It’s lunchtime Saturday and Albert Lee is on his way to the Melbourne Guitar Show, where he will perform with his band, followed by a nighttime gig at Caravan Club. At 74, this British-born guitar legend doesn’t have time to slow down.
No subject is off limits, and the names that drop into the conversation serve as a constant reminder of how many shows and how many stars Albert Lee has played with. His first tour of Australia was with Joe Cocker. He also toured Australia with Vince Gill, and Tommy Emmanuel.
He first got acquainted with George Harrison in 1985 backstage at the Formula One Grand Prix in Adelaide where Lee was playing with the Everly Brothers. Of course, he’d run into him before, when he was playing in Eric Clapton’s band.
Harrison’s name came up because Lee is a constant fixture on stage in the Concert for George, the amazing tribute show performed at Royal Albert Hall in London one year after Harrison’s death. Lee asked Clapton if he could be part of the show, and the approval came back with Olivia Harrison’s blessing.
The musicians rehearsed for three weeks. The show included performances by a who’s who of popular music – including Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Clapton.
These days, Lee tours the world with his own band, playing his electrifying country-blues-rock rhythms at intimate venues all over the world. He has called Los Angeles home for more than 40 years, but spends a lot of time on the road, particularly in the UK, Germany and the Netherlands, where he remains quite popular.
“I was just discussing it [my career] my manager Jim [Cowan],” he says.
“I was professional musician for 25 years before I finally fronted a band. I’m regretting not doing it early. I’m glad I got to do it.
“I just wanted to be a successful guitar player in a really hot band. A few other people have stopped working – Bill Wyman [he played with the Rolling Stones star’s band] hung up his boots. The Everly Brothers [another band gig] both passed away. I still have to pay the bills.”
On his own, Lee plays a mix of covers and originals. In his show at the Melbourne Guitar Festival he played covers from Fats Domino, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Ray Charles, Carl Perkins and Emmylou Harris among others.
“I think people come because they know I am a guitar player,” he says. “But they are surprised I sing and play the piano.”
Lee learned music on a piano first, he just didn’t stick with it.
“I started bashing on the piano at age 8 or 9,” he says. “I took piano lessons, but I never really practiced – the room the piano was in was too cold.”
He appears to be in good health, and has no intention of clocking off yet.
“If I can carry on doing this with a bit of rest now and then – eight hours sleep and a good meal, I’ll keep going,” he says.