With the fifth anniversary of his death arriving this week, we pay tribute to the underrated guitarist.
BY DAVE STEINFELD
When I heard about Bob Welch’s death on June 7th — allegedly from a self-inflicted gunshot wound — I was both sad and shocked. But it went beyond that. First, June 7th happens to be my birthday. Second, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bob more than once. The first time was when I was writing a daily oldies music service for a well-known radio network. After the interview, my boss decided she didn’t want to run a piece on him after all. I challenged her but she was the boss and she won; the piece never ran and we never gave Bob the attention he deserved. It’s been a recurring theme in his career. Frankly, I’ve been appalled at the coverage — or, more accurately, the lack of coverage — of his death. Though he wasn’t a household name, Bob was far from obscure. (Agreed. BLURT published an obituary at the time, but it didn’t seem like many other music outlets took notice. –Ed.)
He was best known, of course, for his tenure with Fleetwood Mac. As a guitarist and singer-songwriter, Bob basically led the band during the first half of the ’70s — after their stint as a blues-rock combo fronted by Peter Green but before they became one of the biggest bands of all time with the addition of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. Bob was the first American to join the band, and his song “Future Games” became the title track of their 1971 album (his first with the band). He stayed with them through four more albums in as many years before leaving on good terms and striking out on his own. There’s sometimes a misconception that Bob was ousted and replaced by Buckingham but this wasn’t the case. It’s just ironic that right after he left, Fleetwood Mac became very successful on the basis of their self-titled 1975 disc and then massive two years later with the release of Rumours.
Still, if the Welch years weren’t Fleetwood Mac’s greatest period, they produced some fine moments. The best one may have been “Hypnotized,” a gorgeous, jazz-influenced tune from 1973’s Mystery to Me. “I’ve always been interested in ‘out there’ subjects,” Bob told me, explaining the song’s genesis. “I’d been doing a lot of reading about astral travel and the whole Carlos Castaneda thing. Also, I had a friend from North Carolina who had a very strange experience while riding dirt bikes in the woods. [He] came upon this weird sort of crater — him and about five friends. Right in the middle of the woods! He said it was the weirdest thing they’d ever seen and they immediately got the feeling that they should get out of there. This time-stopped type of feeling. So he told me that story and I sort of incorporated all the images about it into that song.”
Bob seemed somewhat mixed about leaving the Mac when he did. “I wonder sometimes how my life would have been different had I stayed,” he admitted. “I had success on my own but they had quantum success beyond that — which in those days translated into a lot of partying. I think I would have gone off a cliff on my motorcycle [had I stayed]. So in that sense, I’m glad I didn’t. It would [have been] fun to see what would have resulted from my musical input with Stevie and Lindsey. Sometimes I wonder about that. But I don’t have any [other] regrets.”
Bob was incredibly prolific in the decade after he left Fleetwood Mac. Initially, he led a hard-rock trio called Paris and released two albums with them. But what really put him on the map was his 1977 solo debut, French Kiss. Bob always said that French Kiss was a blatant attempt to write hits — and boy, did it work! The disc was a smash, producing three chart singles. The biggest was a remake of his beautiful ballad “Sentimental Lady,” which originally appeared on Fleetwood Mac’s Bare Trees album. The new version featured Mick Fleetwood, Christine McVie and even Buckingham and scored Bob a Top 10 hit. The follow-up, a rocker called “Ebony Eyes,” was nearly as popular.
His sophomore set, Three Hearts, appeared in 1979 during the height of the disco craze. While not as successful as French Kiss, it did more than respectably, spawning a hit with “Precious Love.” He would issue four more solo releases between 1980 and 1983. None produced a hit, which is a bit mystifying considering both his previous track record and the quality of the music. After Eye Contact, his final studio outing for RCA, Bob didn’t release another album until the late 1990s. That disc, Bob Welch Looks at Bop, was a jazz album of all things. By this time, he had been through many ups and downs, musically and personally, and was less interested in trying to write hits than in following his muse.
Around that same time, Fleetwood Mac was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In addition to the band’s classic lineup (Fleetwood, John and Christine McVie, Buckingham and Nicks), all their major guitarists (Peter Green, Danny Kirwan, Jeremy Spencer) were inducted — except Bob Welch. It was a glaring and inexplicable omission and Bob was hurt. That said, it wasn’t as if he hated his former bandmates. When I spoke with him in 2003, the Mac had just released Say You Will, their first album in years. Though it didn’t exactly set the charts on fire, Bob was unequivocal in praising it. “I absolutely love it,” he said. “I think it’s the best thing they’ve done in a long time. Lindsey’s just all over the place [with] layers and textures and stuff. I was knocked out by it.”
We went on to discuss the sad state of commercial radio in the 21st century. “Radio used to be [better] in the days of the AM stations,” he said. “They’d play Dionne Warwick, then they’d play The Beatles, then they’d play the MC5, then they’d play Tony Bennett. I think the fragmentation [of music] has added to the fragmentation and divisiveness of our society. Up until the point where we’ve got — well, you know what we’ve got, being from New York. One side hates the other.” He was right, of course.
RIP, Bob. You were a great guy and a talented, underrated musician who deserved better.