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

Born in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire in November 1943, Leo 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 guitarist 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.
Like The Beatles, The Jaybirds returned home to England, made the move from their hometown to London and secured their first recording contract with legendary record 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 poll winning British Jazz Guitarist Denny Wright. In 1967 with a name change to Ten Years After, a residency at London's famous Marquee Club and a debut album out on Deram Records, the band were soon to build up a huge following in Europe. Fillmore West and Fillmore East founder Bill Graham heard a copy of the band's first album and immediately sent a letter offering to book Ten Years After 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 TYA 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. In 1975 Chrysalis Records hired him as studio manager to re-equip and run Wessex Studios in London. He was later to go on and build two commercial studios of his own. He has produced records for UFO, Procol Harem, Frankie Miller, Richard and Linda Thompson, John Martin, Kevin Coyne, Motorhead, Chris Farlowe, Chevy 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 United Kingdom he moved to Nashville where he is active as a songwriter, musician and record producer/engineer.

Interview by Michael Limnios

When was your first desire to become involved in music & what are your first musical memories?
Listening to records on my Uncle’s old wind up record player.

What was the first gig you ever went to & 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.

What first attracted you to the Blues & 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 story 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 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, in which tune can someone hear the best of your work? Three words to describe your sound & your progress?
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.

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

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician & 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.

What are some of the 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, what kind of a guy was Bill?
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 him?   
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.

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 ‘60s & 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.

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

Any of blues standards have any real personal feelings for you & what are some of your favorite?
Etta James ' I'd Rather Go Blind', Muddy Waters' I’ve Got My Mojo Working', Howling Wolf ' Smokestack Lightning', Sonny Boy Williamson ' Help Me Baby'

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

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.

Difficult question, but who of the people you have worked with like producer, 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 is the main characteristic of you 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.

Leo Lyons  - official website                

Ten Years After's website

Photo Credits: Noel Buckley

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Tags: After, Graham, Interview, Leo, Limnios, Lyons, Ten, Woodstock, Years

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