Most casual rock fans possess at least one Love album, but not many outside the hard core of devotees know much about the group's history. There are few songwriters as great as Arthur Lee about whom so little is known. It is as if "Forever Changes" existed in a vacuum, coming out of a folk-rock limbo and returning to an acid-rock purgatory.
Arthur Taylor Porter was born in 1945 in Memphis, Tennessee. (After his parents divorced, he took the surname of his mother's second husband, Clinton Lee.) When he was five years old the family moved to California, and Arthur grew up in the Crenshaw-Adams neighborhood of West Los Angeles. He described himself as a "lonely only child", whose chief solace was music. "When I was a little boy, I would listen to Nat King Cole and look at that purple Capitol Records logo. I wanted to be on Capitol, that was my goal."
Lee attended Dorsey High School, where he excelled at basketball and track. After school, he often walked the several miles from Dorsey to the Capitol building in Hollywood, just to gaze at the bastion he was determined to conquer. Lee left school to form his first band, the LAGs, named in honor of Booker T's MGs. His first recruit was a friend from the neighborhood, guitarist Johnny Echols. In 1963 they actually did release a 45 on the Capitol label, but "Rumble-Still-Skins" was soon and deservedly forgotten.
The LAGs were re-named the American Four, and recorded the single "Luci Baines" for one of Del-Fi's subsidiary labels, Selma. Lee produced soul and Chicano singles for Selma, then moved on to the even more obscure F label. One of the songs he wrote and produced for F has its own place in rock history. The 1965 Rosa Lee Brooks release,"My Diary" was the first recording to feature recently-fired Little Richard sideman Jimi Hendrix on guitar. Lee said,"The sound was sort of like, well, you take Curtis Mayfield and his riffs, and turn your amps up full blast, and see what you get."
Lee's early work was well within a strong black R&B tradition. The switch to white pop took place in 1965, when he first saw Roger McGuinn and the Byrds. He was entranced by the freedom of British-influenced folk rock, and the possibilities offered by the twelve-string guitar. The Rolling Stones and an LA band called the Rising Sons also greatly influenced his new direction, which was described by one reviewer as "though McGuinn and friends had somehow formed a sonic alliance with Mick Jagger."
Lee and Echols rounded up Bryan Maclean (guitar/vocals), Ken Forssi(bass), and Don Conca (drums)for a new line-up known as the Grass Roots. The audition at which Maclean, a former Byrds roadie, was accepted was notable for the fact that the only other applicant was Bobby Beausoleil, who went on to a different kind of fame as one of the Manson Family killers. Playing in bars, six nights a week, the Grass Roots became "the king of the street bands" in Hollywood.
However, in the fall of 1965 Lee was forced to change the band's name. Another Grass Roots appeared on the scene, hitting the charts with a version of Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man" on the Dunhill label. Rather than go to court about it, Lee came up with the idea of calling his band "Love." He said,"It's a big word, it's the best part of life." It is notable, however, that his definition of love was somewhat idiosyncratic. "We got to love each other. My preference is to get along with everybody" he said, and then, "As long as you do what I say, no problem."
Although Lee was the prime mover of the group, Maclean could write equally good material. Where Lee had grown up black in West LA, Maclean was a California Golden Boy whose first girlfriend was the young Liza Minelli. The differences between their backgrounds and styles provided much of the creative tension in their material. As Love built a reputation based on this blend of R&B and folk-rock styles, they began to drop their cover work in favor of original material.
Arthur Lee, who has been described as a "black freak on the white scene" of Sixties LA, has also been credited with forming much of its style. "Lee cut quite an imposing figure," wrote Three Dog Night's Jimmy Greenspoon, "dark glasses, a scarf around his neck, Edwardian shirts and what was to become his trademark an old pair of army boots with one unlaced. He had a mesmerizing presence. The audience became followers of King Arthur Lee. He was a Pied Piper who would lead them down the road to a different form of consciousness." Noting the resemblances between Lee and Mick Jagger, industry veteran Denny Bruce described the former as "a black American imitating a white Englishman imitating a black American." The British influence in Love's music was obvious, but the guitar work of Lee, Echols, and Maclean was pure LA.
In 1966, Love became the first rock band to be signed by Elektra Records, with the proviso that drummer Alban "Snoopy" Pfisterer replace the drug-addled Don Conca. The band's 1966 album release, eponymously entitled "Love," suggested a strong future for them. Love's cover of "My Little Red Book," a Bacharach-David song from the film "What's New, Pussycat?" gave the group their first U.S. hit. Encouraged by their first venture into rock territory, Elektra next signed another Los Angeles act, the Doors. Their hard R&B sound, overt sexual imagery, and single-mindedness about making it big challenged Love's position as the label's great hope. And the Doors had another tremendous advantage; they were willing to do whatever it took to build up a strong following. Love, on the other hand, were already known for their intransigence; they wouldn't gig regularly, and rarely ventured outside their LA turf. In fact, Love were early masters of the surly pop attitude; Jones and Rotten a decade before their time. A reporter who interviewed the band in 1966 concluded that,"Only when a group really reaches the top can their career withstand what they may suffer from being continuously rude and uncaring to fans and reporters alike. In my opinion, Love will soon be on many blacklists in the music industry."
In the summer of 1966, Love released the single "Seven and Seven Is," which became their biggest hit. Described as "an apocalyptic masterpiece," the song made it obvious that Love had plunged headfirst into the sea of hallucinogens that was California in the hippy heyday. It was followed by a second album, "Da Capo," that was much superior to its predecessor. The stop-start angry rhythms of songs like "Stephanie Knows Who" and the manic "Seven and Seven Is" were balanced by the delicacy of "Orange Skies" and "She Comes in Colours."
In 1967, much of America was caught up in the joy of flowers, beads, and drugs, swimming in the colours that swirled through the psychedelic haze. Down on the Sunset Strip, where for a year Love had reigned as the hippest band in town, kids floated in a state of cosmic bliss. But Arthur Lee wanted no part of it. In fact, it was in 1967 that Lee made what may have been the most professionally self-destructive decision of his career. He declined an invitation to perform at the Monteray Pop Festival. There could have been several reasons for such bad judgement, but one of them was undoubtedly the increasing involvement of the band with serious drugs. By the time work on "Forever Changes" began, at least three members Lee, Echols, and Forssi were strung out on heroin. Word of this spread rapidly through the music community, and added nothing to their already intimidating image. They were regarded as a "bunch of hoods," and Peter Albin of Big Brother and the Holding Company said that the band should be called "Hate" rather than "Love."
If Love were "hoods," however, they were psychedelic hoods; the tension between their flower child ethos and their punk roots was the source of their most compelling creations. In the summer of 1967 they recorded their undisputed masterpiece, the album "Forever Changes." When the sessions began, Lee was not only on heroin but tripping around the clock, while Maclean didn't even bother to show up for rehearsals. It was obvious to producer Bruce Botnick that the group was in no shape to do serious studio work, so he found some session musicians to sit in. With Hal Blaine (drums), Billy Strange (guitar), and Don Randi (piano), Botnick recorded "Andmoreagain" and "The Daily Planet." The shock of seeing other musicians laying down their tracks was enough to jolt the band into shaping up at least for the duration of the recording.
Three decades later, "Forever Changes" is still at the center of a storm of controversy. Almost every aspect of the process and the performers is in dispute. Lee has been known to claim that Botnick did not produce the album, that he wanted David Angel's string arrangements removed from the mix, and that he, rather than Angel, did the arranging. Maclean has said that the effect of the final mix on his vocals was so awful that he has only ever listened to the album once.
When he recovered, Lee sought to regroup a new-look Love around himself. He ended up with George Suranovich (drums), Frank Fayad (bass), and Jay Donnellan (lead guitar). In 1969, Love produced their final Elektra album,"Four Sail," which included a song that should have sent their ratings soaring. "August" eased in with some of Lee's characteristically plaintive vocals over an intricate backing, then the band broke into some terrifyingly powerful psychedelic jamming. The four instrumentalists flew off at tangents that only Cream had previously explored. On the basis of that sound, Love should have become one of the top name psychedelic acts of the late Sixties. Unfortunately, Lee's unwillingness to perform regularly, or anywhere outside LA, denied them access to the mainstream of the rock fraternity.
Drachen Theaker, the drummer who joined Love for part of the "Four Sail" recording, recalled the mood of the band at this time. "It was like a soft rock band with a hard rock sound. Everything centered around Arthur's house, which was definitely psychedelic on top of a mountain, with a swimming pool that was both inside and outside. We used to rehearse every day, but we only played gigs once or twice a month."
By 1976, Lee had all but quit the music business, and was working as a housepainter in South Central LA. In 1978 the original Love line-up reunited briefly, but Arthur couldn't cope with the changes time had made. As Bryan Maclean said,"He's one of those people who'd like to go back to the times when everything was sweet and fresh and new."
Little was heard of Arthur Lee for a number of years. He was not in circulation for much of the Eighties, and it began to seem as if the on-off saga of Lee and Love had fizzled out at last. It was a disappointing conclusion to a career that had delivered much and promised more. However, in 1989 news went out that Lee was back in action. He was playing gigs in California and intended to undertake a European tour to promote his new recording, the first in over a decade. That album, "Arthur Lee and Love," was definitely a mixed bag; dramatic or "typical" Lee songs were interspersed with material that can only be described as filler.
Since then, Lee has done gigs in California and on the East Coast. In June 1994, he appeared at the Royal Albert Hall in London in a celebration of the Creation label's tenth birthday. By September he was working with a new band; "They're called Baby Lemonade, but when they're with me, they're Love." He worked with them for three years, and then his career suffered yet another interruption. There are various versions of the story, but what is certain is that in the fall of 1996 Arthur Lee was sentenced to eight years in prison for illegal possession a firearm. Although no one was injured and no property destroyed in the incident, California's "Three strikes and you're out" law guaranteed him a prison sentence, since he had been convicted on "a couple of assault and drug charges" in the '80's.