You can take me to the paradise

In 2017, my wife Judy was shopping for clothes with her friend Marie in a Malibu boutique store. When she came out of the dressing room in a fashionable blue jumpsuit, a woman standing nearby exclaimed, “Oh darling, you have to buy that. It looks great on you!” As Judy and Marie returned to the dressing room, Marie whispered, “Isn’t that Christine McVie?” Judy replied, “Sure is!”

We had all gone to see Fleetwood Mac the previous day at Dodger Stadium as part of “The Classic,” a two-day concert showcase of classic rock bands including Steely Dan, The Doobie Brothers, Earth Wind and Fire, Journey and The Eagles. McVie was staying in Malibu for a couple of days and, as luck would have it, had wandered into the store where Judy was shopping.

I tell this story to illustrate that, on that day, McVie was every bit the sort of warm, kind person she has been reputed to be throughout her life. As a member of one of the most successful bands in rock music history, she could have easily been one of the more self-absorbed rock stars who wouldn’t have paid any attention to a stranger trying on a new outfit. But she made a point of stopping and offering a friendly remark, making a lasting impression in the process.

Christine McVie in 1997

It was a sad day last week in our house when we heard that McVie had died at age 79. The cause of death was not reported, but she had been suffering from chronic scoliosis for some time, which affected her mobility and her ability to perform on stage.

In a Rolling Stone article six months ago, she responded to Mick Fleetwood’s hope that the band would reunite for one last farewell tour. “I don’t feel physically up for it,” she said. “I’m in quite bad health. I’ve got a chronic back problem which debilitates me. I stand up to play the piano, so I don’t know if I could actually physically do it. Touring is bloody hard work. What’s that saying? ‘The mind is willing, but the flesh is weak.'”

Said Fleetwood last week, “Part of my heart has flown away today. My dear sweet friend Christine McVie has taken to flight, and left us earthbound folks to listen to the sounds of that ‘songbird.’ I will miss everything about you, Chris.”

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Born in Lancashire, England, in 1943, Christine Anne Perfect was raised in a musical environment where her father and grandfather were accomplished performers (concert violinist and organist, respectively). She trained as a classical pianist until her older brother introduced her to rock and roll and the blues. “I couldn’t get enough of B.B. King, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, all those great Black American blues guys,” she recalled, falling in with other like-minded peers and singing in various struggling groups while attending art college, ultimately becoming keyboardist and singer with a London-based blues band called Chicken Shack.

“In 1966, we talked Christine into joining Chicken Shack,” Stan Webb, the band’s guitarist, said last week. “At that time there weren’t really any female band members on the British blues scene, so she was hesitant. I think she only joined to shut us up! Chicken Shack used the same studios as Fleetwood Mac in 1967-68, and it was there that Chris met Peter Green and his band. The rest is wonderful history. We sowed the seed, and from that seed grew this massive talent. I am grateful to have been a part of it. Rest In Peace, Chris. A legend never dies.”

Christine Perfect, 1969

In 1969, at the same time the original lineup of Fleetwood Mac had three Top Ten albums and four big hit singles on the UK charts, Chicken Shack, with Christine on lead vocals, charted at #14 with “I’d Rather Go Blind,” a smoldering cover of the Etta James blues track. By then, the bands became friendly, performing at the same clubs, often on the same bill. Christine took a fancy to Mac bassist John McVie — “He had a wonderful sense of humor, the most endearing person” — and the two married the same year.

Christine overlapped only briefly with Green, so you don’t see many photos of them together, but she was a huge fan of the original lineup and was keenly aware of Green’s contributionss. “He was massively talented, and just a wonderful guy as well,” she recalled. When Green abruptly left the group he founded in 1970, Chris was invited to join on keyboards and occasional vocals. Thanks to guitarists/songwriters Danny Kirwan and, later, Bob Welch, Fleetwood Mac moved on from the blues to a more rock-based sound, sometimes hard-edged but usually with a sweeter, melodic groove. McVie’s original songs started showing up on the group’s LPs during this stage — thoughtful tunes like “Show Me a Smile” on 1971’s “Future Games,” “Spare Me a Little” on 1972’s “Bare Trees,” “Just Crazy Love” on 1973’s “Mystery to Me” and the rousing title track on 1974’s “Heroes Are Hard to Find.”

The band in 1974: John McVie, Mick Fleetwood, Bob Welch, Christine McVie

The media have typically given short shrift to this phase of Fleetwood Mac, overshadowed by the fertile blues period (in the UK) before it, and the stratospherically successful yet emotionally fraught era that followed. I think that’s a shame, because it was on these albums in the 1971-74 period when Christine McVie was showing significant growth as a songwriter and singer, taking on the role of the calm, steadfastly rational center of the lineup she would end up holding throughout her tenure in the band.

By the time Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined the group in 1975, giving Fleetwood Mac a compelling variety of strong material from three talented singer-songwriters, Christine had hit her stride with her sunny brand of melodic songs like “Over My Head” (the group’s first Top 20 single in the US), “Warm Ways” and the contagious “Say You Love Me.” This winning streak continued on the multiplatinum “Rumours” LP with “Don’t Stop” (#3) and “You Make Loving Fun” (#9), and what would become her signature tune, the gorgeous ballad “Songbird.”

Discussing the genesis of “Songbird,” McVie said, “I woke up in the middle of the night and the song just came into my head. I got out of bed, played it on the little piano I have in my room, and sang it with no tape recorder. I sang it from beginning to end: everything. I can’t tell you quite how I felt; it was as if I’d been visited. It was a very spiritual thing.”

Fleetwood Mac in 1975: Lindsey Buckingham, Christine McVie, Mick Fleetwood, Stevie Nicks, John McVie

Want more? There were plenty to come: “Think About Me” and “Brown Eyes” from 1979’s “Tusk”; “Hold Me” and “Only Over You” from 1982’s “Mirage”; and especially “Little Lies” (#4) and “Everywhere” (#14) from 1987’s “Tango in the Night.” McVie’s “Save Me” from 1990’s “Behind the Mask” was Fleetwood Mac’s final appearance on the US Top 40.

Nicks wrote and sang some killer songs in her early days, and Buckingham is a formidable songwriter in his own right, but for the most part, I’ve always found Christine McVie’s songs and vocals more to my liking. She could write a gorgeous, commercially appealing hook, integrate it into a three-minute pop symphony and deliver it with that authoritative yet sweet voice, and I, for one, just lapped it up. A songbird, indeed.

While Christine typically maintained a sense of normalcy as the other band members were caught in various melodramas and rock-star excess, she was not without her own issues. She and John McVie divorced in 1976; she had a public romance with one of the band’s crew members and also Beach Boy Dennis Wilson; and a 15-year marriage to musician Eddy Quintela that ended badly.

McVie in 1984

In the 1980s, when both Buckingham and Nicks pursued solo careers on the side, Christine stuck her toe in the water with a solo album that yielded a Top Ten single, “Got a Hold on Me.” She enlisted the help of Buckingham and Fleetwood on a few tracks, as well as British luminaries Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood, but the LP performed only modestly. Said McVie at the time, “Maybe it isn’t the most adventurous album in the world, but I wanted to be honest and please my own ears with it. I tend to like the traditional sound: three-part harmonies, guitar and piano.” (Check out my Spotify playlist below to acquaint yourself with some of the strong tracks from that album.)

The group’s lineup was full of change in the 1990-1997 period, with Christine McVie, Nicks and Buckingham each leaving for a spell, and temporary replacements Billy Burnette and Rick Vito (and later Dave Mason and Bekka Bramlett) gamely filling in. Somehow, the volatile original lineup mended seemingly unmendable fences and reunited in 1997 for “The Dance,” a live performance that was recorded as a live album that then sparked a year-long tour. It seemed the band was back in the saddle.

In 1998, though, McVie decided she’d had enough, and amicably quit the group and the music business in general. “I thought, ‘I want to be home in England and live a normal, domestic life with roots,'” she said in 2014. “I bought a house in Kent, and it had to be rebuilt brick by brick, and I did that quite lovingly. Then my marriage (to Quintela) fell apart, and I found myself in this huge place, alone in the middle of nowhere, and I got myself in a bit of trouble. I fell down the stairs, hurt my back and started taking pills for the pain. La-di-da, one thing led to the other, and I got a bit isolated. I sought help with a therapist, and discovered I had other issues. Eventually I had to figure out what the hell I was going to do with my life. The answer was clear: I couldn’t just sit there in the country anymore, rotting away. I needed to find my way back to Fleetwood Mac.”

She did record one solo album during that time, 2004’s “In the Meantime,” which again had typically great McVie melodies and vocal performances but was almost completely ignored, a fate for which she claims some responsibility. “I’d developed a fear of flying, which hindered my ability to promote the album or tour with my own band,” she noted. “I’ve never felt like I was a solo artist. I’ve always preferred to be part of a group. I’ve never really had the desire to be the center of attention. It just made me uneasy to headline a solo tour.” (Again, I think that’s a crying shame — I urge you to listen to the music from that album on the playlist below.)

Her final foray into the studio came in surprising fashion when she partnered with Buckingham in 2017 for “Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVie,” an enjoyable collection of tunes by the two songwriters, released after attempts fell through to record a new Fleetwood Mac album with songs from Nicks as well.

McVie and Nicks in 1997

McVie had said she and Nicks hit it off right away when Nicks joined the band in 1975, and they became close during their long months on the road during the band’s peak years, but they had significant differences. “Stevie really had her feet on the ground, along with a tremendous sense of humor, which she still has,” she said in 1984. “But she developed her own fantasy world somehow, which I’m not part of. We really haven’t socialized much.”

Todd Sharp, a veteran American guitarist who worked closely with Christine on her 1984 solo LP, had this to say in the wake of her passing: “She asked me to write songs with her, put a band together and make a record in England. Somebody pinch me! Chris, you left this place better than you found it, and your music and voice will live on forever. I will never forget the opportunity you offered me and the confidence you instilled in me. I will never forget your beautiful soul, your grace, friendship and generosity.”

Fleetwood Mac, with McVie still in the fold, did one last tour in 2019. Her final stage appearance, as it turned out, came in February 2020, just before the COVID pandemic hit, when she participated in a tribute concert at the London Palladium following the death of Peter Green.

McVie’s final LP (2022)

Even as her health was flagging earlier this year, McVie stayed busy by re-recording some of the overlooked tracks from her two solo albums, plus an orchestrated rendition of “Songbird,” and released it several months ago as “Songbird (A Solo Collection).”

Mike Campbell, former member of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers who played guitar in Fleetwood Mac for that 2019 tour, said last week, “Dear, sweet Christine has left us…..that voice, those eyes, that smile. No one like her in the universe.  I remember in rehearsal once after playing ‘I’d Rather Go Blind,’ she looked at me and said, ‘I like playing the blues with you, Mike.’ I’ve never met anyone with such an angelic aura. Always so kind to everyone. We will all miss you so. No one could ever fill those shoes.”

Christine McVie reflected on her time in Fleetwood Mac by saying, “Even though I am quite a peaceful person, I did enjoy that storm. Although it’s said that we fought a lot, we actually did spend a lot of our time laughing.”

Rest in peace, Christine. Thanks for all the deeply satisfying music you added to my music collection.

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Some readers might find this 80-song playlist rather daunting, but I wanted to provide a complete overview of her songs to help readers understand the breadth of her songwriting career. In addition to every song she wrote and sang for Fleetwood Mac, there are several tracks from her time with Chicken Shack, her three solo albums and her 2017 project with Lindsey Buckingham.

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/2aQG5Bww5HkbgR35L7ch7e?si=783bcd0fdf34488a

You leave me, ahhh, breathless

The final soldier in the original rock and roll army has fallen.

First were Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens, taken shockingly early in a plane crash in 1959, at only 27 and 17, respectively.

The next to leave, of course, was Elvis Presley, who died way too young in 1977 at 42.

Bill “Rock Around the Clock” Haley passed away in 1981 at age 55. Carl “Blue Suede Shoes” Perkins left us in 1998 at 65, and Bo Diddley made it to 79 until his death in 2008.

The other kingpins of the original rock and roll gallery lasted well into their 80s. In 2017, Chuck Berry, actually reached 90 when he died, and Fats Domino was 89. Little Richard died at 87 in 2020.

Last week, we lost Jerry Lee Lewis, the last of these true trailblazers, at 87.

They were a bold bunch, these guys, pushing an exhilarating, then-scandalous new genre of popular music when all around them was still non-threatening ballads and bubblegum. They had taken the raw excitement of rhythm-and-blues and merged it with country, folk and gospel to create an inexorable juggernaut that inspired hundreds, even thousands of musicians in the half-century that followed.

Lewis, in particular, was a sight and a sound to behold. I never had the opportunity to see him perform, but I’ve always had a profound respect for, and admiration of, the handful of monumental hit singles that established his place in the rock and roll pantheon.

You had to be something of a renegade to pick up the mantle and play rock and roll in the 1950s, but Lewis pushed the envelope even more than his compatriots. He sang and pounded the piano with reckless abandon, but he also stood defiantly against the social mores of that era, even when he knew he was rolling the dice and jeopardizing the career he was aiming for.

In 1958, after a year or two flirting with superstardom, he secretly married Myra Gale Brown, his third wife, though he hadn’t yet reached age 23. But that wasn’t the worst of it. Brown was his first cousin, the daughter of his bass-playing uncle, J.W. Brown…and she was only 13. This might’ve been legal in Louisiana, where Lewis was born and raised, but in most of the country, this was immoral and unacceptable. Radio stations banned his songs, promoters dropped him from the concert circuit, and Lewis found himself persona non grata for many years to come.

Lewis with Myra Gale Brown

Born to Elmo and Mamie Lewis in Ferriday, Louisiana in 1935, Lewis was brought up in a dirt-poor environment in a country shack, but the family scraped together enough money for a third-hand upright piano to pass along the family’s musical genes to the next generation. Lewis and his cousin Mickey Gilley (a successful country singer-songwriter in the ’70s and ’80s) took piano lessons together, along with another cousin, Jimmy Lee Swaggart, who found fame and notoriety as an evangelist. Before he was a teenager, Lewis showed an extraordinary aptitude for the piano, merging gospel and boogie-woogie styles he had heard at church and on the radio. Indeed, these two influences created a sort of split personality in Lewis that was never truly resolved.

He was thrilled by how the boogie-woogie music made him feel, particularly when he heard it performed at his uncle Lee Calhoun’s club, Haney’s Big House, which catered to a Black clientele. His mother, however, exerted her authority over her son by enrolling him in a Texas Bible college to ensure that he would be using his musical gifts in more wholesome pursuits than show business. Of course, that didn’t last long; as legend has it, Lewis offered up a wild, caterwauling version of “My God is Real” at a church assembly one night that got him booted from the college.

Lewis with his parents, who never forgave him for choosing rock and roll over church music

Lewis was moved by sacred music, and it remained a substantial influence on him throughout his life, but he was irresistibly drawn to the rhythms and earthy emotions of what soon became known as rock and roll. He was passionate about performing in his frenetic, juiced-up manner — kicking over his piano bench, playing while standing up, using his elbows, even his heels, much like Little Richard was also doing. Said Lewis in a line later used in a Grateful Dead song, “I may be going to Hell in a bucket, but at least I’m enjoying the ride.”

His passion to make music took him to Nashville, but the record companies there wanted nothing to do with his wild-child persona and musical leanings that were too far removed from country music. By 1956, though, Lewis found himself in Memphis auditioning for Sam Phillips on his Sun Records label, where Presley, Perkins and Johnny Cash, among other luminaries, were honing their chops on acetate. He played piano on some of their early records, including Perkins’ hit “Matchbox,” and lobbied for a chance to records his songs as a solo artist.

One legendary night: Lewis, Perkins, Presley and Cash took a stab at gospel songs at Sun Records studio

Phillips was impressed by Lewis’s range and abilities and finally gave him his chance in early 1957 with an R&B tune first recorded by Big Maybelle called “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” Lewis gave it a no-holds-barred R&R treatment at a faster tempo, and Phillips promoted the hell out of it, and within a month, it was the #1 song on country and R&B charts and #2 on the pop charts (held back by the saccharine Debbie Reynolds hit “Tammy”). Overnight, Lewis was the hot new sensation, the heir apparent to Presley’s throne.

He maintained that reputation with two more sensational hits, the sexually charged “Great Balls of Fire” and the more desperate “Breathless.” He added another layer of fame by singing the title song for, and making an appearance in, the frothy rock and roll movie “High School Confidential.” This instant, runaway success brought about an unbridled ego and fierce competitiveness that earned Lewis the nickname “Killer.” Ironically, it didn’t exactly serve him well going forward.

Arriving in London for a tour in 1958, he brazenly brought along Brown, his new child-bride, and the British press gleefully exposed this “sinful union” to the world. The tour was canceled after only three shows, and his career went into a tailspin. His bookings went from $10,000 a night to $250 at any honky-tonk that would have him.

For most of the ’60s, as rock music exploded both in popularity and the diversity of sub-genres from country rock to psychedelia, Lewis struggled, no longer in the limelight but doggedly keeping his head down as he turned in riveting live shows across the US and bin Europe, waiting for a chance to reclaim some measure of fame on the charts again.

That came in 1968 when he persuaded Smash Records to sign him as a country artist, covering popular country tunes that helped him find a new audience from a new generation of country music fans. His cover of the Jerry Chestnut song “Another Place, Another Time” reached the Top Five on country charts, the first of an impressive dozen Top Ten country hits in three years, including the #1 “To Make Love Sweeter For You.” In concert, Lewis continued to sprinkle rock and roll into the set list whenever he felt like it, which was almost every night, and the paying public seemed fine with it as long as his records remained pure country. It was a balance that both the artist and his audience could live with, and it worked throughout the 1970s.

Sadly, though, his personal life was pretty much a mess. His marriage to Brown ended after 13 years, and two subsequent marriages also ended in divorce. He lost both of his parents and his oldest son, the IRS was after him continually for back taxes owed, and he wrestled mightily with alcohol and pills that resulted in lengthy hospital stays.

Lewis and Quaid in Hollywood, 1988

But Lewis’s career had yet another resurgence when Hollywood chose to release “Great Balls of Fire,” a feature film about his life starring Dennis Quaid. Lewis was recruited to sing the songs for the soundtrack, reminding everyone who the real “Killer” was. Concurrent with that movie was his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as part of the inaugural group of inductees. He was responsible for kicking off an unplanned jam session at evening’s end, a tradition that has continued every year since.

A final return to prominence came with a pair of albums in 2006 and 2010 where Lewis was paired with various stars like Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page, Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Merle Haggard, John Fogerty and Rod Stewart. These albums reached the Top 30 on the pop album charts, Lewis’s first appearance there since the 1950s.

Lewis was a rock and roll piano player of unparalleled skill and influence (Elton John and Billy Joel both publicly mourned his passing last week), and his recorded performances of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire” are etched permanently into the annals of rock and roll history. But in my view, he’s another sad story of “what could’ve been” had he not imploded his career at precisely the wrong time.

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Here’s a playlist of great moments from Lewis’s career, handpicked by me after a lengthy session of listening to nearly everything he recorded. As you might expect, it’s weighted heavily with the classic stuff from the 1950s.