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Guitar Heroes

Albert Lee drops in to Tucson to perform with his friend Mark Insley

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After 50 years of playing country, rock, rockabilly, bluegrass and blues, guitarist Albert Lee has pretty much given up on labels.

All those types of music have similar origins, he said during a recent interview on the phone from his home in the Los Angeles area.

"I guess it's rockabilly that I'm known best for, and I feel like I'm happiest playing country-rock, but it's all just music, and I enjoy it all," he said.

Lee's had a busy year so far.

The British-born guitarist and singer saw the release of his latest CD, Like This (with his band Hogan's Heroes) and played an accompanying European tour. There was the publication of his biography, Country Boy, by Derek Watts. He also broke his arm in Paris and had to spend almost five weeks away from the guitar. Next month, he and his band will take off for Europe again.

But Lee will find the time to play a one-off gig in Tucson this week. He'll team up with Tucson-based guitarist and singer-songwriter Mark Insley, an old friend, to play Saturday, Oct. 18, at Vaudeville.

It won't be the first time Lee has played with Insley.

"I've known Mark for 10 years now, I guess, from back when he was living here in L.A. I used to play a lot of local nightclub gigs--I still do, though not as often--and Mark would come down, and he would sit in. We'd work up some songs and get it going. Since then, I've played on some of his records, and we've kept in touch.

"Mark moved to Tucson, and called me one time and invited me out there. We've done it a couple of different times now. The first time I came out there, I did a set of my own, but we enjoy playing together much more, so this show will be a double-billing."

Lee added, "It's going to be a little unrehearsed, but I think it will be great fun."

For the upcoming Vaudeville gig, Los Angeles-based bass player Wayne Durham will join Lee and Insley on stage.

Lee is part of that generation of British musicians who emerged in the 1950s and '60s who so closely studied and practiced the sounds coming out of America--blues, rock, country--that they helped change the landscape of popular music.

Born in 1943 in a small town in Herefordshire, England, Lee grew up in London, listening to a wide variety of American records, including the work of Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Bill Monroe and B.B. King. He played in the 1960s with British band Chris Farlowe and the Thunderbirds, and the group Heads Hands and Feet before moving to the United States in 1974.

He became an in-demand session player in Los Angeles and Nashville. He played at the 2002 Concert for George, a tribute to George Harrison, and on the subsequent album release; he has also been a longtime member of Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings big band.

Over the years, Lee has made almost a dozen albums under his name, as well as a handful with Hogan's Heroes, which he founded with steel-guitar player Gerry Hogan in 1987. With Hogan's Heroes, Lee usually is in the spotlight, singing, playing guitar or pounding the piano like Jerry Lee.

Guitar buffs also can learn Lee's licks by watching the instructional DVDs in which he shows off his signature finger-style playing. And although Lee is well-known for making the Fender Telecaster cry and sing, he has also inspired the Albert Lee BFR guitar by Ernie Ball Music Man.

During his rare downtime at home in Malibu, Lee relaxes by working on his "three or four" vintage cars. Following our interview, he intended to take a close look at the brakes on his 1961 Ferrari.

Thanks to his versatility, tone and speed, Lee long has been known as "the guitar player's guitar player," which he finds mostly embarrassing.

"I always kind of cringe when I hear that," he said. "I mean, it is nice to have that respect from others, but I always think of other players in those terms. I've always mentioned the guys who really got me started."

Among his idols are journeyman players such Jimmy Bryant, Big Jim Sullivan and legendary country and pop session man James Burton.

Lee has had the pleasure of playing with Burton over the years, most recently as part of Brad Paisley's all-star guitar-jam single "Cluster Pluck." But their most notable connection? Lee replaced Burton in Emmylou Harris' Hot Band.

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