Unsung Guitar Greats: Leigh Stephens
Now credited with planting the seeds of heavy metal music, Blue Cheer was a San Francisco-based psychedelic blues-rock band that came onto the counterculture scene in 1966, blasting their way onto the airwaves in 1967 with their primal, fuzzed-out version of the Eddie Cochran classic, "Summertime Blues.”
After some initial shuffling of personnel to conform to the power trio image founded by Eric Clapton’s Cream, and emulated by Jimi Hendrix’s Experience, Blue Cheer quickly established themselves as the epitome of San Francisco psychedelia with singer/bassist Dickie Peterson, guitarist Leigh Stephens, Paul Whaley on drums, drawing an instant following.
Rumored to have taken their name from a variety of popular LSD (although Leigh claimed to have been the only member of the band who didn't use drugs) Blue Cheer was initially managed by a Hell’s Angel named Gut, which only to the band's hard-edged mystique. This mystique propelled the band to an unprecedented popularity never before seen in rock music up to this time, and setting the bar for every rock band to follow..
Including their smash single "Summertime Blues" (and B-side “Out of Focus”) on their debut album Vincebus Eruptum in 1968, the single peaked at #14 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, with the album reaching #11 on the Billboard 200 chart. And while this was the band’s only major hit, it established Leigh Stephens as a guitarist extraordinaire, and one who would forever change the sound of rock music; one who would inspire countless rock guitarists as few have. (Rock aficionados credit Leigh with adding the “assault” metal music is known for today.)
With Jim Morrison of the Doors fame endorsing the group, calling Blue Cheer "The single most powerful band I've ever seen,” Leigh left Cheer the following year (replaced by Randy Holden), and went on to form Silver Metre in 1969, with Pete Sears and Micky Waller, releasing one album, Silver Metre on National General Records--but never achieving the acclaim of Blue Cheer.
Over the next decade, Leigh disappeared from the limelight, while continuing to provide the template for the emerging metal music genre. One need only compare the sound produced by metal bands--and rock guitarists--of the 70s and 80s to hear Leigh’s sonic effect.
And while Leigh has become one of the most well-recognized guitarists--via the song and guitar work that has become an anthem of the 60s generation--he virtually disappeared from mainstream music, while continuing to influence music from behind the scenes. There are a number of underground and bootleg recordings circulating the web that highlight Leigh’s amazing guitar prowess.
Recordings, demos, undergrounds, bootlegs:
Blue Cheer demo (1967): Recorded in late 1967, Blue Cheer did their first recording, a 3-song demo tape.
Vincebus Eruptum (1/68) Phillips SBL7839.
Single: “Summertime Blues / Out of Focus” (Phillips 2/68).
Live & Unreleased (Captain Trip CTCD-023) 1996: A live 1968 performance of Blue Cheer on the Steve Allen Show (“Summertime Blues / Out of Focus”), a live “Doctor Please,” and some later, post-Leigh demos.
Live & Unreleased Vol. 2 (Captain Trip CTCD-026) 1997: A live recording from 1968 at the San Jose Civic Center (extremely poor sound quality) and more rough demos.
The Matrix: “Summertime Blues / Doctor Please” (1968): Features a second overdubbed guitar at the end, with Leigh experimenting with sound.
The complete Steve Allen Show Blue Cheer interview.
Recording at Shrine Auditorium, 1968: “Second Time Around / Instrumental / Summertime Blues / Parchment Farm / Rock Me Baby / Satisfaction / Out of Focus / Doctor Please.”
Video outtakes of a BBC performance of "Feathers From Your Tree" on a TV show (unknown).
Red Weather: Solo album, (2/69) Phillips SBL7897
Single: “Red Weather / Saki Zwadoo” (Phillips 40628, 1969, promo only)
Silver Metre (National General NG-2000, 1970): Singles, “Superstar / Now They've Found Me / Compromising Situation.”
Solo album, dubbed, And a Cast Of Thousands (Phillips/Charisma CAS1040).
Foxtrot (1974): Bootleg studio tracks while signed to Motown Records; got shelved, circulated on cassette.
Tere Mansfield demos, (1975?): Circulated on cassette, “ Now You're Free / Baby It's You / X-Rated And Tall / I Say Yes / Come On Over / Can't Find Love / Funky But Chic / Crossfire / Rock 'N' Roll Me / My Square Mile.”
Demos (1977?): “A Sailor's Tale / Heartbreakin' Woman / Goodtimes / The Ballad of Superboy / Rock And Roll Blackout / Steppin' Off The Track.”
Studio demo (bootleg): “Falling In Love Again / Jeune Felle Blue.”
Chronic with a "K" (1998): Ride The Thunder (ChroniCorp RRT001).
Leigh solo project demo (2004): “Theme From The Magnificent Seven / Rock Me Baby / Knock On Wood / Prelude In E - Into The Mystic / Rosarito Road Trip / Baby It's You / You Can't Handle The Truth / Tell Me Something Good / Dreamland / At Last”
Leigh is currently ranked number 98 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time.
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