Arthur Lee, the talented and oft-troubled singer and guitarist for the influential '60s-era band Love, died in a Memphis hospital after a lengthy battle with leukemia, according to his manager. He was 61.
"It was a complete surprise to me. He's had leukemia for the past few months, but he was coming along until this past weekend, when he just crashed," Mark Linn, Lee's manager, told MTV News. "He passed away at around 4 p.m. [on Thursday], with his wife Diane by his side. Arthur had the uncanny ability to bounce back from everything, and leukemia was no exception. He was confident that he would be back onstage by the fall."
Lee, a native of Memphis, moved to Los Angeles in the early 1960s to work as a session musician and songwriter: One of his earliest compositions, "My Diary," was recorded by R&B chanteuse Rosa Lee Brooks, and the sessions featured a young Jimi Hendrix on electric guitar (Lee and Hendrix would later collaborate again, with one song called "The Everlasting First" appearing on Love's 1970 album False Start, and another called "Girl on Fire" emerging on a 1994 single). Lee formed a surf-tinged instrumental outfit called the LAGS, but in 1965, influenced by bands on the burgeoning L.A. rock scene, such as the Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas and Buffalo Springfield, he decided to form Love, which was originally called the Grass Roots but the name was already taken.
Love would begin playing in hip L.A. clubs, and their heady mix of folk, psychedelia and proto-punk earned them a cult following and a contract with Elektra Records (which until that point was primarily a folk label). They released their self-titled debut in 1966, scoring a minor radio hit with their punked-up cover of Burt Bacharach's "My Little Red Book." The following year brought the more ambitious Da Capo, which includes a 19-minute jam called "Revelation" that spans the album's entire second side.
By the time Love released their third album, Forever Changes, in 1968, they were one of the most popular and influential acts in Los Angeles (they used their clout to get their friends the Doors inked to Elektra), but that album would, well, forever change everything.
Lee had earned a reputation as being both an incredibly talented — and increasingly troubled — songwriter and musician, and Forever Changes showed him both at the top of his craft and the bottom of his despair. The album perfectly fuses folk-rock with subtle psychedelic touches, adding horns and strings to the mix to form a sound that's truly Baroque in scope and execution, while Lee's warbly vocals and head-scratching lyrics only hinted at the mental anguish he felt inside (it has since been widely reported that when he was making the record, Lee was sure he was going to die, so he wanted it to serve as his final statement).
Though the album was never a huge commercial hit in the States (the band's odd refusal to tour outside California unquestionably played a role in its limited success), it has since earned its rightful place alongside other psychedelic touchstones of the day, including Pink Floyd's Piper at the Gates of Dawn and the Zombies' Odessey and Oracle. And in the decades following its release, Forever Changes has only grown in stature and influence: Everyone from Robert Plant to Siouxie Sioux to Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Magnum has touted the album's sonic grandeur and psychic frailty, and a Rolling Stone poll cited it as the 40th greatest album of all time.
But Forever Changes would also spell the end of Love as fans knew them. Increasingly paranoid and erratic (and reportedly fueled by drugs), Lee fired all the original members of the band, hired a new group of musicians and continued to release records under the Love name until the early '70s. In 1972, he would release his proper solo debut, Vindicator, and gradually fade from the public's eye.
He performed sporadically over the years, but it wasn't until 1995 that he would surface again, though under much more unfortunate circumstances. He was arrested after breaking into an ex-girlfriend's apartment and trying to burn it to the ground. Soon after, he was arrested again, this time for firing a gun into the air during an argument with a neighbor. These two convictions, coupled with a drug-possession charge he had picked up in the 1980s, ran him afoul of California's "Three Strikes" law, and Lee was sentenced to 8-12 years in a state prison.
The mantra "Free Arthur Lee!" became a staple on message boards and in record stores, and on December 12, 2001, Lee was indeed freed after serving six years of his sentence. Soon after his release, he gathered a new group of musicians and began touring Europe and North America, on one tour playing Forever Changes in its entirety.
Lee was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia this year, and in May, after three rounds of chemotherapy failed, several benefit concerts were held in Britain and the U.S. to help him cover his medical bills. In June, longtime fan Plant headlined a benefit in New York.
Lee released many albums over the years, but there is little question that his greatest work lies on Love's first three albums, songs from which make up the bulk of the 1995 retrospective Love Story.