind Clapton, guitarist supreme Albert Lee talks guitars and playing with Max Kay.


IF ANY GUITAR PLAYER WERE TO BE AWARDED THE TITLE 'GOD' BY HIS CONTEMPORARIES AND A VOTE WERE TAKEN, THERE'S LITTLE DOUBT IN MY MIND THAT THE OUTRIGHT WINNER WOULD BE ALBERT LEE.

UNDERSTANDABLY THIS COULD HAVE A DEVASTATING EFFECT UPON HIS EMPLOYER, ONE ERIC CLAPTON WHO UNFORTUNATELY FOR ALBERT, HAS HELD THE COPYRIGHT ON THIS TITLE SINCE THE LATE SIXTIES.


Albert is a very mellow guy for someone who's been in this business for most of his working life and one assumes from talking to him that the reason he is so well known to his fellow pros whilst his talents go largely unrecognised by the public, lies in his attitude when he says, "I've never wanted to be a star. I wanted to be a guitar player... Being a star was always way down the list." Admirable words in this era of five minute fame.

There has been a considerable shake up of late in the Clapton band since the recording of his last album, Money and Cigarettes, with the result that everybody bar Albert was fired. When I put it to Albert in a transatlantic phone call at the end of last year, and asked him why he too hadn't been fired, he responded with typical modesty in his own unassuming way. "I really don't know" he replied, "I certainly thought he was going to."

Right now there's stability once more in Clapton's band with Eric and Albert on guitars, Chris Stainton (reinstated) on keyboards, Donald (Duck) Dunn the legendary Stax session bass player, and Jamie Oldaker who's been brought back into the fold on drums.

I begin by asking Albert if he thinks the Eric Clapton gig is a long term one for him, bearing in mind that he's held down an awful lot of gigs in his career?

"I do" says Albert "but I suppose I've learned in this business, nothing lasts forever. I supposed I learned right from the beginning with Eric, nobody's job is rock steady.

On the first tour he changed the whole band, he fired the whole band except me, so I thought 'I wonder how long I'll last' you know?

"He knows his own mind and he felt that the whole band was getting a bit stale at the time, I think he wanted a change. Who knows it may last, I may be with him another year, or another 10, I don't know?"



"ROGER FORRESTER KEEPS TELLING HIM TO BE A LITTLE MORE EXCLUSIVE AND STOP PLAYING ON OTHER PEOPLE'S ALBUMS!"


Albert Lee obviously holds a very high regard for his employer, reflected in his protective attitude, and rather than referring to him as GOD, describes Eric as 'a very stable guy'.

Many fans have been heard complaining of late that Clapton has almost indecently cut down on the scorching solos which originally made his name, preferring instead to concentrate on the vocal/song aspect leaving solo duties to band members.

"It's very much a songs band" insists Albert "and since Eric pays the wages, as his backing band, we play whatever he wants us to play." This occasionally leads to a situation where Albert is inclined to slope off in other directions, in order to obtain his kicks elsewhere. If you were watching the telly last Xmas, you may have seen him, along with Eric incidentally, on Chas & Dave's Xmas show, a relationship that stretches back to when Albert played with Chas (Hodges) in Heads Hands & Feet, longer ago than this scribe cares to remember. Old friendships die hard with Albert and he's not averse to doing the odd session with old mates, much to the ire of Clapton's manager, Roger Forrester who keeps telling him to make himself a little more exclusive, and stop playing on other peoples' albums!

One of Albert's previous outfits that we got to reminisce about are the Thunderbirds, Chris Farlowe's old backing band.

"The quality players that went through that band when I was in it" sighs Albert. "The bass player, Ricky Chalmer was probably one of the first electric bass players in this country. I'm sure he was the first guy to own a Fender bass. In fact it was a left handed Fender bass and he amazed Paul McCartney with it when they were out in Hamburg together, and Paul McCartney was still playing left handed rhythm guitar... it was way back..."

Another band that Albert Lee has played for is the Emmylou Harris Hot Band where he had the thrill of replacing his former hero and Elvis Presley guitar player from 1969, James Burton. Yes, Albert has played with them all and one wonders why he's never taken the necessary steps to form the obligatory 3 piece supergroup?



"THE TELE WAS ALWAYS THE GUITAR, IT'S SUCH A UNIQUE INSTRUMENT — YOU CAN'T FAIL TO BE INFLUENCED BY IT..."


"I'd love to have a larger band" he concedes "but I think it would be a bit boring for me anyway, just playing with bass and drums... It would be a challenge..."

So how does it feel to be regarded as a musician's musician?

"I'm highly flattered... I suppose that stems from just playing to please myself, and I suppose in that way I do please other guitar players to a certain extent you know? I've always played for myself and just played things that I'd like to hear, and tried to emulate players that I've listened to, and I suppose that's the way it comes out like it does. I guess other guitar players who think along the same lines as I do probably get off on what I do — I'm really happy about that."

As a guitar player I would almost certainly describe Albert's style as country influenced. I will also admit to a certain loathing for country music, but so well does Albert interpret the genre, that he's in demand with American artists the ilk of Emmylou Harris, and U.S. country producers like Rodney Crowell.

"I was to have done a movie soundtrack with Ry Cooder" reveals Albert, "but it fell through. I know he (Ry) was apprehensive from the beginning when the producer mentioned shades of Duelling Banjos."

Other than turning down sessions with the Rolling Stones (because he was busy playing with somebody else at the time) and a gig with Eric Burdon, there have been sessions with Shakin Stevens, Rosanne Cash (daughter of Johnny Cash) and Leo Kottke the undisputed master of the 12 string acoustic guitar.



"NOT FOR NOTHING IS ALBERT LEE KNOWN AS THE FRETMELT KID"


Guitars can be trademarks and Albert's trademark is the Fender Telecaster. "I've played it for so long now, it's 20 years since I had a Tele" he explains, "I've toyed with other guitars but the Tele was always THE guitar, it's such a unique sounding instrument, you can't fail to be influenced by it. I always liked the lead sound on a Tele, the kind of sound that James Burton got, and still does get."

I ask Albert if he's ever tempted to mess about with the new technology?

"I'd love to get a synthesiser, I've wanted one for years now, and I haven't gotten around to acquiring one, but er... soon I hope."

Albert has by now amassed around two dozen guitars in his travels whilst his main guitar is still his 1953 Telecaster with a 1962 for backup. Further backup is provided by a pair of Teles fitted with string benders, and a black 3 pickup 1958 Gibson Les Paul Custom which he's used onstage on this tour. Proof of the man's mania for acquiring fretted instruments is hardly required when I discover that Albert also owns a Tele copy made by Phil Kubicki which has recently been fitted with a humbucker in the rhythm position, 1958 Fender Stratocaster, 58/59 Fender Jazzmaster, yet another Fender Telecaster — one of the new vintage 52 models from Fender USA, Gibson ES295, Gibson ES225T, electric 12 string Dobro, a couple of Ovation 6 string electric/acoustics — one steel and one gut strung, Bozo acoustic 6, 1968 Martin 00028 (his favourite acoustic), a pair of Stuart Mossman hand built instruments, and a plethora of Musicman guitars which he also endorses. Not to mention 5 mandolins, a four neck Fender slide guitar, Fender Rhodes, and a pair of 7 foot grand pianos. It's no wonder Albert doesn't have any money left to buy synthesisers with!

"I don't have a really good acoustic guitar" complains Albert "and that's on my list, one of these days. I don't really need one right away, but I must get one sometime." This is quite a claim from somebody who is known to own Don Everly's original Gibson J200 with double white pickguards, two Everly Bros acoustics, one blonde and one in black!

Many of these instruments were used in the recording of Albert's last solo album, simply titled 'Albert Lee' (Polydor), which since its release in October last year, has largely remained a closely guarded secret, with Dave Lee Travis discovering it only recently on his radio show. "I just heard he played four tracks from it" muses Albert...



"I SUPPOSE IN A FEW YEARS' TIME THEY'LL SAY 'OVERNIGHT SUCCESS'"


Not for nothing is Albert Lee known in the business as the Fretmelt Kid, and his redeeming features here include his taste which is excellent, and the fact that he actually seems to enjoy the stench of scorched flesh on rosewood.

"I don't get that much opportunity to play fast with Eric (bigger fool Eric I say), occasionally I'll burst into something if I'm feeling frustrated or I feel like I wanna burn up... and I will. I do enjoy playing fast, it's a challenge. I like to think it's not playing fast for fast's sake, I get really frustrated sometimes when I play something fast and it doesn't come out like I want it to, it just comes out like diarrhoea (A-L-B-E-R-T), a succession of notes. Somebody who's heard it will probably say 'ooh, that's great', and I'll be really frustrated because I didn't think it was that good... it was fast... but it's nice if it's well constructed too..."

Albert's legendary technique on the guitar not only encompasses hacking down the nut on his instruments to undreamt of levels, but also involves using his pick and fingers at the same time.

"I'll use a pick and one or two fingers" he says "but I don't roll between first, second and third fingers like a banjo or classical player would" and "I never ever liked thumb pick, it was too stiff but I wish I'd mastered it."

Tastes change, and since Albert Lee moved to Malibu in California, his listening habits have broadened to include music he would never normally have listened to.

"I do like folk music to a certain extent" insists Albert "especially Irish music; I don't really play it, but I'd love to be able to play it. Since I've lived in America I've developed a really big interest in English music and Irish music, which I didn't have when I lived here. When you're sitting over there you start to get homesick and you start playing records by the Chieftains and the Albion Band. I am a big Paul Brady fan, and I like to think I was instrumental in getting him on the tour with us."

Being a collector of Albert's work I'm curious to know when we'll see his next solo album?

"Well, I'd certainly like to do one, I'm gonna have plenty of time this year by the look of it, and there's nothing more I'd like to do. I think Eric's going to record later in the year, but er, who knows, he may have another band (laughs). I don't know, I'll probably be around. I hope so." If the project does come together this year, Albert revealed he'd love to have the services of Pat Donaldson and Gerry Conway, one of his favourite rhythm sections, on that album. In a career that's spanned 24 years, and seen him go from working in a custard factory to playing guitar in Eric Clapton's band in the process, Albert Lee has managed to maintain his musical credibility.

And the future?

"Well... You can always compare yourself with people that have made a lot of money and big success (could he mean GOD?)... I always think that I've been really lucky that my career has been a very slow climb to where I am now and I just hope it continues to climb you know? Then I suppose in a few years time they'll say 'overnight success'...

"Things are better now than they ever have been and I hope they continue to improve, I'll be happy if I keep working... This business has no glitter for me I just enjoy music."...

LONG LIVE THE FRETMELT KID!!



Previous Article in this issue

Demon Demonstration


Publisher: Music UK - Folly Publications

The current copyright owner/s of this content may differ from the originally published copyright notice.
More details on copyright ownership...

 

Music UK - Sep 1983

Artist:

Albert Lee


Role:

Musician
Guitarist

Related Artists:

Eric Clapton


Interview by Max Kay

Previous article in this issue:

> Demon Demonstration

Next article in this issue:

> Gordon Smith Galaxi Semi-Aco...


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