A Green Guitar God with a Unique Tone and Soulful Voice

In memoriam of Peter Green

“Playing fast is something I used to do with John [Mayall] when things weren’t going well. But it isn’t any good. I like to play slowly and feel every note.” I think this quote from Peter Green, which was included in a June 16, 2020 feature by Guitar World, nicely reflects the philosophy of the English guitarist. About six weeks after that story had been published, Green passed away “peacefully in his sleep” on July 25, 2020 at the age of 73, as reported by the BBC and many other media outlets. This post is a late recognition of a great artist I only had known from some of his excellent work with the early Fleetwood Mac.

It’s really unfortunate that oftentimes it takes a death or other tragic event to get somebody on your radar screen. When it came to Peter Green, I first and foremost viewed him as this great British guitarist who wrote the fantastic tune Black Magic Woman, which I initially thought was a Santana song, and Albatross, an instrumental with one of the most beautiful guitar tones I’ve ever heard. As I started to explore some of Green’s post-Fleetwood Mac work, perhaps one of the biggest revelations was that apart from his guitar chops he also had a pretty good voice.

This post doesn’t aim to be a traditional obituary. You can find plenty of such pieces elsewhere. Instead, I’d like to focus on Green’s music, especially beyond Fleetwood Mac. Interestingly, Peter Allen Greenbaum who was born in London on October 29, 1946, started his music career as a bassist. According to the above BBC story, it was an encounter with none other than a young Eric Clapton that convinced Green to switch to guitar. “I decided to go back on lead guitar after seeing him with the Bluesbreakers. He had a Les Paul, his fingers were marvellous. The guy knew how to do a bit of evil, I guess.”

Not only did Green manage to retool fairly quickly, but before he knew it, he ended up replacing Clapton in The Bluesbreakers. Here’s a nice anecdote that’s included in the previously noted feature in Guitar World. When John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers assembled for the sessions to record their sophomore album A Hard Road in October 1966, producer Mike Vernon nervously asked, “Where’s Eric Clapton?” Mayall replied, “He’s not with us any more, but don’t worry, we’ve got someone better.” Apparently, somewhat in disbelief, Vernon said, “You’ve got someone better – than Eric Clapton?” Mayall responded, “He might not be better now, but in a couple of years, he’s going to be the best.” The Godfather of British Blues simply knew talent when he saw it!

Here’s The Supernatural from A Hard Road, a track Green wrote. Check out that mighty guitar tone! It reminds me a bit of Black Magic Woman. The instrumental helped establish Green’s trademark sound and earn him the nickname “The Green God.” In case you didn’t know what inspired the post’s headline, now you do!

By July 1967, Green had left The Bluesbreakers and formed his new band initally called Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac Featuring Jeremy Spencer. Apart from Green (vocals, guitar, harmonica), the lineup included Mick Fleetwood (drums), Jeremy Spencer (vocals, slide guitar, piano) and John McVie (bass). Not only had all of them been previous members of The Bluesbreakers, but John Mayall turned out to be the band’s enabler by offering Green free recording time. Mayall strikes me as somebody who was more than happy to provide apprenticeships to talented up and coming musicians! Here’s Long Grey Mere, a tune Green wrote for Fleetwood Mac, the February 1968 debut by the band that by then was called Peter Greene’s Fleetwood Mac. Bob Brunning, who technically was the band’s first bassist before John McVie joined, played bass on the track.

In early 1970, Fleetwood Mac were on tour in Europe. At that time, Green had become a frequent user of LSD. In Munich, Germany, he ended up visiting a hippie commune and “disappearing” for three days. A New York Times obituary included a later quote from Green saying he “went on a trip, and never came back.” After a final performance on May 20 that year, he left Fleetwood Mac. The following month, Green started work on what became his first solo album, The End of the Game. Released in December of the same year, the record featured edited free-form jazz rock jam sessions, marking a radical departure from his music with the Mac. Here’s the title track.

Following his solo debut, Green’s output became unsteady. In 1971, he briefly reunited with Fleetwood Mac, filling in for Jeremy Spencer after his departure to help the band complete their U.S. tour under the pseudonym Peter Blue. Beasts of Burden is a single Green recorded with fellow British guitarist Nigel Watson, who many years later would become part of Peter Green Splinter Group. The tune later was added to an expanded version of the above album.

Eventually, Green’s mental health issues took a heavy toll. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and ended up being in psychiatric hospitals in the mid-’70s, undergoing electroconvulsive therapy – yikes! To me, this frighteningly sounds like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the 1975 picture starring Jack Nicholson, one of his best performances I’ve ever watched. Luckily, Green reemerged professionally and in May 1979 released his sophomore solo album In the Skies. Here’s the great title track and opener, which Green co-wrote with his wife Jane Greene (nee Samuels) whom he had married in January 1978. Sadly, the marriage was short-lived and ended in divorce in 1979.

Starting with his next album Little Dreamer from April 1980, Green mostly relied on others to write songs for him, including his brother Mike Green (born Michael Greenbaum) for next few years. Here’s the groovy opener Loser Two Times. While the song was written by Mike Green, one cannot help but notice these words feel very autobiographic. I’m a loser two times/I’m a loser two times/I tried to change my ways but I was too blind/I lost my money, I lost my girl/And now I’ve almost lost my mind/Yes, I’m a loser two times…

Peter Green’s first reemergence from his health challenges ended with Kolors, his sixth solo album from 1983, which largely consisted of songs from previous recording sessions that had been unreleased. According to The New York Times, Green’s medications essentially incapacitated him. Eventually, he managed to wean himself from prescription tranquilizers in the ’90s. In 1997, he returned to music for the second time with Peter Green Splinter Group. Here’s Homework from their eponymous first album, a tune by Dave Clark and Al Perkins I had known and liked for many years by The J. Geils Band. The Splinter Group’s rendition features Green on lead vocals.

Time Traders, which appeared in October 2001, was the Splinter Group’s sixth album. Unlike their predecessors that had largely featured covers, especially of Robert Johnson, Time Traders entirely consisted of original tunes that had been written by members of the band. Here’s Underway, an instrumental by Green, which first had appeared on Fleetwood Mac’s third studio album Then Play On from September 1969. The track showcases more of that magic tone Green got out of his guitar.

February 2003 saw the release of the Splinter Group’s eighth and final album Reaching the Cold 100. Here’s Don’t Walk Away From Me, written by Roger Cotton, who played guitar, keyboards and organ in the band, featuring Green on guitar and vocals. Beautiful tune with a great sound – and yet another good example of Green’s vocal abilities!

The final track I’d like to highlight is Trouble in Mind, which Peter Green released together with Ian Stewart, Charlie Hart, Charlie Watts and Brian Knight in February 2009. Written by jazz pianist Richard M. Jones, the blues standard was first recorded by singer Thelma La Vizzo in 1924. It was also covered by Dinah Washington, Nina Simone and many other artists.

Peter Green was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 together with Fleetwood Mac, including Stevie Nicks, Mick Fleetwood, Lindsey Buckingham, John McVie, Jeremy Spencer, Danny Kirwan and Christine McVie. In June 1996, Green was voted the third greatest guitarist of all time in Mojo magazine. And in December 2015, Rolling Stone ranked him at no. 58 in their list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. No matter how you rank Peter Green, there’s no doubt the “Green God” was a master of tone and I think an undervalued vocalist.

Sources: Wikipedia; Guitar World; BBC; The New York Times; Rolling Stone; YouTube

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James Taylor Releases American Songbook Cover Album

I suppose if you’re a cynic you could point out that when an artist releases a cover album of American standards or Christmas tunes for that matter, it’s a sign they’ve run out of ideas and may consider retirement, or they simply are trying make a quick buck. While in some cases this notion may not be unfounded, I feel differently when it comes to James Taylor. To me, his just-released new album American Standard is a legitimate undertaking by an artist who wants to highlight songs that have played an important role in his musical journey.

I’ve admired James Taylor for many years for his warm and soothing vocals and his impressive acoustic guitar chops. I wish I could play like that! His cover of Carole King’s You’ve Got a Friend is one of my all-time favorite tunes. And, yes, Taylor has also written beautiful songs like Carolina in My Mind, Sweet Baby James and of course the amazing Fire and Rain. I realize this may make me a bit biased when it comes to his latest release.

So why come out with a cover album of American standards? Do we really need another version of Moon River and God Bless the Child? Here’s what the album’s liner notes say, as reported by American Songwriter: “These are songs I have always known. Most of them were part of my family’s record collection, the first music I heard as a kid growing up in North Carolina…Before I started writing my own stuff, I learned to play these tunes, working out chord changes for my favorite melodies. And those guitar arrangements became the basis for this album.”

James Taylor in this studio
James Taylor in his barn studio in Western Mass.

“My collaborator, John Pizzarelli, is a living encyclopedia of the best popular music that the West has ever produced. Like his father, Bucky, he is a master guitarist and a casual, matter-of-fact genius. I asked John to come out to Western Massachusetts, where I live and do my recording in a big barn in the middle of the forest, to help me put down some tracks. I’d show him what changes I had found for a handful of songs and we’d work up the arrangements.”

Call me naive, but to me Taylor doesn’t sound like some artist who is just out there to cash in on his big name late in his recording career. I won’t pretend I’m an expert on the American songbook. I’m not. It’s simply not the kind of music I typically listen to. I also doubt this will change all for a sudden. What I do know is that I love how Taylor and Pizzarelli arranged these tunes. I think it’s time to let the music do some of the talking or writing.

Teach Me Tonight was written in 1953 by pianist Gene De Paul with lyrics by Sammy Cahn. This jazz standard has been covered by Dinah Washington, Count Basie, Sammy Davis Jr., Aretha Franklin, Al Jarreau and Stevie Wonder, among other countless artists. I dig the beautiful arrangement, including the trumpet solo and percussion played by Walt Fowler and Luis Conte, respectively. Here’s the official video.

Another beautiful tune is Almost Like Being in Love. The music and the lyrics were written by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner, respectively, for the score of their 1947 musical Brigadoon. The song was first performed on Broadway by David Brooks. Gene Kelly sang the 1954 film version. The tune was also recorded by Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and Shirley Bassey. As a fan of old James Bond movies, she entered my radar screen with Goldfinger, perhaps the best 007 tune.

My Heart Stood Still was composed by Richard Rodgers in 1927, with lyrics by Lorenz Hart. It was written for a British musical revue by Charles Cochran, which opened in London in May 1927. It was also featured later that same year in the American Broadway musical A Connecticut Yankee. Like with most other tracks on the album, it’s a tune that was recorded by many artists over the decades, including Chet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. The lovely violin part is played by Stuart Duncan.

The last tune I’d like to call out is It’s Only a Paper Moon, which I previously only knew from the 1973 motion picture Paper Moon. But the song’s origin dates all the way back to 1932, when it was titled If You Believed in Me and first performed by Claire Carleton during a Broadway play called The Great Magoo. The music was composed by Harold Arlen, with lyrics by Yip Harburg and Billy Rose. According to Wikipedia, the song’s lasting fame stems from its revival by popular artists during the last years of World War II, with hit recordings being made by Nat King ColeElla Fitzgerald, and Benny Goodman.

American Standard, which was released yesterday (Feb 28), is Taylor’s 20th studio album. It was co-produced by Dave O’Donnell, Taylor and Pizzarelli. O’Donnell has worked in different capacities (engineering, mixing, producing) with an impressive array of artists, who in addition to Taylor include Sheryl Crow, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and John Mayer, among others. Pizzarelli, a jazz guitarist and vocalist, isn’t exactly obscure either. According to Wikipedia, apart from recording more than 20 solo albums, he has appeared on more than 40 albums, including Paul McCartney, Rickie Lee Jones and Natalie Cole.

Taylor will be touring Canada and the U.S., starting in mid-April and featuring special guests. In Canada, it is going to be Bonnie Raitt, while for most U.S. gigs Jackson Browne will be his special guest. This surely does sound tempting to me. If Raitt would be the special guest in the U.S., I’d probably get a ticket right away. Don’t get me wrong, I dig Jackson Browne as well but saw him relatively recently in May 2018. My previous and so far only Bonnie Raitt show, on the other hand, dates back to August 2016. And, yes, I admit it, I do have a weak spot for her – she’s just an amazing lady!

Sources: Wikipedia; American Songwriter; James Taylor website; Dave O’Donnell website; YouTube