Sunday, November 23, 2008

For Bob Welch, It's All About The Eyes - Ebony Eyes

Over the course of its history Fleetwood Mac’s band roster has assumed proportions akin to the cast of a Hollywood epic (including the extras). Among the band’s alumnus the name Bob Welch probably doesn’t spring to mind too readily to anyone other than committed fans of the Mac. But between the critically acclaimed Peter Green years and the commercially lucrative Buckingham/Nicks phase, Bob Welch played a pivotal role in the transition of Fleetwood Mac from dedicated blues outfit to commercial pop-rock powerhouse. Beyond his tenure with the band Welch also notched up a string of well-crafted chart hits in the late 70s.

Born in L.A., the son of well known producer Robert L. Welch, young Bob Jr. took to music at an early age. He played with the show band Seven Souls during the 60s, jetting across the U.S. and Europe, playing exclusive resorts and night clubs. Welch found a liking to the French way of life and settled in Paris for a period of time, where he studied the French language at the Sorbonne in the late 60s. Welch’s path of destiny would soon have him traversing the English Channel to reconnect with his work as a musician. He released an album of material in 1970 titled ‘Bob Welch with Head West’.

In early 1971 Fleetwood Mac found themselves one guitarist short after Jeremy Spencer felt compelled to go walkabout in L.A. (he had joined up with a religious cult). Bob Welch came on board, and soon established himself as a key member both as guitarist/singer and songwriter, supplementing the work of Danny Kirwan and Christine McVie (Welch actually wrote about 40% of the songs the band released during his residence). The next few years was a typically tumultuous time for Fleetwood Mac, during which they released the albums ‘Future Games’, ‘Bare Trees’, ‘Penguin’, ‘Mystery To Me’ and ‘Heroes Are Hard To Find’, which continued their shift to a more melodic pop-rock sound. The period also coincided with protracted legal complications and several more changes to the playing roster. By 1974 Fleetwood Mac made the decision to relocate to California, but Welch opted to remain in Britain (citing exhaustion as a reason), effectively ending his tenure with the group.

Whilst Fleetwood Mac recruited a little known couple by the name of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks and went on to mega-stardom, Welch formed a new group in 1975 with the power rock trio Paris, also featuring drummer Thom Mooney (replaced by Hunt Sales for album #2) and bassist Glenn Cornick (ex-Jethro Tull). Paris released two albums with ‘Paris’ (1976) and ‘Big Towne 2061’ (1976), both of which solidified Welch’s reputation as a classy writer/performer, though missed the mark commercially.

Welch then opted to go the commercial route as a solo artist and recorded the album ‘French Kiss’ in 1977 - well if his old Fleetwood Mac band mates could enjoy a wall full of platinum records why couldn’t he. The lead out single was the revamped radio friendly version of ‘Sentimental Lady’ (originally included on Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Bare Trees’ album) which made a huge splash on the U.S. charts where it peaked at #8 late in ‘77. The song benefited from the production skills and backing vocals of Christine McVie and Lindsey Buckingham (who pretty much had the Midas touch at that point). The follow up single broke Bob Welch on the Australian charts, and featured all the hallmarks of a classic pop rock hit with a hypnotic chorus hook. In March ‘78 ‘Ebony Eyes’ debuted and rocketed to #2 mid year, also peaking at #14 on the U.S. charts. The album ‘French Kiss’ puckered up to #8 in Australia and #12 in the U.S., and also spawned the US#31 hit ‘Hot Love, Cold World’.

Welch stuck to the same formula on 1979’s album ‘Three Hearts’ (US#20/OZ#49). More of the same slickly produced pop-rock was served up via the singles ‘Precious Love’ (US#19/OZ#37) and ‘Church’ (US#73), and the set also boasted contributions from Fleetwood Mac members Christine McVie, Stevie Nicks and Mick Fleetwood. In an apparent moment of madness Welch included a funked up version of the Beatles’ ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ - but then it was the late 70s. During the height of his popularity, Welch became a regular guest host on various music and variety television shows, including ‘Dick Clark’s New American Bandstand’, ‘Solid Gold’ and ‘Midnight Special’ (one of my favourite shows from that era). He also hosted an episode of Australia’s ‘Countdown’, on which he performed both ‘Ebony Eyes’ and ‘Precious Love’ in studio. Welch went on to host his own pre-MTV syndicated weekly music variety TV show ‘Hollywood Heartbeat’.

In late ‘79 Welch released ‘The Other One’ (US#105) but the album lacked the knock out hit offered on his previous sets, and tracks like ‘Rebel Rouser’, ‘Spanish Dancers’ and ‘Hideaway’ took on a sameness that failed to attract any great attention. Producer John Carter attempted to add the missing ingredient to Welch’s next album ‘Man Overboard’ (1980-US#162), but the Fleetwood Mac crew were a no show. The single ‘Don’t Rush A Good Thing’ failed to incite any kind of rush to the record bar from fans, though it did surface again on the CD release of Tina Turner’s ‘Private Dancer’ album (also produced by Carter).

Welch jumped to the RCA label for his 1981 self titled album, but the move didn’t revive his flagging commercial fortunes. 1983’s ‘Eye Contact’ also failed to see any chart action, and it appeared by the mid 80s that Bob Welch’s slickly produced up-tempo pop-rock could no longer find an audience (which seems a bit strange given slickly produced up-tempo pop-rock from the likes of Foreigner and Journey didn’t have trouble finding a home on the charts, in the U.S. especially).

Welch shifted his home base to Phoenix, Arizona in 1987 and started up the band Avenue M. Over the course of the 90s he turned his attention to song writing, and contributed tracks for artists such as the Pointer Sisters, Don Nix and Kenny Rogers. Welch co-founded the renowned ‘Singers Night’ at the famous Bluebird Café in Nashville, and has performed regularly at the venue for more than a decade. He is also an official endorsee for Gibson guitars and has performed at guitar clinics across the U.S. In 1999 Bob Welch returned to the recording studio and released his first album of new material in over fifteen years. ‘Looks At Bop’ was a tribute to the ‘be-bop’ music of the 40s and 50s and reflected an artist with a diverse interest in musical styles and history. The 2004 live set ‘From The Roxy’, and two compilations ‘Bob Welch: His Fleetwood Mac Years And Beyond’ (featuring new recordings of his best known material), showcase a considerable talent. Welch’s relationship with his former Fleetwood Mac band mates unfortunately was soured over issues of past royalties due, and he was excluded from the band’s 1998 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

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