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Consider two mid-'60s groups. Each is from Los Angeles, each is signed to Elektra Records, and each releases a series of albums that stand as some of the finest rock 'n' roll of the era. But in the early '70s, one of the groups' lead singers dies--and the then-defunct band's popularity grows to unbelievably massive proportions. By the early '90s, the group is immortalized when a prestigious film director devotes an entire movie to them.
Now consider that the two groups' names are Doors and Love--and in 1993, while the legend of late Doors vocalist Jim Morrison continued to grow two decades after his death, Love's singer Arthur Lee--in his 19th year without a major American record deal--was actually opening for a Doors cover band at a small Los Angeles club. One suspects he would have rather been hit by a bus.
Just one in a series of major ironies for Arthur Lee (b. 1944, Memphis, Tennessee) is the fact that his pioneering work with Love is now as revered internationally--at least on some critical levels--as the music of Jim Morrison's Doors. The first rock group to be signed by Elektra, Love was an unusual group by many standards--not least because both Lee, the band's lead singer and main songwriter, and John Echols, the band's guitarist, were black men who played rock 'n' roll. Very much an underground group (they rarely performed outside Los Angeles), Love first made their name on the basis of two superb 1966 singles: a remake of Manfred Mann's "My Little Red Book" (penned by Burt Bacharach & Hal David) from What's New Pussycat? and Lee's own "Seven And Seven Is," a top 40 hit. But much more influential were Love's albums, the first three of which displayed remarkable diversity and artistic growth.
The 1966 debut album Love was a much better than average collection of melodic, Byrds and Beatles-inspired pop, most of it written by Lee himself. By 1967's Da Capo, Love's original quintet had added two members, and the group's sound had grown much more sophisticated (including flute, saxophone and harpsichord)--as did Lee's compositions. Tracks like "Stephanie Knows Who" and "The Castle" were enormously inventive and dynamic, filled with complex chords and atmospheric shadings that sound contemporary even today. And the group had experimented even further by filling the second side of their LP with a 19-minute single track called "Revelation."
Still, all this served only as a prelude to 1967's Forever Changes, Love's all-time classic and an album many hold to be pop's finest. A mixture of hard rock and soft symphonic pop, it featured gorgeous string arrangements, trumpets, and pleasingly surreal lyrics by Lee. Released months after the so-called Summer Of Love, the album's back cover bore a picture of Lee holding a broken jug of obviously dead flowers; inside, Lee was singing lines like "They're locking him up today/ They're throwing away the key/ I wonder who it'll be tomorrow/ You or me?" A timeless album that is better heard than described, it will keep Arthur Lee's name in circulation well into the next century. "Those were my last words to the world," Lee recalled in 1981, "and I've been here ever since. Just like a guy saying good-bye, and you look out your front door and he's still there. I know I was real young, but I just thought that would be the year for me to exit."
Arthur Lee disbanded that version of Love and continued with several newer editions of the group, none ever as graceful or good as the first. 1969's hard-rocking Four Sail remains the last fully excellent album he was involved with; though nearly all of the Love albums to come between it and 1974's final Reel-to-Real boast many high points--including an appearance by Jimi Hendrix on 1970's False Start--Lee's seeming genius was slowly winding down. He recorded one respectable solo album in 1972's Vindicator (credited to Arthur Lee & Band-Aid), and one fairly shoddy one (including covers of the Bobbettes' 1957 hit "Mr. Lee" and Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers To Cross") released on the fledgling Rhino label in 1981, and hasn't released an American album since.
Though there have been several attempted Love reunions--including a 1978 concert issued by Rhino in 1982--it seems increasingly unlikely the group's magic could ever be duplicated again. Arthur Lee has continued to perform in the Los Angeles area through the '90s, and sometimes--not often, but sometimes--he still seems capable of making his audience believe it's 1967 all over again. Not that they want to; he just can't help it.