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Remembering Fleetwood Mac 'Songbird', Christine McVie

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Christine McVie (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Christine McVie, the multi-talented and much-beloved musician best known for her work with international supergroup Fleetwood Mac, has passed away following a brief illness. She was 79.

The British-born singer, songwriter and keyboard player was renowned worldwide for her smooth, cool contralto. She was also recognised for being a calming, stabilising influence in a tempestuous band where tempers often flared and personnel changes were frequent.

She was born Christine Anne Perfect on 12 July 1943 in the small village of Bouth in Lancashire, England. Her father was a concert violinist and music lecturer, and her mother was a medium, psychic and faith healer.

McVie started studying classical piano seriously at the age of 11 and switched her musical focus to rock ‘n roll when her brother John came home with a Fats Domino songbook. McVie also loved the Everly Brothers and said they were an early musical influence.

While studying sculpture at the Moseley School of Arts in Birmingham to become an art teacher, McVie got heavily involved in the local rhythm and blues scene. She often sang with the legendary Spencer Davis — a kindred spirit with whom she had a close personal and professional relationship.

In 1967, McVie joined a band called Chicken Shack and won kudos for her authentic “bluesy” voice and fantastic piano playing. The band had a mild hit in 1969 with 'I’d Rather Go Blind', which featured McVie on lead vocals. In this same period, McVie won back-to-back awards for female vocals from Melody Maker magazine and married Fleetwood Mac bassist John McVie.

In 1970, she joined Fleetwood Mac, which was co-founded by drummer Mick Fleetwood and guitarist Peter Green in 1967. Guitarists Jeremy Spencer and Danny Kirwan joined shortly afterwards.

The early '70s was an extremely difficult time for the band with a revolving door of musicians and a protracted lawsuit between Fleetwood Mac and a band manager called Clifford Davis, who was touring the United States with a soundalike band.

In 1974, McVie reluctantly agreed to move to the United States with the rest of the band and contributed the hit songs 'Over My Head' and 'Say You Love Me' to Fleetwood Mac’s self-titled 1975 album. Both songs reached the top 20.

During its peak commercial years from 1975 to 1980, Fleetwood Mac sold tens of millions of records featuring McVie’s mature and heartfelt songs about the triumphs and difficulties of adult relationships.

Her talents really came to the fore on Rumours (1977), a total colossus of an album which sold more than ten million copies worldwide within a month of its release. Certified 20 times platinum in the U.S. alone, Rumours is one of the best-selling albums of all time.

Sadly, Rumours had one of the most difficult gestation periods in rock music history. During the album's making, there was constant bickering among band members and all the couples involved – McVie and husband, John, singer Stevie Nicks and her guitarist partner Lindsey Buckingham and drummer Mick Fleetwood and wife Jenny – split up. In addition, band members were heavily indulging in alcohol and drugs, which exacerbated the toxic atmosphere in the studio.

McVie said her drugs of choice at the time were “cocaine and champagne”. However, she managed to put aside her personal demons and sublimate the tensions that were happening within the band to score a top ten hit with 'You Make Loving Fun' — apparently, about an affair she had with the band’s lighting director.

Her biggest hit on the album was 'Don’t Stop', which peaked at three on the U.S. charts and featured vocals by both McVie and Buckingham. The song was adopted as a theme during Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign and was performed at his inaugural ball in 1993.

Fleetwood Mac was never able to replicate the smash success of Rumours but nonetheless, released some extremely worthy albums in subsequent years featuring tasty little morsels of McVie goodness.

Mirage, released in 1982, returned the band to the U.S. Top Ten with the top-five hit 'Hold Me'. Penned by McVie, it explored her feelings about a tortured relationship she had with the deeply troubled Dennis Wilson, drummer with the Beach Boys.

Fleetwood Mac was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998. In the same year, the band won a Brit Award for "outstanding contribution to British music".

It was then that McVie decided to leave the band and live in semi-retirement for nearly 15 years.

She released several excellent solo albums and was coaxed back into the band in 2014 for a reunion tour on the nostalgia circuit. The tour was plagued with difficulties — notably, the controversial sacking of Lindsey Buckingham after ex-girlfriend Stevie Nicks' reportedly flat-out refused to appear with him on stage.

It could be fairly said that McVie's role as the Fleetwood Mac peacemaker enervated her yet may have contributed to her ill health in later years. In one of her final interviews, published in Rolling Stone magazine, the singer said she was in “quite bad health” and it was unlikely that she would ever tour again.

Said McVie:

“I don’t feel physically up for it... 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 physically do it. What’s that saying? The mind is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

A joint statement released by the surviving members of Fleetwood Mac paid tribute to McVie after news broke of her passing:

'There are no words to describe our sadness at the passing of Christine McVie. She was truly one of a kind, special and talented beyond measure. She was the best musician anyone could have in their band and the best friend anyone could have in their life.'

Source: Instagram (@stevienicks)

In a separate handwritten statement posted to Instagram, bereft bandmate Stevie Nicks wrote:

'A few hours ago, I was told that my best friend in the whole world since the first day of 1975 had passed away. I didn’t even know she was ill… until late Saturday night. I wanted to be in London; I wanted to get to London — but we were told to wait.'

Mick Fleetwood said McVie had

'... left us earthbound folks to listen with bated breath to the sounds of that "songbird"... reminding one and all that love is all around us to reach for and touch in this previous life that is gifted to us. Part of my heart has flown away today.'

American singer Sheryl Crow tweeted:

'I am so sad to hear of Christine McVie going to heaven. The world feels weird without her here. What a legend and an icon and an amazing human being.'

Jenny LeComte is a Canberra-based journalist and freelance writer.

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