May 18, 2024

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Book review: Jeff Lowenthal and Robert Schaffner – Fleetwood Mac in Chicago – The Legendary Chess Blues Session – 2023: Video, Cover

This is the first book to cover Fleetwood Mac in their early stages, and it’s all from the legendary Chess Studios in Chicago.

It happened more than fifty years ago, a memorable recording session at the the Chess Records Studio that brought together an English blues band and some of the best Chicago blues musicians. The music captured during the nine hour session was released as two volumes entitled Blues Jam In Chicago, on Blue Horizon Records in December, 1969.

The classic line-up for Fleetwood Mac included the phenomenal Peter Green on guitar and vocals. He was a true master of the blues, playing with enormous amounts of taste and emotion. The band also featured two other guitarists, the slide guitar whiz Jeremy Spencer and Danny Kirwan, who managed to get one of the finest vibrato tones from his guitar without any electronic enhancements. The rhythm section was comprised of Mick Fleetwood on drums and John McVie on bass, who would later achieve even greater fame with another version of the band.

These recording sessions took place in January 1969, when Fleetwood Mac were a British blues band. Founded in 1967 in London, England by Peter Green, Jeremy Spencer and Mick Fleetwood, it then consisted of Green (guitar, vocals), Spencer (guitar, vocals), Fleetwood (drums), John McVie (bass guitar) and Danny Kirwan (guitar, vocals).

The Chicago blues musicians who also played at this session were Willie Dixon (vocals and guitar), Otis Spann (piano, vocals), (upright bass), Shakey Horton (harmonica, vocals), J.T. Brown (tenor saxophone, vocals), Buddy Guy (guitar) Honeyboy Edwards (guitar, vocals), and S.P. Leary (drums).

Jeff Lowenthal was the only photographer at the sessions, and his work is candid, insightful and very fine, as is the book as a whole. There are many more black and white photos than there are color.

Jeff Lowenthal was the proverbial “fly on the wall” that day, the lone photographer invited to be part of the session. Some of his photos were included on the original LP albums, as well as subsequent re-releases in a variety of formats. This new book makes available a treasure trove of his efforts, in color and B&W, many for the first time, highlighting a once-in-a-lifetime summit meeting.

In his “Foreword” that opens the book, producer and label owner Mike Vernon sets the stage, relating how plans came together for the band’s first US tour, which included a number of shows in Chicago. Sensing an opportunity, Vernon reached out to Willie Dixon for help in arranging for some of Chicago’s finest to join Fleetwood Mac in the studio. While some artists like Otis Rush and Magic Sam were not available, Dixon was able to secure commitments from Buddy Guy, the legendary piano player Otis Spann, noted drummer S.P Leary, harmonica master Big Walter “Shakey” Horton, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, tenor saxophonist J.T Brown, and Dixon himself on bass.

After brief remarks from producer Marshall Chess, Lowenthal uses his “Introduction” section to tell the story of how he ended up being the photographer that day, along with notes on the cameras he used and how he dealt with issues like the studio lighting. Finally, co-author Robert Schaffner shares his thoughts on Fleetwood Mac, their impact on his life, and his efforts, through this book, to share Lowenthal’s amazing work with a wider audience.

From that point, all readers have to do is sit back, turn the pages, and be whisked back in time as you marvel at image after image, like the striking two page shot of Green and Dixon, separated by an acoustic barrier. Then there is the color photo of Vernon talking with a seated Buddy Guy, cradling his guitar. Another classic shows Green, Spann, and McVie intently listening to a playback. A B&W shot captures Spencer talking with J.T Brown, who had played with slide guitar master Elmore James, who Spencer idolized.

Another page has two shots of Horton, Kirwan, and Green in the midst of laying down a track. Honeyboy Edwards looks at ease in a stunning profile shot. Another color photo showcases Green and his famous Gibson Les Paul Goldtop guitar during a momentary break in the action. There are several close-up shots of Otis Spann that vividly convey the depths of his artistry.

With over 100 photographs, there is plenty to take in and savor. Interspersed throughout the photos are comments from a variety of notables including Walter Trout, who gets emotional talking about Peter Green, Rick Nielsen from Cheap Trick, Joe Bonamassa, the late Kim Simmonds from Savoy Brown, several people associated with Hamer Guitars, with Founder Paul Hamer relating how one of Lowenthal’s photos of Green inspired him to pursue building better guitars. Leave it to Buddy Guy to make clear what that session, and the abiding interest in blues music by British musicians, meant to the blues artists toiling away in relative obscurity in Chicago.

Also featured are forwards by session producers Marshall Chess and Mike Vernon, texts by Robert Schaffner and some of the participating musicians. Additionally, there’s commentary by non participating musicians such as drummer Aynsley Dunbar, the late Kim Simmons of Savoy Brown, Martin Barre of Jethro Tull and Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick. There’s also a new interview with Buddy Guy.

In essence, this book captures a hungry, still rather new English blues band that were six years away from breaking it big with a different lineup and sound in ‘75 that by then had seen the loss of Green, Spencer and Kirwan.

However, back at the start of ‘69 they were taking their original blues ethos with much seriousness and finding their way. It was a very different era and ethos for them than what was to come, and if one cares to dig deep into their entire history, this book is a must to view their first wave.

This superb volume is a must have for those who treasure the music of the late 1960s version of Fleetwood Mac, and anyone who remains a fan of Peter Green. Spending time with this book opens a door to a bye-gone era. Turn up your stereo, play Blues Jam In Chicago, and let Lowenthal’s photographs immerse you in those magic moments!

Band photo by Jeff Lowenthal

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