Sounds: Bob Welch, Fleetwood Mac's unappreciated front man
Was there ever a time when Fleetwood Mac wasn't famous? Yes, there was, and the late Bob Welch could attest to it, because he was the one steering the band during those five wilderness years of the early 1970s.
But just because they were wilderness years — during which the Mac endured fluctuating membership, changes in musical approach, a serious lack of album sales and no hit singles — doesn't mean they weren't productive or worthwhile. And without them, fans would not still be enjoying the most successful incarnation of the band with Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham.
Fleetwood Mac started out as a blues band led by guitar ace Peter Green. When the American Welch, born 71 years ago on July 31, 1946, joined, the British group was struggling after the departure of Green and then guitarist Jeremy Spencer. Christine McVie was not a full-fledged member of the band yet; she occasionally made contributions in support of her then-husband, John McVie. That left young guitar slinger Danny Kirwan ostensibly in charge, but he wasn't up to the challenge.
Enter the affable Welch, who filled in ably on second guitar and vocals, and would make significant songwriting contributions (23 songs) over the next five albums.
Arguably the greatest work from this period are "Bare Trees" (1972), the last album with Kirwan and featuring his most accomplished writing, and "Mystery to Me" (1973).
The former contains the original version of Welch's "Sentimental Lady," a failed single that achieved greater acclaim five years later when he rerecorded it as a solo artist, with help from his former Mac mates, and watched it rocket up the Billboard charts to No. 8.
The latter contains the greatest song from this middle period, Welch's atmospheric "Hypnotized," which was foolishly released as just the B side of the band's only single from the album, an underwhelming cover of the Yardbirds' "For Your Love." "Hypnotized's" memorable drum opening and fascinating lyric about UFOs have ensured that it continues to get airplay on classic radio.
After 1974's "Heroes Are Hard to Find," Welch was ready to move on, frustrated that the band had gained so little after so much toil and trouble. But he blessed his bandmates with one heck of a parting gift. He convinced Mick Fleetwood to relocate the group to Los Angeles to be closer to its record label, Warner Bros. In doing so, it allowed Fleetwood to fortuitously stumble upon the unknown and foundering act of Buckingham Nicks and invite the duo to join the Mac. It never would have happened without Welch.
Fleetwood Mac returned the favor by championing Welch's solo career, helping to manage him and playing on his records. Welch signed with Capitol Records and issued five solo albums between 1977 and 1983. Each did worse than the one before it, but the first two, "French Kiss" and "Three Hearts," reached the Top 20 in the Billboard album charts. In addition to "Sentimental Lady," "French Kiss" generated two other major singles in "Ebony Eyes" (No. 14) and "Hot Love, Cold World" (No. 31). Welch finally had achieved fame, doing it on his own.
Years later, Welch fell out of favor with the band when he filed a lawsuit over royalties. He eventually patched up his differences with Fleetwood, but not in time to earn him induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Welch accused Fleetwood of conspiring to keep him out, the only major band member to be excluded, and he may have been right. He deserved inclusion along with Green, Spencer and Kirwan.
Welch's career was spotty from the 1990s onward, and it didn't improve. Poor health sidelined him, and on June 7, 2012, he took his life with a gun at age 66 — gone, but definitely not forgotten.