A self-confessed "chameleon," Bob Welch's career as a singer/writer/guitarist has led him through just about every region of the rock'n'roll landscape. In his time, he's enjoyed near-fame as a member of Fleetwood Mac, taken detours into hard rock with his band Paris, and earned big-time success with unabashedly commercial solo albums like French Kiss. Welch has taken on the colors of an introspective artiste, a calculating hit-maker, a decadent heavy metal-monger and more. Although it sounds like a lot for one musician to live through, Welch's musical career is only indicative of his resourceful, adaptable talent. But the question arises: Who was and is the real Bob Welch?
Even after his U.S. Top 40 radio breakthrough in the late 1970s, Welch remained something of an enigma to his audience. His ability to change artistic identities at will became a mixed blessing. "I honestly like a lot of different kinds of music, and that can be a problem," he says today. "I've made a a lot of abrupt turnarounds in my career, when I think I should've stuck to one thing. I'm still struggling with that to this day."
Welch's career has the makings of a Hollywood melodrama-appropriately enough, he was born into an L.A. show business family.
His father, Robert Welch Sr., produced radio shows for Jack Benny and, later, worked on such Bob Hope films as The Paleface. His mother, Templeton Fox, had radio and stage experience with the likes of Orson Welles.
Starting on guitar at age eight, young Bob joined his first serious band, Ivory Hudson & The Harlequins, in 1965. Changing their name to The Seven Souls, the group became popular on the L.A. R&B club circuit with their mixture of rock and soul elements. Though a big record deal eluded them, The Seven Souls managed to release singles on Okeh ("I'm No Stranger" was a minor R&B chart hit) and the Motown-distributed Venture label before disbanding in 1969.
From there, Welch joined forces with The Seven Souls' drummer and keyboard player to form Head West. Influenced by Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix, Head West relocated to Europe and cut an album for Paris-based Vogue Records. Once again, substantial success was not forthcoming, and financial problems finally broke up the group in 1970. At this point, Welch was a guitar player only, reluctant to assert himself as a singer or writer.
After the other Head West members returned to the States, Welch hung on in Paris at near-starvation level while contemplating his next move. Miraculously, old friend Judy Wong (then married to Jethro Tull bassist Glenn Cornick) called him with the news that Fleetwood Mac was looking for a replacement for departed guitarist Jeremy Spencer. "I had nothing to lose at that point," he recalls. "The idea was, come to England and maybe-it was a real maybe-I'd end up working with them."
When Welch went to visit the band in early 1971, he found a shell shocked Fleetwood Mac. "The band wanted to sit and talk for three months-they were looking for a soulmate. It wasn't a matter of blowing them away musically. It evolved slowly, which was frustrating, because I didn't know where I stood."
Eventually, though, Welch took his place alongside Mick Fleetwood, John and Christine McVie and Danny Kirwan as the band's first American member. "I had to come a long way quickly. But they were extremely supportive, and when they liked the first songs I brought in, it gave me confidence to go on." The first tune Welch submitted was "Future Games," which went on to be the title cut of Fleetwood Mac's 1971 Warner Bros. album.
Welch's contributions to subsequent LPs - Bare Trees (1972), Penguin (1973), Mystery To Me (1973) and Heroes Are Hard To Find (1974) - helped to redefine the band's sound, moving them into the melodic pop/rock direction that would later bring them enormous popularity. Mystery To Me featured especially strong Welch tunes, including the jazzy "Hypnotized" and "Emerald Eyes."
But mega-stardom for Fleetwood Mac was still a few years off. The band grew demoralized by a nightmarish legal battle with its manager throughout 1973 and '74. The experience helped to prompt Welch's departure from the band.
In hindsight, Welch's decision to bow out in 1975 seems remarkably ill-timed - still, how could he have known that the addition of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks would transform the band's fortunes? "Mick and John asked me not to throw away all that we worked for," he recalls. "We all agreed that we needed new blood - I could've been in the group with Stevie and Lindsey. But I figured five albums In five years was enough."
Enlisting old friend Glenn Cornick (who'd left Jethro Tull) on bass and ex-Nazz member Thom Mooney on drums, Welch formed the hard-rock unit Paris. Signing with Capitol, Paris released its eponymous debut album in early 1976, followed later that year by the LP Big Towne, 2061.
Paris was a strange proposition from the very beginning. Welch used the group as a vehicle for his pent-up rocker urges and esoteric lyrical viewpoints. Live, the band would intersperse comic acrobatic routines and loud 'n' heavy rock numbers. "People were dumbfounded with noncomprehension," Welch admits, "In the songs, I was making references to things only I knew about. When Mick and Christine heard the first album, they said, 'Bob, you write such sensitive songs-how could you lower yourself like this?"
The first Paris LP's key track was "Black Book," a Zeppelin-esque number with Biblical implications. The unrelenting edge of the debut album was toned down a bit on Big Towne, 2061. By that time, drummer Mooney was replaced by Hunt Sales, known for his stints with Iggy Pop and Todd Rundgren (and now a member of David Bowie's Tin Machine.) Big Town, 2061's songs were funkier and more accessible. The title tune combined a fluid groove with sci-fi lyrics, while "Heart Of Stone" and "Blue Robin" brought a pop tunefulness to the hard-rock thrust.
Commercial success for Paris was not forthcoming, however. Welch's desire to rock out met with lackluster response, even as his old Fleetwood Mac mates were climbing the charts. When Hunt Sales was sideiined with a case of Bell's Palsy, Welch decided to pull the plug on Paris. His next move would be into very different territory.
"I said, 'God damn it, I'm going to take the best parts from all the songs I haven't recorded and make consistent pop hits.' Paris had been a big flop, so there wasn't a huge interest from Capitol in doing a third album. I decided to do a solo album, the most coldly calculated record I ever made."
That album was French Kiss (1977), Welch's greatest claim to fame as a solo artist. From its hook-laden songwriting and sleek production to its semi-erotic cover art (owing a bit to the disco decadence of the era), French Kiss was aimed at the mass market of the late '70s. And it achieved its purpose-the LP sold a million and a half copies, yielding the hits "Sentimental Lady" (#8), "Ebony Eyes" (#14), and "Hot Love, Cold World" (#31).
"Sentimental Lady" had originally been recorded with Fleetwood Mac on the Bare Trees album and released as a single in 1972. Though it failed to become a hit, Welch believed in the song enough to re-record it (with Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie producing) for French Kiss. Buckingham and McVie also played on the recording, and Mick Fleetwood sat in on drums. Additionally, Fleetwood agreed to manage Welch's solo career, making Welch's ties with his former band all the more evident.
French Kiss was followed in early 1979 by Three Hearts, an even slicker album than its predecessor. The single "Precious Love" (a Welch original partially inspired by the Marvin Gaye hit of the same name) reached #19, while the LP itself earned gold status. Yet, by the platinum standards set by French Kiss, Three Hearts was a disappointment.
"For a brief moment, we were convinced that we had found the formula," Welch recalls. "I thought that with French Kiss I had entered the world of the never-ending hits. We were all just full of ourselves."
But even as Welch was deliberately crafting easy-to-swallow radio fare like "Precious Love," he was keeping his hand in his more idiosyncratic pursuits. "The Ghost Of Flight 401," a Three Hearts album cut, has a supernatural lyric theme in the tradition of such early Welch efforts as "Hypnotized" and "Bermuda Triangle." When it became clear that the French Kiss formula was faltering, Welch delved further into the darker side of his work.
The Other One (1979) took the opposite approach from the approach of the first two solo albums. The glossy production was jettisoned in favor of a stripped-down, New Wave-influenced sound. The songs themselves were somewhat tougher-("Rebel Rouser," for instance, told the tale of James Dean's rise and fall to a driving rock accompaniment.) Welch's old Fleetwood Mac tune "Future Games" was given a similarly straightforward treatment.
When The Other One failed to sell, Welch retrenched with Man Overboard (1980), an album of both Top 40-oriented material and more unusual tunes. (Among the latter was the title track, a sardonic look at modern alienation with New Wave overtones.) Even odder was "B666," a musical sketch of the apocalypse dressed up in horror film strings. Both The Other One and Man Overboard found Welch reasserting his artistic individuality, with unfortunately negligible results.
Unfortunately, matters continued their downward slide. Switching to RCA, Welch released the LPs Bob Welch (1981) and Eye Contact (1983) to little response. Personal difficulties (substance abuse and financial collapse), took their toll and, in 1987, Welch relocated to the Phoenix area seeking a fresh start. There, he assembled the band Avenue M with local players and pursued a hard-rock direction once again. "Don't Stop," a 1990 demo, is indicative of the group's sound.
Bob Welch remains rock's Man Of A Thousand Faces. He continues to slip in and out of categories, defying easy labels. Chances are, there are more changes to come from this chameleon.
Photos Courtesy Of Michael Ochs Archives, Venice, CA
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