Amidst famous guitarists you can hardly find anyone more admired and at the same time more unassuming than Albert Lee. A one-man institution when it comes to his instrument, Albert isn’t a man of many words off-stage, yet there’s no hiding behind this soft manner, as Lee’s radiating a special kind of inner light, and the veteran sheds such a languid manner anyway once he comes out to play. That’s what he did soon after our short conversation which only outlines the artist’s glorious career, where Grammy and accolades from the peers are but mere milestones.
– Albert, you’ve been playing for more than 50 years now. What does ignite you these days?
I like to play, and it’s the only thing I do. It’s my life, and that’s how I make a living. I feel very lucky that I’m making a living doing something I like.
– You’re considered to be the greatest country-rock guitarist in the U.K…
Some say that, yeah, but who’s to say he’s the greatest at anything, really?
– …but what did attract you to country when everybody was playing rock ‘n’ roll and blues?
Well, I played rock ‘n’ roll to begin with, as did all the blues players – we all played rock ‘n’ roll – and then, in the early Sixties, we went off in different directions. But country music… It’s happy! It’s happy music! (Laughs.) I was playing rock ‘n’ roll, and then R&B, soul and a bit of blues, and rock ‘n’ roll again with Chris Farlowe: that was most of the Sixties, from 1964 to 1968, and then, when everybody started to get Marshall stacks and to play distorted guitar, I decided I wanted to do something different. I didn’t want to get in that direction.
– So you listened to Jerry Reed instead of Jimmy Reed?
That’s true, yeah. He was a better guitar player than Jimmy Reed. (Laughs.) I discovered Jerry Reed in about 1967-1968 and eventually ended up playing with him in the late Sixties when he came down to the U.K. He was a big influence on me.
– How was it, playing with Farlowe with his trumpet of a voice?
I certainly didn’t feel like I wanted to sing at that point; only after I left him I realized that I had a voice. (Laughs.)
– Yet you still weren’t a primary singer in HEADS HANDS & FEET, right?
No, there were two other singers, but I probably sang a quarter of the songs on the album [1971’s “Heads Hands & Feet”], but I wasn’t the main singer.
– Between Farlowe and HEADS, there were POET AND THE ONE MAN BAND.
Oh, they were the same guys, the two writers in that band: Tony Colton and Ray Smith. We did an album [1969’s “Poet And The One Man Band”] but we were just session guys on their album, and it was later on that they decided to put together a band and try and get a record deal. We had some good record companies bidding for us at the time.
– Did you play together with Jerry Donahue there?
He didn’t play in the band. Well, he played in POET AND THE ONE MAN BAND for a little while, but his association with HEADS HANDS & FEET was that he did vocal arrangements – he was very good at that, you know – when we had background singers, he did everybody’s parts, but he didn’t play guitar on the records.
– Two songs stand out on the “Poet And The One Man Band” album: “Ride Out On The Morning Train” and “Light My Fire And Burn My Lamp.” Were they your first attempt to play country?
No, I had my own country band at the same time that I did that record, COUNTRY FEVER, in 1968-1969. Pat Donaldson was in the band for a little while, Pete Oakman, and I doubt that you know the other guys. Oh, Gerry Hogan who I work with now played steel guitar with us part of the time, when we had a really big gig.
– When you changed the name to HEADS HANDS & FEET, you recorded an album which remained unreleased for a long time. But why?
That actually was the second POET AND THE ONE MAN BAND album that was never released, because we recorded a whole new album, which was the first HEADS HANDS & FEET album, so they eventually put it out – the tracks that sat there for years and years – as the HEADS HANDS & FEET record.
– “Bringing It All On My Own Head” from that one sounds like SANTANA before SANTANA.
We were playing a lot of good stuff back then. (Laughs.) Country wasn’t big part of the band, but because of “Country Boy” we got a reputation of being a country band, which we weren’t: we played a bit of everything.
– Was “Country Boy” a statement of intent of sorts?
Yeah. We needed a song in that style for me to play on, and that’s what we came up with.
– But you became associated with this song for ever.
That’s not bad, I suppose. It’s not bad: it’s fun to play.
– How autobiographical was that?
I didn’t write the lyrics – they were what they were.
– There were country-rock groups like COCHISE and BRONCO at the time, but you did something different from Robbie Blunt and BJ Cole.
There were a couple of English bands that did it, but I tried a pure country approach… but it wasn’t as pure, as we played a bit of rock ‘n’ roll as well. I did that for about eighteen months in the U.K. and I realized that it wasn’t going to pay a rent doing that there. But as soon as I got to America, it was a different story: people really appreciated that kind of playing.
– You played on a soundtrack to the movie called “The Hero,” didn’t you?
That was Richard Harris. But we did a number of sessions: with Shirley Bassey and a few other people. I did hundreds and hundreds of sessions I forgot about.
– People like Jimmy Page usually stopped doing sessions once they started their own bands, but you combine it with your live performances and solo work. How did you manage that?
He must have quit sessions altogether when he started doing (LED) ZEPPELIN, but I always get busy doing it. If anybody calls up and asks me to do something, I do it if I have the time. I like to think I can play most things, and if people book me to do a session they must know what I sound like, otherwise they wouldn’t ask me. It’s very, very rare that I do a recording session where they’ve got a list of names and go, “Oh, I couldn’t get this guy, but Albert Lee… Yeah, I’ve heard of him, let’s get him!”, and I go along and they’ll be surprised that it’s totally different to what they expected. That doesn’t happen very often.
– There’s a lot of albums today with guest players who just send in files with their parts. Would you agree to do that?
Oh, everybody does it now, although it’s much more fun when you’re in a studio, playing with the band, rather than just play along to a track, especially when you’re playing on a track where all the other instruments aren’t on it yet: it’s not an ideal way to record, but it seems to be the way that’s done at the moment.
– Which of those hundreds of sessions does stand out for you? Herbie Mann?
Yeah, that was different, yeah. That was my first jazz album, but there’s a number of albums which are kind of milestones for me. The Dave Edmunds album [1979’s “Repeat When Necessary”] that I did that introduced me to a whole new audience, the HEADS HANDS & FEET records that introduced me to a lot of guitar players in America, and then “Luxury Liner” with Emmylou Harris that introduced me to a lot of country players there who’d never heard of me.
– Was her invitation to go there a recognition of your talent?
Oh, well, yeah, I was a popular guy when I first got to L.A.
– Is it true that you got your first solo contract on the strength of your session for Joe Cocker?
Eh…. I guess, yeah, for my first proper recording. I did have a solo contract after HEADS HANDS & FEET broke up, but I was too busy doing other stuff to do an album, but it was a waste of time, really – I should have recorded an album at that time.
– Was that the reason why the recording of “Hiding” took so long?
Yeah, I was busy with Emmylou and Joe Cocker and THE CRICKETS – who were heroes of mine – recording with all of them.
– Why didn’t your albums have a huge commercial success?
Uh, no idea. No idea. You know, you do what you do.
– Didn’t you try to break through with the “Albert Lee” album?
No, I went off and played with Eric Clapton instead: I thought that was going to be more interesting. (Laughs.)
– “Pink Bedroom” is a great pop song on that LP, and “Radio Girl” is a fine funky thing: they could have been hits, couldn’t they?
Well, they got played on the radio, but I wasn’t touring as a solo artist; I was playing in Eric’s band, and the record company wouldn’t put the money behind the artist who wasn’t out there performing.
– Clapton being Clapton, how did you, his equal, feel playing a second fiddle, so to say, to another guitarist?
Oh, he gave me lots to do, and our styles are totally different: they work well together. Eric surrounds himself with a lot of great players. Derek Trucks, there aren’t many better players than him, was playing behind Eric for a while. We all need to play our mortgages. (Laughs.) Eric used to let me do “Country Boy” on-stage – he loved it, and he also could take a break to smoke a cigarette.
– They say you’re a musicians’ musician but how do you counterbalance it with being a people’s musician?
I don’t know. If I’d been a people’s musician, I’d have a lot more money, like Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton: their playing is directed to the general public but my kind of playing isn’t. I think a lot of people don’t get it. If people listen closely to it, they can appreciate it I’m sure.
– Why do people compare you to Page so often? There’s even a record with both of you on, under different titles, although you didn’t play together.
We did a sessio together for which we were paid 30-40 dollars, and years later that album is still out there, with our names on it, and the name of the artist [Keith De Groot] isn’t on there anymore. There’s someone making money, but Jimmy and I don’t make any money from that.
– Some years ago, you recorded “D’yer Mak’er” for a ZEPPELIN tribute album.
Oh yeah, I did that. Every now and again I get calls from a couple of producers – I have deals with Japanese record companies – who say, “We want a VAN HALEN [covers] album” or “We want a ZEPPELIN album,” so they get guest guitar players and guest artists on each track. So I did one track on a VAN HALEN album and a BEATLES one not so long ago, too, but I forgot about ZEPPELIN.
– You mentioned Tony Coulton earlier. Did you stay in touch with him after HEAD HANDS & FEET? I mean he co-wrote “Didn’t Start Livin'” on your “Roadrunner” LP.
Oh yeah, but I got that song from Billy Burnette – he played with FLEETWOOD MAC – he’s Dorsey Burnette’s son.
– Another cover you did was Richard Thompson’s “Dimming Of The Day” on your last album. It’s a rare example of you recording a piece by a fellow Brit rather than an American artist.
I always liked that song, and if I like a song, I’ll do it wherever it comes from. I should like the feel of it, the melody and the message behind it.
– And you were one of the first to cover DIRE STRAITS.
I saw them play live in a club in London, and someone sent me their album when I was in the middle of doing my solo album. I liked that track [“Setting Me Up”], so I cut it. It turned out pretty good, and then a few people heard my version of it and covered it the same way, like Waylon Jennings and THE HIGHWAY 101. It ended on Eric Clapton’s live album [“Just One Night”], but Mark [Knopfler] did never thank me for it. (Laughs.)
– Back to the Seventies… You played on Jon Lord’s “Gemini Suite”: how come you stepped in for Ritchie Blackmore?
That was easy – he didn’t want to do it. He was being s big baby, so Jon had me doing it instead. (Laughs.) But I didn’t hear what he did and, since I don’t read music, Jon played me certain lines that I had to play during the piece, and there was a cadenza that I had to do in certain style to finish it, so I did what I did. I had no idea what he did when he did it.
– What about the “Green Bullfrog” sessions with the likes of Blackmore and Matthew Fisher?
That was a producer that we all were friends with [Derek Lawrence] and he had a lot of free studio time, so we were there for hours, just messing around. And when he asked, “Who wants to make a record?” we came up with those tracks. At the time, we thought that something might happen to it – there were Big Jim Sullivan and Ritchie Blackmore, after all – but it came out, and everybody was signed to different labels, so there were no names on it.
– And you ended up with pseudonyms for each player.
Yes. My nickname was Pinta, because I used to take a pint of milk in there.
– I mentioned Lord and Fisher but you’re no mean keyboard player, too, and “Speechless” is the most piano-based album of your career, with pieces like “Bullish Boogie” and “Cannonball”…
Oh, I didn’t play piano on those particular tracks – that was Jimmy Cox – but I played on a couple of ballads on that record. I’d love to play more piano. (Laughs.) I’ve been playing a long time, and I get by with it, but I let guitar to take over.
– How important it is for you to have fun? HOGAN’S HEROES is a merry project, isn’t it?
Yeah, it comes across like that. (Laughs.) We’ve had some good times and made some good music.
– But how did you become a de facto leader of the band?
Gerry Hogan asked me to do a guitar festival in England – he already had a rhythm section to back me – so I went over and played it. It went very well, and we thought, “Let’s do some more”… Twenty seven years later, I’m still trying to get out of the band! (Laughs.)
– Where do you draw a line between your solo career and fronting this group?
That was kind of a solo career (laughs) but it turned into HOGAN’S HEROES albums, and now they ask why I’m leaving the band. There are six vocals on the last album [2014’s “Frettening Behaviour”], all mine, so it was time for me to move on. But I’m playing with them again next week.
– Your last album, “Highwayman,” is a total opposite of the ensemble thing: it’s a solo guitar endeavor.
Oh yeah, that’s like an unplugged record, and the circumstances it was done in were certainly not ideal. I’d just gotten straight off a plane, jet-lagged, and [the producers] said, “Come and bring your guitar in, sit down and sing a couple of songs.” It wasn’t an ideal situation for me, but somehow we’ve managed to get an album out of it. There’s a song called “Highwayman,” written by Jimmy Webb – a really good song; we’ll be playing it tonight – and Johnny Cash and Willie [Nelson] and Waylon [Jennings] and Kris Kristofferson (collectively known as THE HIGHWAYMEN. – DME) did a version of it, too… I have to say, not a very good version. (Laughs.)
– Could you say, after all these years, that you’re a highwayman as well?
Well, I suppose so, but I like to call it a road warrior, or a journeyman guitar player.
– Do you still have a dream to fulfill?
– How would you describe your contribution to popular music?
I don’t know… I learned a lot from many great players and I’d like to think that I’ve carried on their tradition: younger people were discovering me and, through me, they learn about some of the older players. That’s the way we all do that.
– How much more music do you have in you?
A lot more I hope. I have five kids and six grandkids: there’s a lot of bills to pay. (Laughs.) But to make some good music – that’s the idea.
Many thanks to Sally Jane Sharp-Paulsen and Geoff Everett for making it happen.