Arthur Lee, who forged a legacy as one of rock’s great visionaries and forbidding eccentrics while reigning briefly with his band Love as princes of the mid-1960s Sunset Strip, died Thursday of leukemia in a Memphis, Tenn., hospital. He was 61.
Mark Linn, a longtime friend, said Lee learned in February that he had leukemia and spent most of his remaining months in the hospital undergoing chemotherapy and an experimental umbilical cord blood treatment.
Lee, who established himself as the first black rock star of the post-Beatles era, fronted Love through astonishing musical changes that have continued to resonate for other rockers and a cult of critics and fans.
Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant cited the influence of Lee and Love in his acceptance speech at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995.
But Love also became one of the first burnout bands of the 1960s, and with Lee’s death, only three members survive of the eight who were in the band between 1965 and 1967.
Dogged by intra-band rivalries, substance abuse and Lee’s reluctance to tour, the first version of Love was finished by 1968, although Lee continued using the band name to record and perform at least sporadically for the rest of his life.
He was imprisoned from 1996 to 2001 on a weapons charge, but after his release he had new energy and a new story to tell that led to a resurgence for a time in concerts, including a 2003 performance in London, available on DVD, in which Lee was able to re-create Love’s masterpiece album, “Forever Changes,” backed by a sharp, four-man rock band and an orchestra of horns and strings.
Love’s first three albums were indeed forever changing. They yielded eloquent folk-rock on the 1966 debut, “Love,” the first rock record ever released by Elektra Records, and jazz-inflected rock with a flute player added to the lineup on the follow-up, “Da Capo.”
That album also included the explosive hard rock of the band’s lone Top 40 single, “7 and 7 Is” -- a song that ended with the sound of an atom bomb exploding and foreshadowed late-'70s punk rock by 10 years. In 1967 came “Forever Changes,” a gorgeous, haunting song cycle infused with classical horns and strings.
Thematically, the album gave an emotionally undulating, impressionistic take that captures sweet hopes from the “Summer of Love” giving way to paranoia and dread.
“Forever Changes” ranked 40th on a list that Rolling Stone magazine compiled of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Yet it has remained an overlooked treasure, reaching no higher than No. 154 on the Billboard albums chart after its original release and selling 103,000 copies since 1991 on CD reissues, according to SoundScan.
Besides helping to hasten rock’s acquisition of a wide range of stylistic possibilities, Love played a crucial role in Los Angeles’ early rock history. By 1965, the Byrds had created a Hollywood folk-rock scene at Ciro’s. When Lee and his guitar-playing boyhood friend, Johnny Echols, saw the Byrds, they decided folk-rock was the way to go, rather than the Booker T & the MGs-style rhythm and blues they had been playing.
“We didn’t want to be stuck playing the Chitlin’ Circuit,” Echols said Friday. “We wanted to play this new kind of music.” They quickly enlisted the Byrds’ guitar-strumming road manager, Bryan MacLean, who became second-chair singer-songwriter to Lee.
Love’s racially integrated lineup -- Lee and Echols were black, MacLean, bassist Ken Forssi, and drummers Don Conka, Alban “Snoopy” Pfisterer and Michael Stuart were white -- forged a model that the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Sly and the Family Stone and War would follow to much greater stardom. Echols said that he and Lee met Hendrix while he was still R&B; sideman Jimmy James, and that Hendrix took fashion cues from the flamboyantly dressed Lee.
Intent on bringing his New York-based Elektra label into the rock era, Jac Holzman rifled through newspaper club listings on a trip to Los Angeles, thought the name Love looked interesting and checked out the band at Bido Lito’s in Hollywood.
What he saw was Lee fronting the band in a motley pre-hippie outfit. “It was just a sight, their take on things was so interesting, and the girls in the club were so into what they were doing,” Holzman said. He quickly got an inkling that, in Lee, he wasn’t dealing with a typical fellow.
“He was one of those people you know is likely to do something terrible to you or around you,” Holzman said, “but you like him so much and he’s so talented that you always support him.” Holzman said he trusted Lee’s musical judgment enough to check out a band he recommended called the Doors -- and to keep going back after he didn’t initially think much of them, because Lee kept saying the Doors were special.
“Arthur set in motion things that had enormous consequences,” Holzman said. “When we approached the Doors, they thought that Love was the coolest band around, and the fact that Love was on Elektra was a reason for them to be on Elektra.”
When the Doors took off in 1967, Echols said, Love began to question whether it was getting enough attention from its label. “They were an easier sell than we were. It became frustrating.”
Drummer Michael Stuart-Ware (his married name), who played on “Da Capo” and “Forever Changes,” recalled Lee on Friday as a man who could be charming but who also could use his tall, athletic, lanky frame and lacerating wit to win through intimidation.
“He liked people to acquiesce to his dominance. When he walked into a room, it was his room,” Stuart-Ware said. “He had his talent, his physical presence, his songwriting ability -- a lot of tools to get his way.” After the first version of Love disbanded, Lee found new musicians and made a pair of albums, “Four Sail” and “Out Here,” that showed continued songwriting strength. Hendrix accompanied him on “False Start” from 1970.
Then Lee fell from the spotlight for the better part of two decades. He reemerged in 1989, booked on a Psychedelic Summer of Love package tour.
But in 1993, he connected with a new set of young admirers, the interracial Los Angeles pop-rock band Baby Lemonade, who became the next and last incarnation of Love, billed now as Love With Arthur Lee. It became the steadiest, most enduring lineup of Lee’s career. He toured regularly until his 1996 sentencing, then picked up with the same players after his release in 2001.
“Arthur seemed to have learned a huge lesson after he got out of jail,” said guitarist Mike Randle. Lee, Randle and guitarist Rusty Squeezebox worked on new material and in 2005 were confident about landing a new contract. But Lee did not rise to the occasion. He could be brilliant and focused, Randle said, but last year he began to miss gigs or show up only to stand on stage without singing.
“When he was sober, he was the sweetest, most giving man on the planet,” Randle said Friday. “But I would say he was sober 15% of the time. The rest was dealing with him and not trying to take it personally.” Early this year, Lee moved from Toluca Lake to his birthplace, Memphis.
Lee was born Arthur Porter Taylor. His mother, Agnes, was a schoolteacher; he saw little of his father, Chester Taylor, who was a cornet player. In a 1994 interview with The Times, Lee recalled listening while his aunt played blues records and listened to Nat King Cole. When he was 5, he and his mother moved to Los Angeles. Six years later, she married Clinton Lee, a carpenter and plumber. Lee began taking accordion lessons as a child and by his mid-teens was playing keyboards in Los Angeles clubs.
In June, Plant, Ian Hunter and Ryan Adams headlined a concert in New York that Linn said raised $50,000 for Lee’s medical expenses; Baby Lemonade was joined by Love alums Echols and Stuart-Ware for a smaller benefit in L.A. Linn said Lee married his longtime girlfriend, Diane, near the end of his life. He had no children.