It’s not easy being a teenager in 2021. It could even give you the blues. What it rarely does, however, is make you want to play the blues, the musical style that emerged from Black communities in the American South at the turn of the 20th century and went on to form the foundation of 1960s and 1970s rock. Toby Lee, a 16-year-old from Oxfordshire who has been celebrated by such greats as Buddy Guy and Joe Bonamassa as the best blues guitarist of his generation, is a rare exception.
“I’m going to be honest: I’m quite a nerd,” Toby says, actually looking quite stylish in a flat cap and patterned shirt as he speaks from his parents’ living room in Oxfordshire, a custom-built Gibson 335 electric guitar leaning on the wall behind him. “If I’m not playing guitar, I’m taking a guitar or a pedal apart to figure out how it works. I have a mechanical mind and I’m into things my friends aren’t into, but I quite like that. It’s something different to talk about.”
Toby has toured across America and Scandinavia, playing everywhere from BB King’s Blues Club in Memphis (aged ten) to the Blues Heaven festival in Denmark (at the ripe age of 13). He landed the part of the shy guitar prodigy Zack Mooneyham in the West End production of School of Rock when he was 12 and appeared on Ellen DeGeneres’s talk show a year later. His videos have had more than 400 million views.
He is a member of the Gibson Alliance, a group of about 25 top players — fellow members include Slash of Guns N’ Roses and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top — and the guitar company even built him a Gibson 335 electric guitar according to his specifications, right down to the age of the wood.
Like all the blues greats, however, Toby has a hard road to travel. While figures such as Bessie Smith and Skip James dealt with jealous lovers and societal scorn, Toby has been facing the challenges of studying for GCSEs and trying to get his schoolfriends interested in the music of the 1930s blues pioneer Robert Johnson. “I give them one of my earphones and say, ‘Listen to this,’ ” he says of his mission to spread the word of the blues through rural Oxfordshire. “And they reply, ‘Get this out of my ear.’ ”
“I have a mechanical mind and I’m into things my friends aren’t into, but I quite like that. It’s something different to talk about.”
On “The Search for Happiness,” a slow blues from his remarkable debut album, Aquarius, on which Toby pulls notes out of his guitar like teardrops, he sings: “Everybody said that you were no good.” Thinking how sad it is that one so young should be heartbroken, I ask him whom the song is about.
“Going back five or six years, I was posting videos of myself playing BB King while wearing onesies,” he replies. “I was making all these crazy faces as I played guitar, which I can’t control, and there were negative comments like, ‘How can a nine-year-old play the blues? Why should he be able to do this?’ That’s where the lyric came from. A lot of people didn’t agree with a kid playing the blues. That could have stopped me, but why should it? It’s what I love to do.”
Why indeed. Aquarius isn’t pure blues — a song called “Take the Wheel” is classic drive-time rock and “You Don’t Know Me,” another response to detractors leaving nasty comments on YouTube, could have come from a Led Zeppelin album — but the album is rooted in it and Toby clearly has a deep feeling for the century-old style. His journey into this music began at the age of four, when his grandmother bought him a ukulele. It took off when he started attending sessions at the Witchwood School of Rock, an after-school club near Witney designed to inspire local children to pick up instruments and form bands.
“I would head over there and jam,” he says. “For a long time my playing was a bit sloppy, and one day it just clicked: I understood it. It opened up a world of music and from then on I could just be me, expressing myself through the guitar without thinking too much about it. Around the same time I heard some blues on a playlist and realized that the music we were playing at the jam session was rooted in 12-bar blues.” How old was Toby when he had this eureka moment? “I was seven.”
You might think this is a classic case of a child prodigy forced by his parents to practice scales for hours every day while the other children are out having fun in the park, but the whole thing has been as much of a surprise to Toby’s parents as anyone. His father, Terry, is a photographer, his mother, Tracey, is a business manager for Capita, and although both like classic rock and have always had instruments in the house, Toby’s journey into the blues didn’t come from them.
“It is like he was born to do it,” Terry says. “He goes off into his own little world when he’s playing guitar and for years we didn’t know what it was all about. We certainly never forced it; it’s more that we told him to put the guitar away because it was annoying the neighbors. And he’s not actually a very disciplined player, which is why doing School of Rock was good for him. He was always being told off for over-soloing and going off script.”
By his own admission, Toby is far from being a classical virtuoso. He doesn’t have a great knowledge of music theory, he doesn’t have perfect pitch and most of the time he doesn’t even know what key he’s playing in. “I’ve only just found out what key is where on the fretboard,” he says. “I have moments when I’m up onstage with the band and I haven’t been told what key I’m in, so I just figure it out and go from there. I certainly never know what note I’ll play next.”
When he was 14 Toby recorded a song called “Real Love” on which he claimed: “All I need is your love to get me through the day.” The problem was, his voice hadn’t broken at the time. “He sounded like a chipmunk,” Terry says. “We had to do a new version of the song for the album because it is hard enough already to be taken seriously as an authentic bluesman when you are a 16-year-old ginger kid from England.”
Nonetheless, Toby’s guitar playing has proven to be a good earner and he has put the money made from touring into an even more age-inappropriate interest. It began when he was ten, after he used the fee from an American children’s talent show called Little Big Shots to buy a tractor — not one from Tonka toys, but an actual 1951 Massey Ferguson tractor.
“Isn’t that what every ten-year-old boy would do?” he reasons. “I’ve also got a VW camper van and a 1966 VW Beetle that I’m restoring. And when I used to go to nursery school there was an abandoned MG Midget outside a house and its number plate was POO. I chuckled at that and always dreamt about owning this little car, but just before Christmas we went past and the car wasn’t there. I looked on eBay and found Poo the Midget for sale, so I bought this rusty piece of junk.”
When he was ten, Toby used the fee from an American children’s talent show to buy a tractor — not one from Tonka toys, but an actual 1951 Massey Ferguson tractor.
Is it worth pointing out that Toby is too young to drive any of these? “I’m trying to get the MG ready to be my first car when I turn 17. I’ve got ten months to go.”
Watching footage of Toby jamming through a rendition of “Strange Brew” by Cream with Buddy Guy in Denmark when he was 13 or being announced as “one of the best guitar players I know” before blasting off on a solo with Bonamassa at the Royal Albert Hall in London when he was 14, you’d think he might get nervous.
“What’s the point in being nervous when you can be excited?” he asks, not unreasonably. “I love doing it so much that when someone wants you to go on their stage I think, ‘Is this really happening?’ For that reason I just enjoy it, and if I play with someone like Buddy Guy I learn a lot from seeing what he is doing. In the past I’ve had a tendency to play too fast, but Buddy taught me that you can play one note and let the sound fill the room.”
Terry says that Toby is a homebody, which means he has to stop wailin’ the blues every time his mom has a conference call to make. He is also polite and genial, so it is clear that he hasn’t sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for blues mastery as Johnson was said to have done at a crossroads in Greenville, Mississippi. For some reason the blues speaks to him deeply anyway. It is a remarkable thing to witness.
“I’m a normal kid. We’re a small family, I don’t have any grandparents or brothers and sisters and at home it’s just me, Mum and Dad, and three crazy dogs,” Toby says of his daily life. “At school my friends treat me as Toby, not the guitarist, which is good because it brings me back down when I’m feeling high from all the stuff that’s going on.”
The immediate future for Toby holds mock GCSEs. Then, if world events allow, he will be back on the road, doing what he loves best. “I don’t know what will happen with music for me,” he concludes. “All I know is that I love that feeling of being onstage, seeing like-minded people reacting to you playing. Guitars are my passion, my hobby, my life.”
Toby Lee’s debut album, Aquarius, will be released on June 11
He is believed to have dozed off on an ice floe before finding himself in Ireland, from where he popped over to Wales for a bite to eat. Now, “Wally”, the Arctic walrus who has ventured farther south than others of his kind, is encountering a new problem: celebrity.
More people are visiting the Pembrokeshire coastline to catch a glimpse of the juvenile walrus, officials said yesterday. In response, his location is being kept secret to stop him being disturbed. He was last seen at the bottom of a cliff near Broad Haven South beach over the weekend.
Chris Taylor, a ranger for the Pembrokeshire coast national park, urged the public to avoid disturbing the walrus because he would need to conserve energy. “The reason they come to shore is to rest so we just need to keep our distance. If you see a walrus moving its head or looking at you, you’re too close.” Taylor added: “A lot of animals spend time exploring different feeding areas and probably different breeding colonies as well. It’s probably got some sense that it should be further north. It will have a sense that the waters are a bit warmer here.”
Walruses typically feed at the bottom of shallow waters. They feed twice a day and can eat up to 6,000 clams in a single session. The species is susceptible to disturbance and noise.
The walrus appeared to be a juvenile weighing 450-650 pounds, compared with 1.2 tons for an adult male, according to the director of Welsh Marine Life Rescue, Terry Leadbetter, who was contacted about the initial sighting in Pembrokeshire. It is believed to be the same walrus that was spotted last week on rocks in Kerry, Ireland.
A walrus was last sighted on British shores in Scotland in May 2018. That was the first time that the species had been seen on the mainland in 54 years.