As a singer, songwriter and keyboardist, she was a prolific force behind one of the most popular rock bands of the last 50 years.
Christine McVie, the singer, songwriter and keyboardist who became the biggest
hitmaker for Fleetwood Mac, one of music’s most popular bands, died on Wednesday. She was 79.
Her family announced her death on Facebook. The statement said she died at a hospital but did not specify its location or give the cause of death. In June, McVie told Rolling Stone that she was in “quite bad health” and that she had endured debilitating problems with her back.
McVie’s commercial potency, which hit a high point in the 1970s and ‘80s, was on full display on Fleetwood Mac’s Greatest Hits anthology, released in 1988, which sold 8 million copies: She either wrote or co-wrote half of its 16 tracks. Her tally doubled that of the next most prolific member of the band’s trio of singer-songwriters, Stevie Nicks. (The third, Lindsay Buckingham, scored three major Billboard chart-makers on that collection.)
The most popular songs McVie wrote favoured bouncing beats and lively melodies, including Say You Love Me (which grazed Billboard’s Top 10), You Make Lovin’ Fun (which just broke it), Hold Me (No. 4) and Don’t Stop (her top smash, which crested at No. 3). But she could also connect with elegant ballads, like Over My Head (No. 20) and Little Lies (which cracked the publication’s Top Five in 1987).
All those songs featured cleanly defined, easily sung melodies, with hints of soul and blues at the core. Her compositions had a simplicity that mirrored their construction. “I don’t struggle over my songs,” McVie told Rolling Stone in 1977. “I write them quickly.”
In just half an hour, she wrote one of the band’s most beloved songs, Songbird, a sensitive ballad that for years served as the band’s closing encore in concert. In 2019, the band’s leader, Mick Fleetwood, told NME that Songbird is the piece he wanted played at his funeral, “to send me off fluttering.”
McVie’s lyrics often captured the more intoxicating aspects of romance. “I’m definitely not a pessimist,” she told Bob Brunning, the author of the 2004 book The Fleetwood Mac Story: Rumours and Lies. “I’m basically a love song writer.”
At the same time, her words accounted for the yearning and disappointments that can lurk below an exciting surface. “I’m good at pathos,” she told Mojo magazine in 2017. “I write about romantic despair a lot but with a positive spin.”
McVie’s vocals communicated just as nuanced a range of feeling. Her soulful contralto could sound, by turns, maternally wise and sexually alive. Her tawny tone had the heady effect of a bourbon with a rich bouquet and a smooth finish. It found a graceful place in harmony with the voices of Nicks and Buckingham, together forming a Fleetwood Mac trademark.
“It was that chemistry,” she told Mojo. “The two of them just chirped into the perfect three-way harmony. I just remember thinking, ‘This is it!’”
A sturdy instrumentalist, McVie played a range of keyboards, often leaning toward the soulful sound of a Hammond B3 organ and the formality of a Yamaha grand piano.
With Fleetwood Mac, McVie earned five gold, one platinum and seven multiplatinum albums. The band’s biggest success, Rumours, released in 1977, was one of the mightiest movers in pop history: It was certified double diamond, representing sales of over 20 million copies.
In 1998, McVie was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame along with various lineups of Fleetwood Mac, reflecting the frequent (and dramatic) personal shifts the band experienced throughout its labyrinthine history. McVie served in incarnations that dated to 1971, but she also had uncredited roles playing keyboards and singing backup as far back as the band’s second album, released in 1968. Before joining Fleetwood Mac, she scored a No. 14 British hit with the blues band Chicken Shack on a cover of Etta James’ I’d Rather Go Blind for which she sang lead.
Early taste for the blues
Christine Anne Perfect was born on July 12, 1943, in the Lake District of England to Cyril Perfect, a classical violinist and college music professor and Bernice Reece, a psychic.
Her father encouraged her to start taking classical piano lessons when she was 11. Her focus changed radically four years later when she came across some sheet music for Fats Domino songs. At that moment, she told Rolling Stone in 1984, “It was goodbye Chopin.”
“I started playing the boogie bass,” she told Mojo. “I got hooked on the blues. Even today, the songs I write use that left hand. It’s rooted in the blues.”
McVie studied sculpture at Birmingham Art College and briefly considered becoming an art teacher. At the same time, she briefly played in a duo with Spencer Davis, who, along with a teenage Steve Winwood, would later find fame in the Spencer Davis Group. She helped form a band named Shades of Blue with several future members of Chicken Shack.
After graduating from college in 1966, McVie moved to London and became a window dresser in a department store. One year later, she was asked to join the already formed Chicken Shack as keyboardist and sometime singer. She wrote two songs for the band’s debut album, 40 Blue Fingers, Freshly Packed and Ready to Serve.
She was twice voted best female Vocalist in a Melody Maker readers’ poll, but, by 1969, she left the band after marrying John McVie, the bassist in Fleetwood Mac. The same year she recorded a solo album, The Legendary Christine Perfect Album, which she later described to Rolling Stone as “so wimpy,” adding, “I just hate to listen to it.”
Her disappointment in that record, combined with her reluctance to perform, caused Christine McVie to fleetingly put music aside. But, in 1970, when Fleetwood Mac’s main draw, the guitarist Peter Green, suddenly quit the band after a ruinous acid trip, Mick Fleetwood invited her to fill out their ranks.
Initially, she found the invitation to join her favourite band “a nerve-racking experience,” she told Rolling Stone. But she rose to the occasion by writing two of the surest songs on her first official release with the band, Future Games (1971). That release found the band leaning away from British blues and toward progressive Southern Californian folk-rock, aided by the addition of an American player, the singer, songwriter and guitarist Bob Welch.
The band fine-tuned that sound on its 1972 set Bare Trees, which sold better and featured one of McVie’s most soulful songs, Spare Me a Little of Your Love. The band’s 1973 release, Penguin, went gold and produced an FM hit with Welch’s song Hypnotized. The next collection, Heroes Are Hard to Find, was the band’s first to crack the US Top 40. But it was only after the departure of Welch and the hiring of the romantically involved team of Nicks and Buckingham for the 1975 album simply called Fleetwood Mac that the band began to show its full commercial brio.
McVie’s song Over My Head began the groundswell by entering Billboard’s Top 20; her Say You Love Me, reached No. 11. After a slow buildup, the Fleetwood Mac album eventually hit Billboard’s summit.
Just over a year and a half later, the group released Rumours, which generated outsize interest not only for its trio of Top 10 hits (two of them written by McVie) but also for several highly dramatic behind-the-scenes events within the band’s ranks, which they aired out in the lyrics and openly discussed in the press.
During the creation of the album, the two couples in the band — Nicks and Buckingham and the married McVies — broke up. McVie’s song You Make Lovin’ Fun celebrated an affair she was then having with the band’s lighting director. (Initially, she told John McVie the song was about her dog.) The optimistic-sounding Don’t Stop was intended to point her ex-husband toward a new life without her.
“We wrote those songs despite ourselves,” McVie told Mojo. “It was a therapeutic move. The only way we could get this stuff out was to say it, and it came out in a way that was difficult. Imagine trying to sing those songs onstage with the people you’re singing them about.”
’We were all very high’
It helped dull the pain, she told Mojo, that “we were all very high,” adding, “I don’t think there was a sober day.” And the album’s mega-success gave the members a different high. “The buzz of realising you’ve written one of the best albums ever written; it was such a phenomenal time,” McVie told Attitude magazine in 2019.
But the group yearned to stretch creatively. The result was the less commercial sound of the double-album follow-up, Tusk, released in 1979. Though not a success on anything near the scale of Rumours, it sold over 2 million copies and produced three hits, including McVie’s Think About Me.
The group moved smoothly into the new decade with the 1982 release Mirage, which hit No. 1 aided by McVie’s Hold Me, a Top Five hit that was inspired by her tumultuous relationship with the Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson. Two years later, McVie issued a solo album that made the Top 30, while its strongest single, Got a Hold on Me, broke the Top 10.
In 1987, the reconvened Fleetwood Mac issued Tango in the Night, which featured two hits written by McVie, Everywhere and Little Lies. (Little Lies was written with the musician Eddie Quintela, whom she had wed the year before. They would divorce in 2003.) Buckingham left the group shortly afterward, shaking the dynamic that had made their recordings stellar. The 1990 album Behind the Mask barely went gold, producing just one Top 40 single (Save Me, written by McVie), while Time, issued five years later, bombed.
McVie didn’t tour with the band to support Time. But the early 1990s brought broad new attention to her hit Don’t Stop when it became the theme song for Bill Clinton’s successful presidential campaign. In 1993, Clinton persuaded the five players on the hit to reunite to perform it at an inaugural ball.
They came together again in 1997 for a tour, which produced the live album The Dance, one of the top-selling concert recordings of all time. Yet by the next year a growing fear of flying, and a desire to return to England from the band’s adopted home of Los Angeles, inspired McVie to retire to the English countryside.
Five years later, she agreed to add some keyboard parts and backing vocals to a largely ignored Fleetwood Mac album, Say You Will, and in 2006 she produced a little-heard solo album, In the Meantime, which she recorded and wrote with her guitarist nephew Dan Perfect.
In 2014, driven by boredom and a growing sense of isolation, she reunited with the prime Mac lineup for the massive On With The Show tour. In its wake, McVie began to write lots of new material, as did Buckingham, resulting in an album under both their names in 2017, as well as a joint tour. The full band also played shows that year; even though Buckingham was fired in 2018, McVie continued to tour with the group in a lineup that included Neil Finn of Crowded House and Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers. In 2021, McVie sold publishing rights to her entire 115 song catalogue for an undisclosed sum.
She is survived by John McVie.
Throughout her career, Christine McVie took pride in never being categorised for her gender. “I kind of became one of the guys,” she told the UK Independent in 2019. “I was always treated with great respect.”
While she always acknowledged the special chemistry of Fleetwood Mac’s most successful lineup, she believed her role transcended it.
“Band members leave and other people take their place,” she told Rolling Stone, “but there was always that space where the piano should be.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Written by: Jim Farber
Photographs by: Chad Batka
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