09/01/11 » Variety
Even those old enough to remember 1967’s Summer of Love know Arthur Lee of Love as mostly a cult figure, not unlike Frank Zappa or Alex Chilton.
And yet the band’s “Forever Changes” is considered by many as seminal an LP of the time as the Doors’ eponymous debut, Jefferson Airplane’s “Surrealistic Pillow” and the Beatles “Sgt. Pepper.” But unlike those other albums, “Forever Changes” failed to catch fire, peaking at #154 on the Billboard chart.
According to drummer Joe Blocker, who plays on the 1973 Love recording “Black Beauty,” recently released and newly remastered by High Moon Records after existing as a crude bootleg circulated among the cognoscente, Lee and Love were invited to play at 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival, a pivotal event that broke the careers of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Otis Redding, and brought rock music to the forefront of the counterculture.
But, as Blocker explained, Lee was a “homebody” who didn’t like touring, and felt at the time that he had “gone as far as he could go” with the Love band of “Forever Changes.” Lee, like other artists he admired such as Miles Davis and Bob Dylan, never looked back, and as that album title suggests, was forever morphing and progressing.
The Love incarnation that assembled for “Black Beauty” could not have been more different than the Love of “Da Capo” and “Forever Changes,” with their heavy immersion in psychedelia and pre-prog rock whimsy. “Black Beauty” sounds live and raw, with very few overdubs in the production process. Imagine the Jimi Hendrix Experience on steroids, with Lee exhibiting the kind of range on vocals that Hendrix — whose singing always took a back seat to his playing — was never capable of.
In fact the verdict is still out as to whether Lee influenced Hendrix or the other way around.
“They knew each other from before either one of them was famous,” says Blocker. “They were very close friends. Arthur was dressing like that before Jimi Hendrix was. I think that maybe Arthur was a bigger influence on him in the beginning, but in the end (Hendrix) was a big influence on Arthur.”
Songs like “Midnight Sun” on “Black Beauty” sound as if they sprung from Hendrix’s cosmic mindset, and one could only imagine how the Experience might have evolved had Lee been the group’s lead singer and co-songwriter.
The all-black dynamic that sprung from the Love of “Black Beauty” — anchored by Love’s aggressive R&B voice, Melvan Whittington’s metallic, Hendrix-like flourishes, and Robert Rozelle’s grounding bass lines — was much more in tune with what black rockers like Sly Stone and the Chambers Brothers were doing at the time.
“Arthur wanted to play more music that was the kind of music he grew up listening to,” explains Blocker, who joined the group when he was a 17-year-old CalArts student. “Arthur was from Memphis, he (was) a country boy. So he wanted to play more stuff that he grew up with.”
Blocker, who also recorded three records with the recently departed Gil Scott-Heron, contends that “after Jimi Hendrix there have been no successful black rock acts, unless you count Lenny Kravitz.
“To look at rock and roll and for it to be held up as such a glorious extension of American music, you have to ask yourself: ‘How could a music that is born out of black music, the blues and R&B — how is it possible that there could be no successful black acts in that music?”
Lee managed to bridge the gap between R&B, funk, hard rock and flower-power pop — a quality that might have left him drifting in the margins, even when Top 40 radio was mixing Motown, Memphis soul, the British Invasion and the pre-adult contemporary of Burt Bacharach. For many, Lee wasn’t quite funky enough for people who liked James Brown or George Clinton, or psychedelic enough for fans who embraced the Airplane, the Dead or Cream.
“When you lay tiles, you’ve got the grout in the middle,” says Blocker. “Those artists are the way that you get from one thing to another.”
Why Lee seemed to disappear between the cracks of rock’s glory days is as much a mystery as his obscure status. Some attribute his low profile to drub abuse. Certainly the series of misfortunes that beset Lee — a record deal with Columbia Records that went south and the disintegration of the Buffalo Records label slated to release “Black Beauty — would have caused many lesser artists to spiral into oblivion, no matter how gifted.
But footage of Lee as late as 2003 playing the Glastonbury Festival (where he belted out a mind-blowing “Seven and Seven Is”) three years before his death reveal an artist still at the height of his powers.
“Ain’t nothing tragic about him,” explains Blocker, “he’s one of the happiest people I’ve ever known. I mean, he loved the music, but left up to him, he’d write some songs, rehearse them, go in the studio, record the songs and then go back home and feed the dogs and he’d be happy. But the rock ‘n’ roll circus, going out on the road, doing too many interviews — he really wasn’t into it.”