Memphis-born, Los Angeles-raised, Arthur Lee was there when the 1960s SoCal rock scene took shape. Los Angeles' Byrds were soaring their jangly folk-based style into the ionosphere of psychedelia, while in Britain the Rolling Stones channeled their love of blues into something darkly distinctive. Taking these cues, Lee and former Byrds roadie Bryan MacLean became the creative core of the quintet Love. Its 1966 debut Love (Elektra Records' first rock signing) was a punkish, derivative but engaging mélange, equal parts melancholy melodies and no-frills snarl. What really set Love apart aside from being one of the first racially integrated rock bands were Lee's unique vocals. Whereas many white blues-fueled lads were doing their damnedest to sound like a black bluesman from Chicago, Lee sounded ... white, his unruffled, melodious warble closer to the Moody Blues' Justin Hayward than Muddy Waters. Love's cover of Bacharach/David's "My Little Red Book" was a minor hit, but the window to future greatness was the original "Signed D.C.," a sparse, harrowing, blues-echoing junkie's lament. The follow-up Da Capo found Love coming into its own "Colored Balls Falling" and "Stephanie Knows Who" defined American psychedelic pop, while "7 and 7 Is" remains one of the great '60s singles (highest chart position: No. 33, alas). Perhaps the West Coast equivalent to the Velvet Underground's "I'm Waiting for the Man," Lee passionately roared over an amphetamine-driven rush of pounding melody, capped by the sound of an atom bomb explosion.
Love's third album cemented its place in rock history. 1967's Forever Changes was the band's pinnacle, America's Sgt. Pepper, a sublime, near-perfect kaleidoscope of winsome, pensive melodies, baroque charm, orchestral grandeur, and elements of flamenco and mariachi music, with Lee's sweetly tremulous voice awash with hippie poesy, paranoia, and satiric nihilism. "Oh the snot has caked against my pants/ and it has turned to crystal/ There's a bluebird sitting on the branch/ I guess I'll take my pistol/ I've got it in my hand/ Because he's on my land." Many critics took Changes to their hearts, proclaiming it the best rock album ever.
National success eluded Love because of drugs and Lee's somewhat thorny personality he refused to tour (the band never performed outside California), allegedly because he couldn't be far from his L.A. connection. Lee reconvened an entirely new 1969 Love for the underrated Four Sail. Afterward, it all went downhill: From the late '60s through 1974, Love released spotty albums more in tune with the period's excesses (long, meandering solos, flirtations with funk, etc.), and Lee's muse sadly dissipated.
He endeavored to establish a solo career with little success. Run-ins with the law a drug bust, an attempted arson (to a former girlfriend's apartment), and discharging a gun into the air during an argument made him rock 'n' roll's poster boy for California's three-strikes policy. A federal appeals court sprung him due to prosecutorial misconduct. In 2002, a recharged Lee hooked up with L.A. power-poppers Baby Lemonade (named after a Barrett song, ironically) and took to the road, performing Forever Changes in its entirety. The tour garnered mostly upbeat reviews until Lee's quirks resurfaced. According to Baby Lemonade's press release, Lee decided to disband the group "after refusing to get on an airplane ... to tour Europe." This March, Arthur Lee celebrated 61 years on this planet. NYC June 23 saw a benefit concert to help him with mounting medical expenses due to leukemia; Yo La Tengo, Ryan Adams, and Led Zep's Robert Plant were among the performers. In August, he transitioned from Memphis, his wife by his side. Wherever you are, a moment's silence, please, for Arthur Lee.