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Artist Spotlight: Peter Green

Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Carlos Santana have long admired Peter Green’s playing and B.B. King once said that there was only one guitarist who gave him “the cold sweats.” Born October 29, 1946, Green would found one of the most successful rock bands of all time, leave behind stardom as part of a spiritual quest, and see his legacy swell in his prolonged absence from the spotlight.

Green’s first high profile gig was as a member of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, taking on the coveted guitar slot after Eric Clapton vacated the position in 1966. Although he had to deal with hecklers who were in the throes of the “Clapton is God” era, Green quickly won the affections of critics and fans and even saw London graffiti artists declare that he, himself, was also God. By 1967 he’d formed Fleetwood Mac, bringing along erstwhile Bluesbreaker Mick Fleetwood on drums and, eventually, bassist John McVie. Green named the band Fleetwood Mac, he would explain, so that when he left the band, the rhythm section would have something of its own––45 years later said rhythm section is the one constant of the band that bears its name.

With guitarist Jeremy Spencer also in the ranks and a repertoire of deep blues tracks, Fleetwood Mac set about creating a series of hit singles, most of which would become classic rock staples––including “Black Magic Woman” (later a hit for Santana), “Man of the World,” and “Oh Well.” Other signature Green tunes included “Need Your Love So Bad,” “Albatross,” and “The Green Manalishi (With the Two Prong Crown).”

By 1970 the bandleader had grown weary of fame, addressing it in the melancholy “Man of the World,” a track that some saw as a cry for help, and the anti-lucre “Green Manalishi.” Drugs exacerbated Green’s fragile mental state (later diagnosed as schizophrenia) and he would soon suffer a severe break with his band––and perhaps reality. Although he would record a series of solo albums during the 1970s and occasionally turn up at Fleetwood Mac sessions––he played uncredited on Fleetwood Mac’s 1979 album Tusk (“Brown Eyes”) and on Mick Fleetwood’s 1981 solo album The Visitor––he was often listed as a drug casualty.

Green rallied again in the late 1990s with the Peter Green Splinter Group, releasing a series of albums of varying quality between 1997 and 2004. He also returned to the stage and to acclaim as a live performer, although health concerns have made live performances at present seem an unlikely prospect. A 2008 four-disc retrospective highlighted Green’s flair for superior writing and playing and the generation of players who have grown in his wake is nothing short of impressive. His influence can be heard in the playing of Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, the late Gary Moore, who recorded a 1995 tribute to his hero called, appropriately enough, Blues for Greeny, and Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos.

Five of the Familiar: A quick guide to Peter Green’s signature Fleetwood Mac era songs

1. “Black Magic Woman”––Santana’s version would become a staple of Top 40 and then classic rock radio for more than 40 years but once you’ve heard the original you’ll be hard pressed to listen to the more popular version in the same light.

2. “Man of the World”––Melancholy and mellow, Green grapples with fame and fortune in this very public plea for help.

3. “Oh Well Pt.1”––Although Page, Clapton, and Beck are often credited with casting the mold that would allow for heavy metal––there’s plenty in Green’s pyrotechnics, you realize, that also made that possible.

4. “Albatross”––An impossibly simply and beautiful guitar instrumental that cements Green’s reputation for once and for all.

5. “The Green Manalishi (With the Two Prong Crown)”––The guitarist was growing increasingly dissatisfied with his own fame when he wrote this tune, a troubling examination of greed. One of the few songs the British heavy metal band Judas Priest has ever covered.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.