New Book Highlights Fleetwood Mac’s 1969 Chicago Sessions At Chess Studios

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(Peter Green, Otis Spann and John McVie. Photo By Jeff Lowenthal)

January of 1969 is often associated with memories of the Beatles gathering behind the cameras to film the Get Back sessions. On the other side of the Atlantic, another historic event was taking place. The British blues band called Fleetwood Mac was touring America and on January 4th, booked a full day at Chess Studios where they jammed with blues legends including Willie Dixon, Buddy Guy, J.T. Brown, Big Walter “Shakey” Horton, Otis Spann and Honeyboy Edwards.  

The music from that day resulted in two volumes of Blues Jam In Chicago which was later reissued as a double album called Fleetwood Mac In Chicago. The day has recently been documented in a beautiful new book of photographs by Jeff Lowenthal and Robert Schaffner (Schiffer Publishing) called Fleetwood Mac In Chicago: The Legendary Chess Blues Sessions.

One of the enduring images we have of Chess Records is described in Keith Richards’ autobiography Life. When he walked into the Chicago studio, he saw his hero Muddy Waters with a can of white paint and a brush to paint the studio walls. As music producer Jon Tiven points out in the new book, when the Stones came to town they were only using the facility, not the musicians. For the young Brits of Fleetwood Mac, their stay would be more significant jamming with some of their blues heroes.

What makes the new book illuminating is that it’s as much a document of Fleetwood Mac as it is of the Chess musicians who toiled in the shadows as journeymen looking for their next paid gig.

Lowenthal’s pictures capture the vigor and charisma of guitarist Buddy Guy, the warmth of Otis Spann’s smile and the stature of Willie Dixon beside his stand-up bass. British record producer and Blue Horizon label head Mike Vernon lined Dixon up to put together a band. Although Muddy Waters was unavailable, his piano player Otis Spann played a key role that day and it led to a collaboration with Fleetwood Mac backing him for his album The Biggest Thing Since Colossus recorded later in the month.

When we turn the pages of the glossy coffee table book that takes us into the sessions, we can thank Lowenthal who was a freelance photographer with an interest in shooting musicians. When another photographer didn’t show up for a session, it led to a gig with the prestigious jazz publication Down Beat! Lowenthal was ready for the opportunity to shoot Chess Sessions and when he got the call from Marshall Chess that Fleetwood Mac was coming, he was on board.

Back in 1968, Fleetwood Mac had issued two albums on Blue Horizon and hit the top of the British charts with their instrumental “Albatross.” Mike Vernon got in touch with Marshall Chess, the son of Chess founder Marshall Chess. “This was a new kind of project for them,” he says of lining up the musicians, “and I had to convince them they would be paid.”

When Mick Fleetwood authored his book Play On, he recalled the reaction when the band got to Chicago. 

“None of them had ever seen or heard of us before and when they got a look at us I could tell that they thought we were another loud, over-distorted, acid rock blues band from Europe, the type who turned it up to mask their fairly basic skills, But we showed them otherwise.”

Much of it was the brilliance of then twenty-three year-old guitarist Peter Green and the inquisitiveness of the band’s new guitarist Danny Kirwan, then just nineteen. The Mac’s other guitarist, Jeremy Spencer, was a devotee of Elmore James and was enamored of being in the room playing with James’ band mate James J.T. Brown.

Some of the photos have been published before in magazines, the original album release, Fleetwood Mac’s box set The Complete Blue Horizon Sessions and various biographies of the band. But never before have they all been published and been so beautifully displayed in one place. The new collection is a treasure trove of archival history, with Lowenthal’s wide-angle lens dimensionalizing the event and furthering a sense of history that unfolded that day.

We can thank co-author Robert Schaffner for wearing down Lowenthal and convincing him to do this book. To accentuate the impact of Lowenthal’s photos, Schaffner’s accompanying interviews illuminate the impact of the players on generations that came after.

Dave Gregory, who would go on to play guitar for XTC, tells the authors: “When these pictures first appeared in Beat Instrumental Magazine I was a sixteen-year old kid still struggling to play. They were truly inspirational, as much for the instruments as the musicians. Those vintage Les Paul guitars  lit the spark that set me alright!”

Walter Trout of Canned Heat and like Fleetwood, McVie and Green, an alumnus of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, remembers buying Fleetwood Mac In Chicago at the age of fifteen and being deeply affected by Green’s playing: “It came from a deep place and air actually think it’s beyond that place in his heart. There’s something with that guy when he was playing that stuff. It’s as deep as listening to Miles Davis or Coltrane or something.”

In the end the music created that day is not as significant as Fleetwood Mac’s debut album or its follow-up, Mr. Wonderful. But the live mics capturing the interplay between the control room and the studio gives an insider’s view into how the music was created and the dynamics of the band. 

The day was also about the joy of playing, especially for Jeremy Spencer who hit it off with JT Brown. “ JT and I had a wonderful time playing together; he and I must have smiled the whole time, and I think that comes across on the album,” Spencer recalled in an interview with Rocktologist.. “Anyway, J. T. was like a grandfather to me, he had none of that ‘territorial’ vibe of blues is ‘our’ (black’s) music and he seemed rather taken that this little whitey from another time and place was so into his music. We chatted a lot over coffee in the break, mainly about Elmore of course and he didn’t seem to mind! 

In later years Green would feign indifference to the day. Writer Martin Celmins has recently published his third edition of his Peter Green biography (Omnibus) in which Green grumbled that on some of the Chess tracks, only one Mac member is featured at a time and that there wasn’t enough material for a double album. He called into question it being a Fleetwood Mac album.

About nine months after the recording, J. T. called Spencer  from Chicago, and played him  a ‘78 over the phone of Elmore James’ “Coming Home’, telling him the history of how Elmore had cut it the day after coming out of hospital.  Spencer learned that  James’ time in the hospital had affected his fingers so he could only play slide and not finger lead for the flip side called “Twelve Year-Old Boy.” Three months later, Brown died.

The day Lowenthal shot began a year which would be a breakthrough for the group as it moved beyond being a traditional blues band into something more adventurous and ambitious. As the band returned to England, the instrumental “Albatross” had  scaled the charts, inspiring the Beatles to write “Sun King”. During that year Fleetwood Mac outsold the Beatles and Rolling Stones.

But the year was also the beginning of the end as Green reacted to the weight of stardom and withdrew from the band just a year later. While on your, Spencer would soon be abducted in Los Angeles by a cult known as the Children of God. Danny Kirwan would leave the band the following year. In many ways this book captures a moment in time that unraveled just when we thought Fleetwood Mac was in its ascension. 

In a footnote to history, one will note that Buddy Guy is not credited on the album. Due to a contract issue, he appears as “Guitar Buddy.” Music fans will delight in his recollection to Schaffner of meeting Green at a Chicago concert many years later. “I went to see him and asked if he’d remembered me at those sessions and he said no,”  prompting Guy to have a hearty laugh. 

But in the book Fleetwood Mac In Chicago, it’s all documented and laid out. It’s a day that still impacts the musical world to this day -–and now with this book one we won’t forget.


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