For decades, Albert Lee has added his chicken pickin’ licks to the music of Emmylou Harris, Eric Clapton and the Everly Brothers, and now he has brought out a stripped down acoustic album Highwayman – Julian Piper chats to him ahead of his London Acoustic Show performance…
It’s February 1976 and Elvis Presley is getting ready to hit the road; the mammoth swing through America will last all year and be his last roll of the dice. But he needs the best band around, and to call guitarist James Burton, who’s been playing with him off and on since 1969, is a logical step. At the time, Burton was playing with Emmylou Harris in her Hot Band, but his career started with teenage heartthrob Ricky Nelson. His biting guitar licks on Nelson’s pop songs, and work as a session player with just about everyone from the Monkees to Merle Haggard gained him a reputation as one of country music’s foremost pickers. A hard act to follow, but almost 40 years later, Albert Lee recalls how he got to fill the shoes of one of the hottest players on the planet.
‘I’d been to see Emmylou a couple of times, and backstage I was talking with the band when they said, “Hey, Albert, what are you doing in the next couple of weeks?” James [Burton] was going to play with Elvis, and they asked me to fill in with the Hot Band. James ended up staying with Elvis – there was now way he could do both gigs, and so I slotted into Emmylou’s band. At first, a few people said, “Who’s this English guy?” but I won people over and was knocked out to be there; I was playing the type of music I loved and playing in this fantastic band!
I learnt a lot from playing with Emmylou because she had a great knack for picking great songs; it’s always been one of her fortes that she’s got a great ear for a tune,’ Albert says.
Albert left the band after a couple of years to tour behind a solo album, but he can’t have any regrets. Few guitarists can match his staggering career, one that includes working alongside Eric Clapton, the Everly Brothers, the Crickets, and just about every country player of note to have ever blown out of Nashville. For five decades, his ability to hang back, be one of the band, and only delivering his sparkling solos when needed, has marked him out as a sideman par excellence. Speaking from his Malibu Canyon home in Los Angeles, Albert sounds understandably pretty satisfied with the way things have turned out.
‘I can see the fog hanging around in the mountains, which means we’re getting a nice cool breeze. We’ve been here for 40 years and love it, but the drought is scary. We worry about fires, but the good things outweigh the bad.’
Albert’s story is nothing short of incredible. Born in 1943, inevitably Albert’s early heroes were the wild men of rock n’ roll such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, with Buddy Holly close behind. When he was 16 years old, Albert packed in school and began playing professionally.
‘Hearing Lonnie Donegan got me into playing guitar; I would have loved a Martin like his, but they just weren’t around. In fact, I played for about 18 months without actually owning a guitar – I just used to borrow them from school friends,’ he laughs. ‘Then in 1958, my mother bought me a Hofner President archtop, with a pickup attached to the end of the fingerboard; that was my first decent guitar that I could actually play, everything before that was pretty grim! I got good at copying the solos I heard on rock n’ roll records, and in 1959 I traded the Hofner for what I thought was the same guitar Buddy Holly played – but of course it wasn’t as it was a Grazioso made in Czechoslovakia. It was a solid guitar with three pickups and, at £85 second hand, it was expensive for the time. A few pounds more and maybe a year later, I could have bought a Fender Telecaster. Guitarists now don’t realise how lucky they are; you can walk into a shop and they all sound great, but back then there was a lot of garbage around. It wasn’t until later in 1960 that the American stuff started to come over; you just couldn’t get any American guitars, unless it was second hand or someone had sold it to a music shop, because they were classed as luxury goods. It was a hangover from the war, and it wasn’t until September that year when the embargo was lifted and we began to see Fenders, Gibsons and Gretschs. We were in heaven when the American guitars came over.’
American artists were also rare visitors. When they did tour the UK, they were invariably promoted by theatrical impresario Larry Parnes – a man with a burgeoning stable of homegrown artists like Billy Fury. ‘I saw Duane Eddy on his first trip, and in 1960 I saw Eddie Cochran when he played at the Woolwich Granada. I had a little trio going on with a Selmer Truvoice amplifier that the bass player and I used – so you can imagine how horrendous that sounded – and ended up working for Larry Parnes. We happened to leave it at his office after a tour, and when we went to pick it up, Larry said, “Oh, Eddie Cochran’s got it over at his hotel.’ We went to the Cumberland Hotel at Marble Arch where he was staying, and I remember seeing his Gretsch in its case lying on the floor. We mumbled a few words and that was it. He’d been touring that January, went home and came back just before Easter, which is when he died.’
Albert’s band worked at the famous 2i’s – a subterranean coffee bar in Old Compton Street, Soho, London – launch pad of Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard, and the happening hub of the nascent English rock n’ roll scene. Before the band headed off to Germany, for the almost obligatory rites of passage that were Hamburg’s red light areas and American bases, he became friends with Jimmy Page. ‘We were good buddies, and I think Jimmy liked the Les Paul and Supro amplifier I was using so much that he went and bought a similar rig.’
Returning to England in 1964, and the London blues scene now in full swing, Albert joined RnB band Chris Farlowe and the Thunderbirds. ‘They were a fairly exciting, happening band which meant I was working fairly regularly and able to give my folks some money! I stayed with them for about four years during which time we had a number one record. There were some great players around at that time,’ he recalls wistfully. ‘Andy Summers [the Police] was playing with Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band, and John McLaughlin was playing in a Soul band.’
Albert had by now fallen under the spell of country records, particularly the twangy Fender Telecaster sound favoured by Buck Owens’ guitarist Don Rich. ‘I just loved that stuttering style,’ he affirms.
But with a music scene dominated by the Beatles, and a few years before Dylan would bring out Nashville Skyline, country music was hardly flavour of the month. ‘I finally met some guys into the same stuff, and we formed a band called Country Fever, mainly backing American artists playing at American bases. It was a good experience, and I had a lot of encouragement from the Americans – but they all said I should be in the States. Of course, you take that with a pinch of salt, but I’d heard the same thing from Don Peach, the guitarist with the Everly Brothers. He’d said I should move to LA, told me about great players I’d never heard of like Howard Roberts and Glen Campbell, and said how much they’d like my playing. At the time, I realised Country Fever weren’t going anywhere, no one took us seriously, and when we played Mervyn Conn’s country festival at Wembley, I’d get maybe £10 for backing two or three artists.’
Country music did have a devoted following in the UK, but it had more to do with wearing the Stetson “10-gallon hat” and rhinestones, than the groundbreaking bands on the west coast of America like the Flying Burrito Brothers. It was around this time that Albert also fell under the spell of Jerry Reed, and as he explains, began to develop his trademark style.
‘I’d started to play a kind of hybrid fingerstyle, but realised by listening to Jerry Reed that he was using a thumb pick, as did Chet Atkins. I tried using one but just couldn’t get into it. Then I realised that Jimmy Bryant, who was one of my favourite guitar players at that time, was obviously using a flat pick. So I began to use a flat pick and fingers, using my little finger a lot – something that most people don’t. Then I was called by a BBC producer, who said Jerry Reed was coming over to do some radio and he asked if I’d like to do some rhythm guitar. Jerry Reed had written and recorded ‘Guitar Man’ that had been a huge hit for Elvis Presley – and after recording with Presley, he was one of the hottest country pickers in Nashville. So I got to hang out with Jerry for a couple of days, sat down and picked together, and one of his buddies said I played like Wayne Moss. I knew the name Wayne Moss, because he was a big session guy in Nashville, and he was a guy who played with a thumb pick and fingers.’
In 1970 Albert finally went to the States as part of country rock band Head, Hands & Feet. ‘We went out to LA, played showcases and really caused a bit of a stir; I had players coming to watch me, and I really felt at home in a place where the music I loved was happening. I joined the Crickets, did some work with them in the UK, and then got to stay with the band in Los Angeles. I became used to walking into bars and playing with people whose names I’d only known from records. One night, I went into this bar in Calabasas, Los Angeles, where Don Everly was singing, and he had Byron Berline on fiddle, Al Perkins on steel, and at one time the late Buddy Emmons on steel, too – the best steel player there’s ever been. Being accepted, and just being able to hold my own with these guys was a great experience.’
He’s too modest to say, but it’s pretty clear that after a few years, the name Albert Lee was high up on the list of LA country session players. Joining Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band and filling James Burton’s shoes could not have been a higher accolade. But after leaving the band and winding up his solo tour, Albert once again found himself out there as a gun for hire.
‘I was in London doing a session with Glyn Johns, and Eric Clapton was on the session with some of his band. We worked on this album for three days and at the end Eric asked me if I’d like to go on the road. I thought, “Well this could be fun” and I ended up being part of his band for five years; a great experience.’
The two guitarists are still good friends, and Albert has appeared at three of Eric Clapton’s mammoth Crossroads concerts. Having watched them, I wondered what were the logistics of having so many great players on one stage. ‘The first couple I played, we’d get there early in the morning and just have a run through, usually with Vince Gill’s band, and work out which guys would fit in, and pass around the solos.’
I couldn’t resist asking Albert out of everyone he’s worked with who he has the fondest memories of. Seems the Everly Brothers take that crown…
‘I first met Phil in London in 1962 and Don a year later. I always caught up with them, they knew about my guitar playing and, in 1973 after they’d split up, I became Don’s big buddy, singing with him on a few occasions, even live TV for BBC Two. But I always hoped if they got back together, I’d have the chance to do at least one gig, and it turned out to be their 1983 reunion concert at the Royal Albert Hall. It was a big success, and a few months later they said they were going to do an album and go on the road. To everyone’s surprise it went on for another 26 years, and they’ve been a huge part of my life. Being able to stand behind Don and Phil with Buddy Emmons on my left side, well, musically, it couldn’t get any better.’
Albert’s new acoustic album, recorded largely using his favourite Huss & Dalton jumbo acoustic, reprises songs like the Everly’s ‘Bye Bye Love’ and Buddy Holly’s ‘It’s So Easy’. Shorn of solos and a rhythm section, the album shows a more intimate side of Albert’s playing and singing. ‘I was usually jet lagged and hoarse when we did the sessions, and although I was apprehensive, the comments I’ve heard so far have been quite good!’ But then we all know that’s no surprise, right?
Albert Lee appears at the London Acoustic Show on September 12 in association with LR Baggs and Ernie Ball. His new album Highwayman is out now; he tours throughout the UK in September. Albert will appear at Yamaha Music London Presents… Saturday Night Unplugged with Ralph McTell and Daniel Ho following the first day of the London Acoustic Show. More info here.