Arthur Lee’s career was marked with missed opportunities, self-sabotage and plenty of plain old shitty luck. Just as his band Love was on the ascendant following the release of their 1967 masterwork Forever Changes, the group fractured due to drugs and infighting. His efforts to move forward with a different lineup were met with indifference, and a potentially lucrative deal with Columbia Records in the early ‘70s was scuttled by his own narcotics use and erratic behavior.
By the time he had gotten his head clear enough (and brushed off the poor reviews and commercial failure of his solo album), he was able to put together an all-black backing band and record a batch of fuzzy and funky soul-rock tunes…only to have the company that promised to put the release out go under. In his frustration, Lee shelved the tapes and relegated the 1973 sessions to legendary “lost album” status.
The re-emergence of Black Beauty in wide circulation, first as a 2012 limited vinyl release and now this expanded CD, is an interesting story alone. Lee’s widow and former manager turned over every stone to find a copy of the master tapes, and were only able to find a copy of an acetate given to John Sterling, a guitarist who joined up with Love in 1974. It was the clearest version of these sessions yet, and provided the foundation for this reissue.
But this new edition also brings up some sorrowful “What if?” speculation. Compared to the drudgery of Lee’s solo album Vindicator and the spotty R&B of Reel To Real, the Love LP recorded with this same backing band, fans have to start imagining an alternate timeline where Black Beauty was given a proper release and Lee returned to his rightful place as one of rock’s true iconoclasts.
Heard today, the 10 studio tracks here feel very much inspired by the fertile musical period of the time. Two years earlier, Sly & the Family Stone had upped the ante of psychedelic soul with There’s A Riot Goin’ On. A year after that, the Rolling Stones exploded the possibilities of a rock record with Exile on Main St.. Lee and his band—guitarist Melvan Whittington, bassist Robert Rozelle, and drummer Joe Blocker—must have had these on their minds or turntables by the time they started writing this material.
The influence of Mick Taylor and Keith Richards’ crunchy guitar sound is all over Black Beauty’s “Stay Away,” and the midtempo gospel grind of “Can’t Find It” and “See Myself In You” bore the imprint of tunes like “Tumbling Dice.” The playful pulse of Riot, on the other hand, very well could have informed the tone of Lee’s cover of The Rooftop Singers’ “Walk Right In” and the proto-rocksteady track “Beep Beep.”
As with everything Lee put his songwriting mind and hands to, though, his original work quickly overshadows any marks of inspiration on these tunes. There are some harsh political currents flowing through much of this album, from his bitter screed against the Vietnam War (“Young & Able (Good & Evil)”) to his ironic ode to the L.A.P.D. (“Lonely Pigs”). And few are the artists that can hurt as deeply as Lee seems to on his Hendrix tribute “Midnight Sun” and “See Myself In You.”
If nothing else, recognition should be handed down to his incredible backing band. Whittington is a treasure, pealing off molten leads on “Midnight” and the three tracks from a 1974 Glasgow show included in this set. And Blocker and Rozelle remain sure-footed and true throughout, stomping or lightly stepping as needed. They help to goad Lee to go even further.
There’s every indication with Black Beauty, especially with the inclusion of the live material, that these heavier, sexier songs could have sent Lee’s career soaring. And, who knows, he could have continued to evolve this sound in fascinating ways. Alas the ever-mercurial Love leader tore up the playbook and took off on a new path that yielded far less outstanding results.