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The Man Who Inspired Hendrix: The Crazy World Of Arthur Lee & Love

How an unlikely rock star lead the psychedelic revolution that swept 60s California

If you’d been hanging out in Los Angeles any time in the summer of 1966, there would have been a high chance of stumbling across Arthur Lee. He might have been wearing just one shoe, or swimming trunks; he’d almost certainly be peering over a pair of psychedelic sunglasses. But then Lee could do what the hell he wanted. Barely 21 years old, he was the undisputed King Of The Sunset Strip: the most arrogant, brown-eyed, handsome man in Hollyweird. Lee and his band, Love, were helping usher in a whole new era of Californian music.

Sure, there were more commercially successful bands: The Byrds already had a run of hit singles and a European tour under their buckskin jackets by early ’66, and Brian Wilson was taking the Beach Boys to new creative heights even as his psyche crumbled under the weight of it all. But neither had such a charismatic, striking frontman as Lee. A singer and multi-instrumentalist, he was a lightning rod for the denizens of the burgeoning West Coast underground. “He cut an imposing figure,” says Jimmy Greenspoon, a future member of Love’s LA contemporaries Three Dog Night. “He had a mesmerising presence, a Pied Piper who would lead Love’s audience to a different form of consciousness.”

Love were the unsung heroes of the musical Big Bang that took place in 1966, although they have long been overshadowed by bands such as the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and especially one-time acolytes The Doors. If Love are remembered today, it’s for their third album, 1967’s Forever Changes, a masterpiece of baroque psychedelia. But a year before that, they blew a hurricane through Los Angeles. And Arthur Lee was at the eye of the storm.

In the sun-bleached Los Angeles of the 1960s, Lee stood out from his peers. An only child, he was born in Memphis to a white jazz-musician father and a mother with both African-American and Native-American roots. He was unambiguous about ethnicity. “I’ve been black my whole life,” he said in the 70s. By the time he was five, his parents had divorced and he’d moved with his mother, Agnes, to the historic West Adams district of Los Angeles. 

As a swaggering teenager brimming with attitude, his musical tastes encompassed Nat King Cole and Johnny Mathis to The Beatles, The Who and the Rolling Stones (he once compared himself to Mick Jagger – “a black American imitating a white Englishman imitating a black American”). One big influence close to home were The Byrds, who he first saw at Hollywood club Ciro’s in 1964. “I heard Mr Tambourine Man, and didn’t have to hear any more,” he later recalled. “I’d been writing things like that for a long time, but they didn’t fit the shows I was doing. Now here was something not quite dance music but definitely folk rock.”

Lee’s early attempts at music were naïve. As Arthur Lee And The LAGs (the acronym stood for ‘Los Angeles Group’, in the same way that Booker T’s MG’s was a shortening of ‘Memphis Group’) he recorded a single, the Booker T-inspired instrumental The Ninth Wave, for Capitol Records.

Lee wasn’t just keeping songs for himself. In 1964 he wrote My Diary for R&B singer Rosa Lee Brooks. Searching for musicians to play on the session, he enlisted a little-known guitarist from Seattle called James Marshall Hendrix, who had recently been playing with the Isley Brothers. “I wanted someone who could sound like Curtis Mayfield,” he later said of Hendrix.

The pair had a mutual respect, but also an uneasy relationship. Lee would claim that the guitarist took some of his cues from him. “Jimi’s brother told me Hendrix took a look at my first album and said: ‘I think I’ll try it this way’. He stole my dress attire, and I don’t appreciate that shit. But then I can’t play the guitar like him at all.”

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