In Memphis, they knew him as "Po." People still called him that or referred to him as "Miss Agnes' kid," even though he'd lived on the other side of the United States for most of his 61 years.
But everywhere else he was Arthur Lee, the psychedelic-rock legend, who was born in Memphis in 1945 and died in Memphis earlier this month of leukemia. As the lead singer and creative force of the Los Angeles-based rock band Love, Lee is one of rock-and-roll's great footnotes. His masterpiece was the nearly orchestral Forever Changes, which, when released in November 1967, book-ended the Summer of Love begun by the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The record didn't make Lee a superstar in his own time, but its impact has only grown over the decades. When Rolling Stone published its list of the "500 Greatest Albums of All Time" in 2003, Sgt. Pepper's led the way, but Forever Changes was listed at 40.
After many years in the wilderness, Lee returned to Memphis in the summer of 2005. Dressed in leather and beads like the rock star he was, he glided into the Midtown house that served as his practice space with the stealthiness of a voodoo priest, presiding over a new band of younger local musicians reared on his music. It was going to be his big comeback. Love reborn. But it wasn't to be.
"I knew he was sick," confirms drummer Greg Roberson, who put together the Memphis band with hopes of touring the U.S. and Europe this fall. "When I met Arthur, he was a big, strapping man who weighed 185 or so. At Christmas, he was sober and bright. After the holidays, he dropped 30 pounds really fast, and I thought some old demons had resurfaced before I realized something was really wrong."
Things went downhill quickly. In March, Lee went into the hospital with pneumonia; a few weeks later, he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia.
"He called me from the emergency room at Methodist Hospital, and I freaked out," recalls Roberson. "He'd gotten a cold he couldn't shake, which turned into pneumonia. He stayed in the hospital for 10 days. He didn't want to be there, and he certainly didn't want anyone to see him there, but he finally asked me to look through his phonebook for Diane's number. 'I need her,' he said, and she came down to Memphis."
Diane Skorman is a Los Angelino who befriended Lee in the early '70s and lived with him off and on. Without hesitation, she jumped on a plane to Memphis to attempt to nurse him back to health.
The two wed this spring, just before doctors gave Lee two months to live -- unless he'd agree to undergo three rounds of chemotherapy and a potential bone marrow transplant, using stem cells from an umbilical cord.
"He called me again, and he said, 'I'm gonna fight this, I'm gonna win,'" says Roberson. "During his treatment, I saw him become humbled, more softened. When I met him, it was, 'Hey, I'm Arthur Lee.' There was that rock-star bravado, but the king of the Sunset Strip stuff ended when he realized his own mortality. He always knew we were all gonna go there, but here he was staring it in the eye."
Arthur Lee was a formidable presence at the height of Southern California's peace and love scene. A maverick by every definition, Lee cast a shadow that even Sunset Strip scenesters like Alice Cooper and Jim Morrison found intimidating. His music turned Los Angeles' subconscious upside down and inside out while opening a window into his own troubled psyche; in the flesh, however, he was an introverted recluse who preferred the company of his myriad pets to prolonged human contact.
The son of a cornet player in Jimmie Lunceford's Orchestra and a schoolteacher at Manassas High, Arthur Porter Taylor was born in Memphis on March 7, 1945. He lived at 1322 North Bellevue, in a neighborhood called New Chicago, until Agnes, his newly divorced mother, decided to move to Los Angeles. Po was 5 years old.
They settled on 27th Street in West Central L.A., in a neighborhood that bordered Crenshaw and Arlington Heights. When Agnes married Clinton Lee a few years later, Arthur took his stepfather's surname. He began music lessons -- playing accordion first, then organ.
Lee formed a musical alliance with fellow Memphis transplant Johnny Echols. By their mid-teens, Echols, on guitar, and Lee, on organ, had joined Buddy Miles and Jimmy James (who would re-emerge later as Jimi Hendrix) to form the house band at the Californian Club, where stars like Sam Cooke, B.B. King, and Percy Sledge would perform.
"We started doing weddings, bar mitzvahs, frat parties," recalls Echols today. "We also worked for Phil Spector on some small sessions -- Sonny Bono, some early Righteous Brothers, the Crystals."
"We were outlaws," proclaims Echols of the early days, when segregation was still a fact of life and no one knew what to make of the two black kids from West Central L.A. who straightened their hair and wore strange clothing then began hanging out on the Sunset Strip. "Arthur and I were interested in doing our own thing, and we joined right into that scene. We were the only people of color right there in the thick of it."
After a few months studying the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and other groups on the Hollywood scene, Lee and Echols recruited bassist Johnny Fleckenstein and drummer Don Conka for a group that they christened the Grass Roots, after a line Lee discovered in The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
"I have the ability to do just about any kind of music I want to do, and I wasn't about to compromise," Lee told interviewer Phil Gallo in the mid-1990s. "I realized I could sound like the Byrds and the Beatles, and I said, 'Hey, this is you. I was the first so-called black hippie." Abandoning the organ for a harmonica and a tambourine -- this way, he could literally front the band -- Lee stepped into the spotlight for the first time in his life.
The Grass Roots became Love in April 1965. From the beginning, Love had a formidable, breakthrough sound that fused Byrds-styled guitar structures with a furiously propulsive energy.
Ensconced in his Laurel Canyon home, perched far above the Sunset Strip, Lee wrote lyrics like "Sitting on a hillside/Watching all the people die/I'll feel much better on the other side," which led him to proclaim to journalist Ben Edmonds years later, "By Forever Changes, I thought I was going to die at that particular time, so those were my last words."
"We were living in a strange time -- the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the police out of control, and Kent State -- and our music was actually a mirror image of the volatility," Echols says today. "Arthur and I thought that any day the Army was gonna snatch us up and send us over to Vietnam to fight. We were lucky -- both of us went down to the draft board looking iconoclastic and totally anti-authority. They could see our attitudes, and they put us on the bottom of the list."
Love, the band's debut, became Elektra's first rock album release in 1966, and the band moved en masse into the Castle, Bela Lugosi's old Los Feliz estate. Rehearsals took place in the library; Jimi Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane would drop by and stay for weeks.
As woodshedding began on what would become Forever Changes, the lack of live work -- culminating in Lee's decision to disregard an invite to play the Monterey Pop Festival -- provoked something of a cash crisis. Meanwhile, Lee's interests were becoming more morbid and grotesque. Then there were the drugs ...
"Everybody was involved with drugs -- not just one person in Love, but everybody," maintains Echols, "but it was no more so then than it had been before. We were able to keep it together."
Despite the strained circumstances that produced it, Forever Changes sounds miraculously focused yet beautifully strange, the brass and strings perfectly integrated with Lee's songwriting vision. But even Lee was convinced he'd fired a dud, an impression that sales only seemed to confirm. Instead of rivaling the Beatles, the band became more like a West Coast Velvet Underground: a band more influential than popular.
"We desperately wanted them on the road. I asked and asked and asked," remembers Elektra's Jac Holzman, who supervised production on the record. "In California, we sold 150,000 copies of Forever Changes right off the bat, but we just couldn't convince Arthur to go out. He came to New York once and lasted for a few days before he grabbed a plane back to L.A. Arthur had no drive except in the studio. He felt the albums would survive whether he performed live or not."
There would be no more records like Forever Changes, because the musicians who created it disbanded almost immediately.
Lee milked the Love legacy for a few more years, changing record labels and -- finally -- touring Europe. There was a solo album, Vindicator, in 1972. It was a wild time, as Charlie Karp, then an 18-year-old guitarist in Lee's band, remembers.
"Arthur reminded me of the crazy Hollywood types," Karp says. "He lived in a movie-star home on the top of a mountain. The whole world was getting high, and there was stuff going on all over the house. Arthur asked me if I wanted to dig some hot wax, and I went into the kitchen, where there were albums burning on the stove.
"He had a huge wolfhound, and a whole flock of pigeons. In the living room, there was a sculpture that we called Mr. Corn Dick because it looked like a scarecrow. There was a sign on it that said 'Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix -- next to go, Arthur Lee.'"
Karp remembers an audition for the A&M label, which took place in Lee's home rehearsal space. "When the record-company people arrived, Arthur started singing through a classroom tape-recorder mic with a two-inch speaker. It sounded distorted, and I was horrified. I thought, What are you doing? I couldn't even look at these guys, but they signed the group."
A year later, Lee disappeared from the music scene altogether.
Over the next 20 years, Lee's music career came in fits and spurts.
In 1992, New Rose, a French label with a weakness for eccentric legends (such as Memphian Alex Chilton), proffered $40,000 for Lee to record an album. With Arthur Lee & Love in the can, optimistic New Rose boss Patrick Mathé booked a European tour, but it went bad when drugs got in the way.
Back in the States, a successful New York concert in 1994 got reviewed in Rolling Stone, and Lee went on several East Coast mini tours, but Lee never could keep things together long enough to capitalize on his status.
"I don't want to say he was demonic," David Anderle, a former Elektra employee, told MOJO in 1997, "but he was very manipulative and destructive. See, Arthur was not really a hippie, he was more of a punk. There was almost a gangster thing going on there -- rule by intimidation. But at the same time, he could be so sweet. It was totally schizoid, and maybe that did have something to do with being black in a white world."
In 1996, the careful balance was shattered when Lee went to jail on gun and drug charges. It was his "third strike." While out on bail, Lee went to Europe for a summer tour with a new backing band, Baby Lemonade, then came home and faced the wrath of the court.
Lee served six years on an eight-year sentence, and Echols says the incarceration really affected him. "He realized that things were out of his control," Echols says, "and in a way, it gave him time to be more introspective."
Lee came out of prison with ideas for new songs and was enthusiastic about resuming his live collaborations with Baby Lemonade. Better still, with Echols and a full orchestra on board, Lee re-created the entire Forever Changes album, live, at select shows in 2003.
Things continued on an even keel until last spring, when Lee failed to make a string of European dates. "Later, we realized that Arthur was feeling bad, that he was ill," says Echols, "but he didn't tell anybody. Arthur wasn't going to be playing for a while. He was hemorrhaging money in L.A., and he had this perfectly good house in Memphis that was paid for, so why not move back home?" Lee's mother had died while he was incarcerated, so he moved back to Memphis, to her house on Berkley Avenue.
Like the New Testament parable of the prodigal son, Lee was welcomed with open arms.
Almost immediately, a new Love began taking shape, with a set of musicians that included Roberson, a former drummer for the Reigning Sound, his ex-bandmate Alex Greene, Jack Yarber from the Oblivians, keyboardist Adam Woodard, and guitarists Ron Franklin and Alicja Trout.
But the physical downslide that began last summer continued until the leukemia diagnosis. "That had to be difficult," Echols says. "Arthur had always lived life by his terms and done everything the way he wanted to. All of a sudden, he wasn't in charge. He had to rely on other people. Diane and I kept his spirits up, talking about him playing again."
In June, Echols traveled to New York, where he performed alongside Robert Plant, a longtime Love fan, at a benefit concert. Ian Hunter, Nils Lofgren, Yo La Tengo, and Ryan Adams also played the Beacon Theatre concert, which raised $50,000 for Lee's medical expenses. Afterward, Echols flew to Memphis to fill Lee in on all the details.
"It was overwhelming," says Echols, "for Arthur to see how much people really cared. The only sad thing was that he wanted to be part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He deserves to be there. All the groups that Love influenced have been inducted. It would've made him so happy to be recognized by his peers."
On Thursday, August 3rd, Lee gave up the fight. In Memphis, his funeral was a small affair -- just Diane Skorman Lee, Roberson, and a handful of relatives, friends, and associates. After the funeral, Lee's coffin was shipped to its final resting spot: Los Angeles' Forest Lawn Cemetery.
At the funeral, a straw cowboy hat and a fancy black top hat sat atop the coffin, while "AndMoreAgain," off Forever Changes, played in the background. "When you've given all you had/And everything still turns out/Bad, and all your secrets are your own/Then you feel your heart beating/Thrum-pum-pum-pum," Lee sang.
Then a cousin, Peggy Porter, stood up and talked about Po. "He had a heart of gold and felt as deeply as anyone else, but he always found some way to make us laugh when we would have rather cried," she said. "Life, in general, will miss him more than we ever will."
Later that night, Roberson sat in a booth at a tiny Midtown bar and tried to collect his thoughts. "I know there are people out there who will say that he was a dick, but we all stick our hands in that fire occasionally," he said. "Don't examine those moments in time, the rash decisions or the youthful exuberances. Look at Arthur the mystic. He was just like Elvis Presley and John Lennon, who were always looking for what's on the other side. The reason there is an Arthur Lee is that he felt more than what you or I feel. He was a searcher, a seeker.
"I knew Arthur for the very last of his 61 years. I was set up to meet this guy who could clear a room in three minutes. I wondered, Can I even create a band with this guy? But instead, I met a humble Arthur, a guy who was in love with life, a guy who told me that he loved me. For those few months that we got to rehearse, we were happy to be in the same room with one of our heroes, trying to make him sound good. We would've been happy to play for free."
Echols says: "The Doors had Jim Morrison, the Stones had Mick Jagger, and we had Arthur Lee."