Feature

Alvin Lee, 1944–2013

The reluctant rocker who wowed Woodstock

In 1969, Alvin Lee played a gig that would change his life, and rock music, forever. Appearing with his band Ten Years After at the Woodstock music festival, the British singer and guitarist wailed through an 11-minute rendition of the group’s showpiece, “I’m Goin’ Home.” The performance was immortalized in the 1970 documentary Woodstock, which showed Lee soaked in sweat as he picked out rapid-fire blues. That flashy fret work made him an icon for aspiring teenage guitarists. But Lee, who died this month of complications after routine surgery, was ambivalent about his fame. In 1975, he complained to Rolling Stone that after Woodstock, audiences only wanted to see “Alvin Lee showing off his clever tricks.” 

Born in the English city of Nottingham, Lee grew up listening to his father’s blues and jazz records. When he was 12, his dad brought home American bluesman Big Bill Broonzy, who was touring the U.K. The visit made a lasting impact. “I sold my clarinet and bought a guitar the next day,” Lee said. He made his professional debut at a local movie theater the next year, performing as Alvin Lee and His Amazing Talking Guitar, said the Los Angeles Times. During the 1950s and early ’60s he played with several bands before forming Ten Years After.

When the group made its first U.S. tour, in 1968, Lee was surprised that so few people knew the blues standards they played, said The New York Times. “We were recycling American music, and they were calling it the English sound,” he later recalled. But Americans loved the band’s high-energy electric blues, and by 1974 Ten Years After had completed 28 U.S. tours—“a record for any British band,” said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). Exhausted by touring, Lee quit the group in the mid-1970s. After that he released the occasional solo album and led a low-key life. “[I] always wanted to be a musician, a working musician, not a rock star,” he said in 1994. “It’s really all I know how to do.”

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