Music Connection, Two Big Macs to Go

The Music Connection, June 27-July 10, 1988

Two Big Macs To Go
Fleetwood Mac Finds a New Pair of Guitar Heroes

By Jim Maloney

Rick Vito hails from Philadelphia where some folks claim that his blues-drenched guitar playing was responsible for a few new cracks in the Liberty Bell. His story - like Billy Burnette's - is basically one of a dedicated player who has parlayed years of expertise as a hired session gun, and a variety of roadwork with a number of important artists, into a role that you could quite realistically call a musician's dream - the lead guitar slot in the venerable Fleetwood Mac.

Vito steps boldly into the shadow of Mac lead players of years gone by - group co-founder and lost blues genius Peter Green (a personal idol of Rick's), slide guitar slasher Jeremy Spencer, the melodious Danny "Station Man" Kirwan, breezy rocker Bob Welch, and , most recently, the tough, versatile, and much-loved hitmaker, Lindsey Buckingham, whose departure predicated the band's acquisition of Vito and Burnette. It's an imposing and unenviable position for any guitarist, but Vito possesses both the chops and the attitude to pull it off with style.

"This literally appeared out of nowhere - just a phone call one day," he recalls. "Mick and I had played together on a Billy Burnette demo session one night. Apparently, he really liked the way I played and sort of filed it away in the back of his mind. Then, about two or three weeks before Lindsey announced that he wouldn't be touring or staying with the band, Mick, Billy, and Kenny Gradney - who all played together in Mick Fleetwood's Zoo - came in to catch a gig of mine at Josephina's. Everybody sat in, and we had a nice, informal jam. I think it must have refreshed Mick's memory about my playing, singing, or whatever. I mean, he had his choice of just about anybody, you know? But apparently his instincts told him I was the right guy for the job. He insisted to the other Mac members that I be tried out before they looked at anyone else. I'll be forever grateful to Mick for that."

Vito's last big job was lead guitarist for bob Seger; he played on both the Like A Rock album and tour - a grueling, nine-month affair. Seger was looking for a player without heavy metal affectations - one who could play rootsy rock & roll and straight ballads with equal ease. Drummer Russ Kunkel, who'd worked with Vito on a couple of Jackson Browne LPs, recommended Rick to the ramblin,' gamblin' man.

"The first thing I did with Seger was the song, 'Like a Rock,'" Vito reveals. "They weren't quite sure what to do with it. The whole track was finished, except for these long passages that begged for some kind of solo guitar. I suggested a slide guitar thing to him right away - I thought it'd be a perfect place to stretch out and be bluesy. We did it in one take, and Seger love it. He just kept callin' me back for more sessions, and finally asked me to do the tour."

The Seger experience was definitely major league, but it still must be a bit overwhelming to suddenly find yourself in a band whose last album, Tango In The Night (which neither new Mac man is on), has gone double-platinum, spinning off three hit singles.

"I think my experience with Seger was excellent preparation for this," says Vito. "I admit I was very naïve about just how big Bob Seger was until I was out on the road with him. I didn't realize the kind of audience he commands. I was playing to sold-out houses every night for nine months! I had never played to crowds that size before. So the first time I went out with the Mac, I'd at least had a taste of that kind of thing."

Besides handling the lead guitar chores and singing on existing Fleetwood Mac repertoire selections live, Vito is confident that he will be encouraged to contribute compositions and ideas of this own to the band's next studio effort. "The band doesn't really know what Billy and I have to offer as songwriters - only Billy and I know that at this point."

Burnette's strengths may be a little more obvious at the outset, only because he's worked extensively with Fleetwood in Zoo, and has done so many solo albums. But each new member is bringing something unique and special to the party. And Fleetwood Mac seems willing to let those talents blossom to the best advantage of the band.

"They're not attempting to stifle us in the feast," Vito says. "They are encouraging us to freely express ourselves and our styles. Because they know that's how the group is going to grow and change - that's how it always has grown and changed. And remember, I've been playing as a session or background guitarist for so long that I'm able to listen to what an artist is doing, and immediately come up with a way to support and embellish that. So on existing band songs, I have had no trouble adapting. What I do best are songs in a bluesier vein, which I think Fleetwood Mac is very happy to get back to. During the tour, we did several Peter Green tunes from the early days, and the crowds loved them. It adds another dimension to the pop sound of Fleetwood Mac that most of the younger fans are familiar with. I'm certainly not going to be doing twelve-bar blues all night, but that bluesy flavor is going to be present and prominent. That's my style."

"I was very influenced by that band - especially Peter Green," Vito explains. "I remember sitting in the front row at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia in 1968. In fact, I have photos of that concert that Mick wants to use in the book he's putting together. But, yeah, I started a blues band after seeing the original Fleetwood Mac. It was so non-glitzy and real - it was what I wanted to do."

The first edition of Fleetwood Mac was fueled by singer/guitarist/composer Green, an extremely soulful and inventive player whom many consider one of the finest blues guitar players to ever bend a string - regardless of color or continent. Vito remains a devout fan of Green's crying Les Paul. On many occasions, B.B. King himself has cited Green as a blues player who moved him immensely. (It's usually the other way around of course, with white British players naming black American pioneers as their favorites.)

"That apparently is true," Vito says of the King kudos. "Mick tells me that B.B. always asks for Peter and raves about his playing. He really made an impact on me. I've made several compilation tapes of his songs from Fleetwood Mac, from various session dates with Memphis Slim, Eddie Boyd, and of course his stuff with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers." [Green replaced Eric Clapton in the Mayall band in late 1966; Fleetwood Mac formed in 1967, when Green, drummer Mick Fleetwood, and bassist John McVie seceded from the Bluesbreakers and hooked up with Elmore James fanatic Jeremy Spencer on vocals and slide guitar.]

Prior to his Bob Seger adventure, Vito recalls several session opportunities and live collaborations that he feels were vital steps in his career, each moving him up another notch in the long preparation that landed him in Fleetwood Mac.

"Working with Jackson Browne was when I really began to stretch out as a musician," Vito feels. "I replaced David Lindley in the band and was put in the position of having to come up with solos and a style that were reminiscent of him in one sense, but still allowed enough freedom in my playing to mark me as an individual.

"Progressing backwards, before Jackson, I played with Bonnie Raitt. That was a lot of fun, and I have tremendous respect for Bonnie's work. Prior to that, I was in Roger McGuinn's group Thunderbyrd. That was a great band, and we really went over well live. We only did one record, but the record company just wasn't behind it. McGuinn was coming out of that whole Clarence White period, and we were the first band to do a Tom Petty song. In fact, Petty came to our session and tried to teach Roger the tune! He was unknown at the time. The song was 'American Girl.' We heard that song, and we all went, 'That's Roger singin.'

"Prior to that, my biggest break had been with John Mayall. I was such a fan of all that Bluesbreakers stuff, as you can imagine. I got that call out of nowhere, too - about '75 or '76. It wasn't one of John's best periods, unfortunately. He was trying to take his blues thing and turn it into a rock & roll thing. John is a great bluesman - that's what people want to see. But he wanted to experiment, I guess. It was a great band though, and another great learning experience for me.

"The first real break I got when I moved to L.A. - I'm still progressing backwards here - was with Delaney & Bonnie and Friends. That was 1971. I toured a bit with them, did some TV sows, a little recording. They kind of disintegrated the next year. I had been heavily influenced by that Live on Tour with Eric Clapton album, and especially an album called The Original Delaney & Bonnie and Friends on Elektra. That was an amazing record. It was really responsible for turning music around - the whole scene. Not many people realize this. On that album were Rita Coolidge, who was an unknown, Leon Russell, who was an unknown, Jim Keltner, Bobby Whitlock . . . All these people came into their own immediately after that album. George Harrison, Joe cocker, Eric Clapton --they were all influenced by that record. Cocker's whole Mad Dogs & Englishmen thing came directly out of that. It's an amazing album if you can locate a copy. It really holds up well."

Vito's guitar style and songwriting are as progressive as anyone on the scene, but he maintains a healthy respect for what Merle Haggard calls "the roots of my raisin'." He's keenly attuned to the stylists and music that moved him to strap on a six-string.

"I was immensely influenced by Elvis. My mom played Hawaiian guitar, so we had that thing - with strings an inch up off the neck - lyin' around the house," Vito laughs. "I really got a kick out of Ricky Nelson with James Burton at the end of every Ozzie and Harriet show. To think that you used to be able to see James Burton playin' that cool rockabilly stuff on his Telecaster on TV every week! I'd have to say that rockabilly was what first turned me around.

"When I first started to play - before I became a blues purist and wouldn't listen to anything but for a while - I picked up on all the early Stones LPs. From that, I bought every Chuck Berry album; from that I went to Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, and those guys. My story isn't that different from a lot of guys who started playing guitar around that time. Keith Richards was a big, big influence.

Needless to say, Vito has constantly honed and refined his guitar style over the years. One thing he's confident of is that he'll be able to utilize all of his stylistic tools as a part of his approach to playing in Fleetwood Mac. "They're certainly not requesting that I continue in the tradition of Lindsey Buckingham's distinctly commercial style. I think the band is interested in moving away from that somewhat. I mean, we obviously still want to make commercial records. But there's been no demand that Billy or I maintain any kind of 'Fleetwood Mac sound'," Vito emphasizes. "Fleetwood Mac is interested in creativity. That's what's always kept the group great. We're definitely encouraged to explore."

"I know this is nothing new," Vito laughs, "but you have to believe in yourself. There are going to be a million times in your career when you feel like you want to give it up. You'll see people around you doing well while you're not doing a thing, and you won't be able to figure out why.

"Stay true to what you believe in terms of style, too - even if the style you enjoy playing in isn't particularly in vogue or popular at the time. I think there's a lot of pressure on younger players to play like Eddie Van Halen or in some of the raunchier heavy metal styles of the day. That's fine for some people. But there's certainly a flood of that going on right now. If you're capable of playing something else and playing it well, pursue it.

"My best advice to guitarists? Don't always go for the flash - go for the soul. There really is not enough soul in most of the guitar play8ing I hear on records. It would be a pleasure to hear fewer notes, more heartfelt playing. I think there's a dire need for good rhythm guitarists. Everybody I hear is playing lead, lead, lead. Nobody knows how to play rhythm. Where are the up-and-coming Steve Croppers or Jimmie Vaughans?

"I went to see John Cougar Mellencamp recently, and really noticed how much of his music is good, rhythm-oriented rock & roll - not a lot of guitar solos. Guitarists should develop their rhythm playing. Other than that, I would discourage younger players from wasting a lot of valuable time getting high. That can't help you at all. Invest the money in yourself. Go into a recording studio and get used to hearing what you sound like. Singing and playing guitar in a studio is a lot different than singing and playing live. The more you get comfortable with the studio process, the easier it will be for you later."

Rick Vito is quite comfortable with the studio process. And that's where he soon hopes to be with his new bandmates. He has a clear vision of what his contributions will be to the rock & roll institution known as Fleetwood Mac, and he's totin' the talent to back up that vision.

"I want to lend a new voice to this band," Vito says confidently. "I hope my songwriting and playing will suggest that Fleetwood Mac is still a roots-conscious rock & roll band. I want to help bring back some of that 'rootsy' feeling that a lot of people - including myself - want to hear from this band again."

Thanks to Rick Vito for sending this to the Penguin, Les for posting it to the Ledge, and to Anusha for formatting and sending it to us.