An Interview with legendary bassman and producer Leo Lyons of Ten Years After

"Everybody at some time feels sad, angry, happy, in love or lost and in despair. That's why the blues appeals."

Leo Lyons: Τen Υears Αhead Of Ηis Τime

Leo Lyons was born in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire UK in November 1943. He became a professional musician at the age of 16 and as a founder member of the band Ten Years After has been an on-stage eyewitness to some of the most pivotal moments in Rock and Roll history. In 1962 with his band The Jaybirds along with Alvin Lee he performed at The Star Club, Hamburg, Germany where only a week earlier The Beatles had polished up their act. Leo was hired to play in the club's house band with Tony Sheridan and yet still found time to guest at the Top Ten Club with guitarist Albert Lee.
The Jaybirds returned home to England, made the move from their hometown to London and secured their first recording contract with producer Joe Meek. From 1963 to 1966, as well as playing and managing The Jaybirds, Leo worked as a session musician, toured as a sideman with pop acts of the day, appeared in a play in London's West End and played a residency with jazzman Denny Wright. In 1967 with a name change to Ten Years After, a residency at famous Marquee Club and a debut album out, the band were soon to build up a huge following in Europe. Fillmore's founder Bill Graham heard the band and immediately sent a letter offering to book TYA into his historic venues in San Francisco and New York. They were also one of the first rock groups to be part of the Newport Jazz Festival. At Newport and on tour performed with Nina Simone, Roland Kirk, Miles Davis and other jazz legends barnstorming across the US. Leo's passion for the recording process led him into record production. He has produced records for UFO, Procol Harem, Motorhead, Chris Farlowe, and many more. Other projects include stage musicals, cartoon soundtracks, film and music videos. After years of being of a workaholic Leo turned down all work offers, retired, bought a farm in the Cotswolds and settled down to enjoy a quiet life. Music was too much in his blood for him to be completely inactive and he continued song writing and recording in his home studio on the farm. His songs came to the attention of Nashville publishers Hayes Street Music who signed him as a staff writer and in 1998 after several years of commuting from the UK he moved to Nashville where he is active as a songwriter, musician with his new project Hundred Seventy Split and record producer/engineer.


Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

Blues music that originated in the Deep South is the roots of nearly all forms of popular music including Rock and Country. As a very young child I played Leadbelly and Jimmy Rogers records on my Uncles old wind up gramophone. That was the start of my musical journey.

I cannot experience being an African-American slave working on a plantation but we all feel sadness, joy, love, anger, hurt and despair at some time or other. I use my own experiences to express what’s in my heart and soul and that’s the blues for me. Music should have a healing and energizing effect. I know that’s how it is for me. I could not live without music.

When was your first desire to become involved with the music and what are your first musical memories?

Listening to records on my Uncle’s old wind up record player.


Which was the first concert you ever went and what were the first songs you learned?
Del Shannon when he first toured the UK in the late 1950's. First song learned was probably a Duane Eddie instrumental.

"The optimism that we could make the World a better place."

What first attracted you to the Blues and what does the BLUES mean to you?

When I first heard Leadbelly. The blues for me is the perfect way to express how I feel. It’s the roots of rock music.


Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
There's a time when a musician taps into the creative source and feels like he or she can play anything. Those moments are rare but great when it happens. Worst moment I don't recall.


Tell me a few things about the beginning of “The Jaybirds”?
The first professional band that Alvin and I played in. We were a local band from Nottinghamshire, United Kingdom. With personnel changes seven years later we became Ten Years After.


Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?
Spending time with my sons when they were growing up. In music I love a challenge. I don't look back and I’m enjoying playing right now more than ever. I have a new band ‘Hundred Seventy Split’ and this is exciting for me.


Why do you play BASS? What does the music offered you?
I started playing bass by default. My first band had too many guitar players and I had no amp. It was fortunate that I took up bass I love it. I enjoy playing acoustic guitar for fun but I could not imagine being a guitar player in a band.


Where did you pick up your style and in which tune can someone hear the best of your work?
Progress I hope is ongoing. I am constantly trying to improve my playing. That's the fun of it. My style has developed over the years. I could not judge my best work. I always feel I could have done things better.


"My fears are for the future of mankind. I don’t know what I can do about that except to treat the people I meet with respect and tolerance."         Photo by Noel Buckley

How do you describe Leo Lyons sound and what characterize your music philosophy?

I have around eighteen basses and a half a dozen amps. I am always trying to find the perfect sound. I know I never will but its fun to try. Every song I’ve ever heard has influenced my playing style. I play every day to keep my fingers working and my mind open to the creative source. I believe that inspiration is out there on the ether for us all to tap into. I play off the top of my head. I try to get in the zone, as athletes would say. When it works it’s a wonderful feeling.

I flew up to New York a few years ago to play bass on a Leslie West record. I laid down what I thought were some tasteful bass parts, no doubt influenced by my time spent recording in Nashville. How was it Leslie I asked? Leslie replied “It’s good but I want you to play over the top like you did with Ten Years After” So that’s my style ‘Playing over the top’ I don’t mean to show off; It’s the natural energy I feel from the music.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician and producer?

Every experience I’ve ever had has formulated the way I am. We all need to learn from our mistakes and also listen to other people’s opinions whilst having the strength to believe in our own convictions.


Tell me about the beginning of TYA. How did you choose the name and where did it start?
I saw an advertisement for a book called 'Ten years after Suez'. It was about the British attempt to break the blockade of the canal.  I thought Ten Years After would be an interesting name for a band. The others agreed. As I said earlier TYA stated out as ‘The Jaybirds”


Of all the many albums of TYA made, what was your favorite, what characterizes the sound of TYA?
Probably Ssssh or Recorded Live. TYA never really tied down its musical style like a lot of bands. We recorded country, Jazz, Blues, Rock and Roll, Pop and Psychedelic songs on our albums.

"Music should have a healing and energizing effect. I know that’s how it is for me. I could not live without music."

What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

Woodstock of course and also the first few gigs at the Marquee Club in London. After that probably Madison Square Gardens, The Budokan, Tokyo or The Royal Albert Hall London.


Do you have any amusing tales to tell of your gig in Woodstock, who ate the watermelon...?
Nobody in the band ate the watermelon. I think we suspected it might have been laced with LSD.


Any comments about your experiences in Fillmore, when did you first meet Bill Graham and how do you describe him?
I met Bill in 1968. I liked and respected him a lot. He was an entrepreneur who loved music. He looked after the musicians and made sure everything was there at his venues to enable a good performance. He would not tolerate unprofessionalism from artistes.


You've worked with Churchill & Lee for over forty five years. How has it been working with them?   
It's been mostly fun and sometimes it’s been frustrating like every close relationship. Playing together gives TYA that specific sound.


Do you remember any funny from the recording hours with TYA?
I think TYA were sometimes a little too relaxed in the studio but then again maybe that’s the secret of our sound.

"I listen to many records but I think a musician needs to look into his own soul to discover the meaning of blues."                     Ten Years After (1971) Photo by Ed Caraeff

Why did you think that TYA continued to generate such a devoted following? Three words to describe TYA

I often ask that question myself but I don't really know. Three/four words to describe TYA? ‘We’re very lucky’.


Are there any memories of TYA that you’d like to share with us?
I think it has to be the records and the many gigs we’ve played. Fans often tell me about a particular song that’s important to them or a particular gig they’ve been too.


Who are your favorite bands from the ‘60s and of all the people you’ve meeting with, whom do you admire the most?
There were many great and influential bands from that period. I enjoyed many but have no particular favorites.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

I think meeting and hearing so many great musicians has been the most important experience. The best advice given I read on a book of matches. “A successful man is one who stands up one more time than he falls down” It has kept me going through many disappointments.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?

I listen to many records but I think a musician needs to look into his own soul to discover the meaning of blues. Otherwise it would be just copying a genre of music.

"Every experience I’ve ever had has formulated the way I am. We all need to learn from our mistakes and also listen to other people’s opinions whilst having the strength to believe in our own convictions."                   Photo by Noel Buckley

What are the blues standards that have any personal feelings for you and what are your favorites?

Etta James "I'd Rather Go Blind", Muddy Waters "I’ve Got My Mojo Working", Howlin Wolf "Smokestack Lightning", Sonny Boy Williamson "Help Me Baby"


What is the “Think” that you miss most of the ‘60s and ‘70s?
The optimism that we could make the World a better place.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future?

Most of the music I hear on the radio these days is disposable, manufactured and homogenized. I'd like to hear more music played from the heart. I hope that I can make music for a few more years. My fears are for the future of mankind. I don’t know what I can do about that except to treat the people I meet with respect and tolerance.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I’d like all potential pop stars to be able to actually sing and play their instruments without using studio tricks and techniques. That would present a completely different playing field. There are young talented musicians out there who need to be heard.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is?

Everybody at some time feels sad, angry, happy, in love or lost and in despair. That's why the blues appeals.


How did you first meet Miles Davis?
We played a few shows together in the late sixties and early seventies. He would not remember me but I remember he was not very approachable.

"The blues for me is the perfect way to express how I feel. It’s the roots of rock music." 

Photo by Noel Buckley

Who of the people you have worked with, do you considers the best friend?

I have no comment.


How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?
The music business has always gone round and round in circles. Nowadays there’s more money to be made for a few lucky people. I see more budding artistes chasing after fame and fortune rather than working hard at becoming successful musicians.


What do you think was the main characteristic of your personality that made you a musician & producer?
I love music and I’m prepared to work hard at my chosen profession. I was never put off by setbacks and never gave up. Most of all I was lucky.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of TYA with Hundred Seventy Split?

The connection is the music that Alvin Lee and I started playing together over fifty years ago as founding original members of Ten Years After. HSS is a continuation and development of my musical journey. I believe that Joe Gooch and I together with drummer Damon Sawyer are carrying on the TYA legacy.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the music circuits?

The long distances we have to travel are tough but I always have fun when we tour. I like the music, the people I work with and last but not least the audiences we play for. I’m always flattered and humbled when fans tell me that the music we’ve played means so much to them in their own lives.

"I use my own experiences to express what’s in my heart and soul and that’s the blues for me."

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

I’d like to have been on a Sun session and heard Elvis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash or Carl Perkins makes their first records.

Leo Lyons  - official website 

Hundred Seventy Split - official website   

Photo Credits: Noel Buckley / All rights reserved

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Tags: After, Davis, Graham, Interview, Leo, Leslie, Limnios, Lyons, Miles, Ten, More…West, Woodstock, Years

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