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Alvin Lee, guitarist in Ten Years After, dies at 68

Alvin Lee, the guitarist with the English blues-rock band Ten Years After whose pyrotechnic skill pushed the band to stardom at the Woodstock music festival, died March 6 in Spain.

A post from family members on Mr. Lee’s Web site said he died after “unforeseen complications following a routine surgical procedure.” He was 68 and lived in Spain.

Although Mr. Lee lacked the commercial longevity of fellow British guitar stars Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck, he was well known for his flashy fretwork. A 1968 reviewer in the U.K. music publication Record Mirror dubbed Mr. Lee “the fastest guitarist alive.” The label stuck and often frustrated the guitarist as audiences ignored his more lyrical work.

Ten Years After formed in 1966 as a blues-based quartet with Mr. Lee, bassist Leo Lyons, keyboardist Chick Churchill and drummer Ric Lee (no relation). Their name alluded to the fact that Elvis Presley had popularized rock-and-roll about a decade earlier. The band was a mainstay of London’s Marquee club, a venue that had earlier helped launch the Rolling Stones.

Ten Years After’s 1968 live album, “Undead,” featured amped-up renditions of jazz standards such as “Summertime” and “At the Woodchoppers Ball” as well as an adrenaline-charged blues, “I’m Going Home,” that became Mr. Lee’s signature. Ten Years After also performed “I’m Going Home” at the August 1969 Woodstock festival in Upstate New York.

Guitarist Alvin Lee, founder of the band Ten Years After, died at age 68 in Spain following complications from surgery. Ten Years After came to prominence after performing at Woodstock in 1969. Lee left the band to embark on a successful solo career in 1975. (David Redfern)

Mr. Lee’s performance of the song in the popular 1970 concert movie “Woodstock,” complete with his facial tics and his vocal homages to Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, sealed the band’s popularity with U.S. audiences. However, the song’s length — the filmed version ran more than nine minutes — also became a symbol of rock-music self-indulgence.

The band occasionally ventured into psychedelia and jazz, but it was largely typecast as a purveyor of hard-rock guitar boogie.

Mr. Lee’s more melodic side emerged in the band’s lone Top 40 hit, “I’d Love to Change the World” (1971), which captured the apathy of the post-counterculture era. The song’s memorably detached, complacent attitude was expressed in the lyric, “I’d love to change the world, but I don’t know what to do, so I’ll leave it up to you.”

Mr. Lee wasn’t happy with the song, which he wrote.

“I hated it because it was a hit,” he told an interviewer in 2003. “By then I was rebelling, and I never played it live. To me it was a pop song.”

In 2004, “I’d Love to Change the World” reappeared on the soundtrack to Michael Moore’s documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11.”

Graham Alvin Lee was born Dec. 19, 1944, in Nottingham, England. He started playing guitar at 13, inspired by American bluesman Big Bill Broonzy, who had recently appeared in Britain. In 1959, he first teamed with bassist Lyons, and they eventually started a band, the Jaybirds, which toured English clubs and then took up a residency at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany, shortly after the Beatles left.

Survivors include a wife, Evi, and a daughter.

By the time Ten Years After broke up in 1974, Mr. Lee was branching out in other directions. After a stint in rehab, he recorded a country-rock album, “On the Road To Freedom” (1973), featuring gospel singer Mylon LeFevre and guest musicians George Harrison and Steve Winwood. Mr. Lee also guested on recordings by his boyhood heroes, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bo Diddley.

In later years, Mr. Lee led various bands under such names as Alvin Lee and Co., the Alvin Lee Band and even Ten Years Later. Ten Years After re-formed in 1983, and Mr. Lee occasionally toured with the quartet, as recently as 2000.

Woodstock marked the highlight of his career, and Mr. Lee recalled one particularly vivid memory from the festival.

“They’d run out of ciggies backstage so I volunteered to go out in the audience and blag some,” he told music writer Max Bell. “The first people I met were two coppers who said: ‘We haven’t got any, but you can have these joints.’ I said: ‘You’re police!’ Their answer was: ‘If you can’t beat ’em . . .’

“I came back with 30 joints,” he added, “so I was quite popular.”

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