BY MICHAEL TOLAND
When Arthur Lee recorded Black Beauty in 1973, he was at a crossroads. His solo career had fizzled with the failure of his album Vindicator, and he’d thought Love retired; he continued to gig, but his heart was no longer in the business of show. But the consolidation of a new band – guitarist Melvan Whittington, bassist Robert Rozelle, drummer Joe Blocker – re-lit the fire within, and took Lee back to the studio with a collection of old and new tunes to be released under the name of the old firm.
Unfortunately, Buffalo Records, the start-up indie label formed by Hair producer Michael Butler, folded right after Lee submitted the tapes, and the record has been lost to history since. Until now, that is, when a pair of acetates produced enough workable tracks to finally put Black Beauty together and out into the public space, courtesy the High Moon label (which also recently reissued Gene Clark’s classic, out of print Two Sides to Every Story album). Some of the material has circulated before on bootleg, but this marks the first official release.
As with all Lee releases post-1967, this one comes with a fair warning: this ain’t Forever Changes part whatever. (Yes, that album is a masterpiece, but c’mon, folks – get over it. Just because Lee never repeated it doesn’t mean he didn’t make good music after it.) That said, it’s not quite in the same space as the hard-edged blues rock Lee had explored with the post-Changes versions of Love, either. Lee’s new musicians were as comfortable with then-contemporary R&B as rock, and while nothing here approaches the slicker soul sounds to be found on 1974’s Reel to Real, recorded with the same band, there’s definitely a tighter groove and a looseness to the arrangements that usually comes from folks who’ve gotten funky a time or two.
“Stay Away” and “Midnight Sun” feature the Hendrixian rock of records like False Start, but with an airiness that opens up the sound beyond mere hard rock. “Can’t Find It,” “See Myself in You” and “Lonely Pigs” ride relaxed rhythms while still giving Whittington room to roam. “Young & Able (Good & Evil)” and “Product of the Times” (recorded live with a previous Love) rock more aggressively, backing up the biting social commentary. “Skid,” written by Lee’s personal assistant Riley Racer and poet Angela Rackley, adds muscle to the band’s old folk-rock style for a tuneful highlight. As a reminder of the eclecticism of side one of Da Capo, “Beep Beep” adds a Caribbean groove, while “Walk Right In” rocks up an ancient Gus Cannon folk song that Lee had loved since childhood. Throughout, Lee and company sound focused and on point, knowing where they’re going and how to get there. It’s a shame that music biz shenanigans sidelined this album; while it’s unlikely Black Beauty would have set the charts on fire, it would have added considerable might to the band’s legacy while Lee was still alive.
Besides rescuing the audio from decaying acetates, High Moon tricks out this edition with a pile of extras. “Thomasine & Bushrod” is the theme song for an obscure film of the same name, and sounds of a piece with Love’s mid-‘60s peak. One of this Love’s rare live shows contributes three more previously unreleased songs; the quality of the raging “Every Time I Look Up, I Look Down,” the melancholy “Nothing” and the bluesy “Keep On Shining” makes up for the substandard audio fidelity. The straightforwardly rocking “L.A. Blues” comes from a mid-’90s session with the band Ventilator,
Furthermore, the package includes a 22-minute interview with Lee from 1974, lengthy liner notes by noted rock writer Ben Edmonds and Lee’s wife Diane, and a nice hardback case in which to wrap it all up. (The LP version comes on 180gm vinyl and is housed in a beautiful tip-on sleeve.) After decades in the ether, Black Beauty gets the issue it deserves.
DOWNLOAD: “Skid,” “Midnight Sun,” “Young & Able (Good & Evil)”