Jim Morrison and Robert Plant worshiped him, he used Hendrix as a sideman, and he was recently honored by the British Parliament. But unless you’re a ’60s cult freak, you might not know who the self-proclaimed “original nigger hippie” is. A Nat King Cole fan, Arthur Lee broke into the business in L.A., securing a contract for his band, Love, by copying the sound of local favorites the Byrds. After three inventive, eccentric albums on Elektra (including 1967’s deified Forever Changes), he abandoned his baroque, surreal-versed garage for more straight-ahead rock. After playing out in the early ’90s, he fell afoul of California’s three-strikes law, spending six years in jail until his release late last year.
Speaking to him now about his life and work, your head could explode from his soapboxing on his peers (“I don’t give a fuck about Mick Jagger—he can’t get down like I can”), his progeny (“There wouldn’t be any damn Jimi or Sly without me”), his dearth of black fans (“Why isn’t my face on Jet magazine?”), and Jesus (“I tell people to love each other”). Nonlinear thought is obviously the prerogative of mad geniuses (see Cecil Taylor).
Earlier in the tour, Lee was forgetting lyrics and ranting between songs, but he was all business for the first of two sold-out shows at Bowery Ballroom on Saturday, decked out in cowboy hat, flag bandanna, and lo-fi nudie jacket as he ran through the early Love albums (though he has promised new songs soon). A touch of laryngitis kept him away from the high notes, but it also probably put the kibosh on any speeches. As he flashed smiles, took bows, politely thanked everyone, and pressed the flesh, you wondered if Lee wasn’t ready for a communal hug at the end. He led the crowd through song chants and shook his tambourine in the air like a cheerleader’s pom-pom. Revealingly, some songs, like “The Red Telephone” (“They’re locking them up today/they’re throwing away the key”) and “Live and Let Live” (the bit about gunning birds—Art’s third strike was a pistol charge), took on poignancy as Lee recounted how he was “locked up tight as a gorilla’s nuts . . . going from stage to cage.”
“Love” is now his ’90s backup band—until recently the L.A. quintet Baby Lemonade—a triple-guitar and drum lineup with Mike Randle taking the spotlight for his well-earned solos. While they maneuvered surprisingly well through the orchestral numbers on Forever Changes, with Randle approximating the strings and horns or wisely ignoring the flourishes, they sounded most at home on rockers like “7 & 7 Is,” “A House Is Not a Motel,” and “Singing Cowboy.” Maybe the Hives are a better garage band, but unless other loony seers like Syd Barrett and Captain Beefheart re-emerge, Lee’s Ali-like boast that he’s “the best” will have to remain uncontested. —Jason Gross
The World at His Feet
He’s always introduced, and rightfully so, as the “Genius of Soul.” But within a few minutes of Ray Charles’s hour-and-a-quarter performance at the Beacon Theater last Wednesday, it was hard not to be marveling at the genius of s-o-l-e manifesting itself underneath the soon-to-be 72-year-old’s electric piano. Talk about feets doing their stuff: All one really needs to know about the joy that Charles’s music has brought not only countless millions but the man himself could be gleaned by watching those soul shoes darting, weaving, writhing, and dangling in gleeful response to their master’s voice and hands.
What a voice and what hands they still are, too. It’s been well over a half-century since Charles took out that braille map, figured out just how far away he could get from the poverty and misery of his childhood in Georgia and Florida and still be in the U.S., and headed off to Seattle to make a better life for himself as a musician. And yet, no matter what Charles plays, he remains true to the original, Einstein-worthy equation he first postulated back in the 1950s: Blues + Gospel = Soul.
Not that he has to start with either component to achieve that result. The Beacon show was highlighted by several of the country tunes Charles has made over in his own image, including Don Gibson’s weepy evergreen “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” recently deceased Harlan Howard’s frisky “Busted” (Brother Ray first heard that one by another noted musical egalitarian, Johnny Cash), and of course, Hoagy Carmichael’s wistful “Georgia on My Mind,” which Charles has turned into only slightly more of a signature song than his takin’-it-to-the-pews version of “America the Beautiful.”
Accompanied by guitar, organ, bass, and drums—and, oh yes, a 14-piece horn section (wouldn’t want “Smack Dab in the Middle” without that r&b swing) and, uh-huh, his five lovely Raelettes (wouldn’t want “What’d I Say” without that preacher congregation/chieftain-tribe call-and-response finale)—Charles spent his set doing what he does best: testifying. That his testimony on a given night can go from Freddie Scott’s “Hey Girl” to Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” to Richard Rodgers’s “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” speaks volumes—several shelves’ worth at that. When this witness sings, “The sounds of the earth are like music,” surely even the heavens stop to take note. —Billy Altman