Jim Morrison. Jimi Hendrix. Brian Wilson. Even for casual fans, these have all become household names from the Los Angeles music scene of the 1960’s often referred to via the synecdoche of the Sunset Strip. Yet one name remains a glaring omission in the rock n’ roll history of that era: Arthur Lee, the gifted, charismatic, but also troubled, lead singer/guitarist/songwriter of the psychedelic rock band Love. The son of a biracial couple from Tennessee, Lee developed into a swaggering presence on the Strip with a story that encapsulates the times.
Through Lee’s leadership, Love became the trailblazing psychedelic band of its day. Yet even before his time with the group, Lee had laid down his musical roots. He hired Hendrix for an early session gig, and the two would become friends and creative collaborators while maintaining a kind of musical rivalry; Love’s first album featured the song “Hey Joe” which today is mostly remembered for Hendrix’s later cover, though Hendrix co-arranged and played guitar on the later Love track “The Everlasting First”. He fired the drummer Bobby Beausoleil, who would gain notoriety for joining the Manson family of murderers. His style paved the way for Morrison and the Doors, who openly acknowledged Love’s influence on their own music. Even the Rolling Stones looked up to Lee and his band – Love’s song “She Comes in Colors” seems an obvious inspiration for “She’s a Rainbow”. Lee himself was an early admirer of the Beatles, and his competitive, often fractious relationship with fellow Love band mate Bryan Maclean served as an Americanized precursor to the Lennon-McCartney fallout. Lee wrote a majority of Love’s catalog, but the Maclean songs trend with a wider audience even to this day.
So why isn’t Lee as notable as some of his musical peers and friends? Granted, mainstream success eluded Love in the band’s own day. There’s an argument that Lee was a classic artist’s artist, beloved by fellow musicians, misunderstood by critics and largely ignored by the masses. Yet if there’s an Occam’s razor of American culture, it’s usually that race is the simplest explanation. Black artists could find success in the music industry in the Motown genres of soul and R&B. Hendrix became a huge rock star, but did the rock scene of the psychedelic 60’s have room for two faces of color? Plus, Hendrix was the greatest virtuoso guitarist of his day, like Chuck Berry a decade earlier. Revisionists have begrudgingly acknowledged Love and Lee as deserving more recognition, particularly for the album Forever Changes. Still, Lee’s brilliant songwriting on Love’s albums and his willingness to experiment with instrumentation should earn his place in the pantheon of American music. By the end of the band’s run, perhaps influenced by Hendrix, Lee had pushed the group’s sound to reflect rock’s roots in the black culture of the blues and even towards emerging styles like funk and psychedelic soul.