It’s all too easy to look back through the telescope of history and be fooled into believing that an artist was influential and significant, when perhaps their reputation has been created by subsequent generations. But Alvin Lee really was that successful, as a guitarist and as a member of Ten Years After, who were, for a while, one of the biggest live bands in the world thanks to their appearance in the Woodstock movie.
Before their appearance at Woodstock, Ten Years After was just another British blues band, with jazz overtones. After the festival, the band, and Alvin Lee in particular, were elevated to superstar status.
Ten Years After were no overnight sensation, having originally learned their chops in the Nottinghamshire area of the English Midlands, in 1960 as Ivan Jay and the Jaycats; to begin with they were just another beat band. It was just Alvin and Leo Lyons of the Woodstock line up in the original band, with Ric Lee joining in 1965 (Ric was no relation to Alvin, who’s real name was the much less glamourous sounding Graham Barnes); Chick Churchill joined a year later, by which time the band had moved to London to try and make the big times. After several name changes they settled on Ten Years After in 1966; Alvin Lee idolized Elvis Presley and this was ten years after 1956, Elvis’ annus mirabilis.
Ten Years After’s big break came in 1967 when they played the National Jazz & Blues Festival held at Windsor Racecourse to the west of London. This secured a contract with Decca Records subsidiary, Deram who released their self titled debut album in October 1967. Among the tracks was an excellent cover of Al Kooper’s ‘I Can’t Keep from Crying Sometimes’. In 1968 they released Undead, a live album that showcased the band’s great stage show.
It made the UK charts in the autumn of the same year. It featured their show stopping, ‘I’m Going Home’, which the band played so effectively at Woodstock; it was the genesis of Alvin Lee – guitar-god. They followed Undead with, Stonehenge, in February 1969 that made the Top 10 of the UK album charts. While they were gaining a growing body of fans in Britain they were far from superstars, and by the time they got to Woodstock, Ten Years After were virtually unknown in America – the festival really was their big break.
At Woodstock, the humidity ravaged instruments was just one of the problems for the band. The sound recording worked sporadically and the film crew were only able to film TYA’s closing song. They had saved their best for last and at over 12 minutes long ‘I’m Going Home’ confirmed Ten Years After as a powerhouse band and elevated Alvin Lee to guitar’s top-table from the moment the film was released. As a tribute to the rock ‘n’ roll that Alvin loved so much it featured, Blue Suede Shoes, Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On and John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom within this repetitive riff based rock and roll song.
But all is not as it seems with the recording. The sound problems meant that Ric Lee’s drums went unrecorded for the most part and the bits that were audible were of poor quality. It required a studio overdub, but not from Ric himself. Mountain’s roadie and future drummer, Canadian, Corky Laing did them in the studio; Corky replaced Mountain’s original drummer very soon after Woodstock.
Without Woodstock, TYA would have been just another British blues band with a healthy dash of rock., as it was they and Alvin Lee in particular became huge. Their first post festival album was SSSSH which came out in early September 1969, becoming their biggest hit to date, making No.20 in the USA and going Top 5 in Britain staying on the charts for the next five months. Its centrepiece was ‘Good Morning Little School Girl’, Sonny Boy Williamson’s un-PC blues classic.
They had recorded it shortly before leaving for Woodstock and it was one of the standout songs in their festival set. In May 1970 they released Cricklewood Green and from this album came their only single to chart in Britain, and their first chart hit in America; ‘Love Like a Man’ made No.98 on the Billboard chart, but made the Top 10 in Britain. The band had one more big album in Britain when Watt made No.5 in 1971 and No.21 in the USA. Their next album, A Space In Time was a far bigger hit in America but it was the beginnings of a slow decline in the band’s fortunes; their last success on the charts was a live album in 1973. After the release of their 1974 album, Positive Vibrations the band broke up. They did reunite briefly in the 1980s but without any real success. Alvin Lee continued to release albums and sadly passed away on 6 March 2013, aged 68.