Among other qualities you could attribute to the guitarist, singer and songwriter Bob Welch, who was found dead June 7 at his Antioch home, it's clear that he was in the music business to make other people happy, not to mention himself. His career contains many of the contradictions that make '70s rock so endearing.
The quality of Welch's music is high. He was a stylish, skillful guitarist who became famous by joining Fleetwood Mac, back when the British band was composed of stone-cold blues obsessives hooked on Sonny Boy Williamson and Elmore James. Welch helped to steer Fleetwood Mac, and thus '70s rock, toward a future that cunningly commercialized the strictures of "Dust My Broom" and the classic Chess Records shuffle by adding generous helpings of commercial, easy-rolling pop.
Born in Los Angeles in 1946 into a show-business family, Welch kicked around in America before heading to Paris — he was a member of the California band The Seven Souls, who made a couple of singles in the mid '60s — and got his break with Fleetwood Mac after he had played a succession of unsuccessful groups. Fleetwood Mac had made their name as a blues band featuring guitarists Peter Green and Danny Kirwain, and released the fine Kiln House at the turn of the decade.
Kiln House contained as much old-time rock 'n' roll as it did electric blues, and by the time Welch was hired in 1971 to play rhythm guitar behind Kirwain, the group was seeking a larger audience. Along with fellow new hire Christine McVie, Welch took Fleetwood Mac in a post-blues, post-psychedelic and decidedly pop direction. The two-guitar combination is potent on "Child of Mine," the first track on the group's 1972 full-length Bare Trees — the British Americana enthusiasts had mastered their own hybrid rock 'n' roll style.
Still, the track that pointed the way toward rock's future was Bare Trees' "Sentimental Lady," an early Welch classic. "We live in a time when paintings have no color/Words don't rhyme," Welch sings. "And that's why I've traveled far/'Cause I come so together where you are." As song and sentiment, "Sentimental Lady" throws over Memphis Minnie for one of those idealized L.A. ladies who populate the tunes of the Eagles, Firefall and all the other American bands with whom Fleetwood Mac competed on '70s radio playlists.
As far as I'm concerned, the Welch-fueled Fleetwood Mac records are quite listenable — I like their blues period, and their post-Welch smashes Rumours and Fleetwood Mac are, of course, rock classics — and I'd like to think that it was Welch's very anonymity that make the mid-period Mac records work. If the British members of Fleetwood Mac had a foot in a variety of American blues music they'd managed to experience first-hand, if a bit late in the game, Welch was as Californian as a big hamburger, with an avocado crescent peeking out from beneath the bun.
You can hear the future of rock on even a seemingly innocuous piece of Welch-rock such as Bare Trees' "The Ghost." A sneaky guitar lick begins the song, with a flute providing atmosphere reminiscent of The Mamas & the Papas' "California Dreamin'." The song is about a daydream amidst a California landscape that is on fire, and Welch craftily works in a jazzy guitar hook. "The Ghost" is easy-listening rock without ideology, and Welch sings in a breezy voice perfect for pop.
Welch stayed with Fleetwood Mac through the end of 1974, and the group went on to their greatest success afterwards with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. Meanwhile, Welch re-recorded "Sentimental Lady" and hit the charts with the song in 1977. The following year, "Ebony Eyes" went to No. 14 on the American charts, and "Hot Love, Cold World" made No. 31. The hits dried up after that, but he had a good ride. A gifted guitarist with roots in jazz and blues — just like Peter Green — Welch was a pop master, and such giants should make their statements and then fade away to a life of sentimental ladies, vintage wines and easy times.
But in later years, Welch was left out of Fleetwood Mac's lineup when the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This didn't sit well with Welch, who rightfully believed he had helped the band make the transition from '60s burnouts to '70s super-group. He moved to Nashville and released re-recorded versions of his signature songs, along with a jazz record titled Bob Welch Looks at Bop. Concerned about his health — he had undergone spinal surgery a few months previously, and doctors had told him he was facing life as an invalid — Welch ended his life with a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
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