As the bassist for Fleetwood Mac — and, indeed, providing the "Mac" in that group name — John McVie may be the most circumspect, self-effacing rock musician ever to achieve anything like superstar status. This fact could be explained when one recognizes that he never set out to be a rock musician, or a superstar. Among bassists whose names are (or have been) household words, he's positively a shrinking violet next to figures such as John Entwistle, Paul McCartney, Jack Bruce, John Paul Jones, Sting, et al., all the while appearing on just about as many records as any of them (save McCartney) that are in people's collections.
John Graham McVie was born in Ealing, West London, in 1945, and expressed an interest in music from childhood, when he took up the trumpet. He reached his teens amid the British skiffle boom and the first serious rumblings of home-grown rock & roll, and decided to switch to the guitar. But he saw that everyone was taking up the guitar, seeking to emulate either Lonnie Donegan or Hank Marvin and Bruce Welch of the Shadows; he also was inclined to play along to their work on the Shadows' records. And so, in a profoundly important moment, he chose to learn the bass instead, and to use the Shadows' original four-string player, Jet Harris, as his model. His father contributed to the choice by buying him a Fender bass, then a very expensive purchase in England. His listening included the work of Willie Dixon and Charles Mingus, though upright bass doesn't ever seem to have figured large in McVie's own career. Jazz and blues loomed large in his thinking, though he did find one rock player after Harris whose work intrigued him, Paul McCartney.
McVie's first band was the Krewsaders, comprised of friends he knew from Ealing, playing local dances and weddings. He was struggling along, paying his dues at local gigs, and planning to join the civil service as a tax inspector, when lightning of a kind struck. McVie had a friend, Cliff Barton, who was playing with the Cyril Davies All-Stars, one of the top British blues bands working in London at the time, and who was offered the chance to join a fledgling band called the Bluesbreakers, organized and led by John Mayall. Barton wasn't interested, but he told Mayall that he should look up the then 17-year-old McVie, who joined the Bluesbreakers in January of 1963. From that modest beginning (a ten-shilling payday for his first gig, at a pub, according to one interview), he stayed with the band for years, and was there when Mayall and company became important enough to rate a recording contract with Decca — while McVie was working as a tax inspector during the daytime.
McVie was good enough to last, despite a propensity for drinking that grew more severe as time went on, and resulted in periodic dismissals and rehirings. He was there for the tenure of Eric Clapton on lead guitar, and for his successor, Peter Green. And he found a new partner in the rhythm section in 1967 with the addition of drummer Mick Fleetwood, a veteran of bands such as Peter B's Looners, and to a lot of connoisseurs, that band — Mayall, Green, McVie, and Fleetwood — was the best lineup the Bluesbreakers ever fielded. Green's tenure with the band was difficult, owing in part to his own aspirations and also to the dominant personality of Mayall, who exerted his authority as leader without compunction. Green decided to strike out on his own after work on the album A Hard Road, and wanted to take Fleetwood and McVie with him. Fleetwood went along, but McVie, who had been with Mayall far longer than the others, didn't want to betray his mentor/benefactor and also saw the new band as a risk; blues bands were springing up all over London, while the audience seemed to be splintering amid the burgeoning psychedelic movement, and there was this outfit called Cream that seemed to be getting most of the press and sales — even the decision to call the proposed band Fleetwood Mac (or Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac), thus giving each member a stake in the name, couldn't get McVie dislodged from the Bluesbreakers.
In one of the luckiest gestures of friendship and good will that one is likely to find in music of that era, Green and Fleetwood agreed to "hold" the bassist slot open for McVie, and engaged Bob Brunning as their temporary bassist. Finally, in the early fall of 1967, McVie jumped ship — Mayall had been changing the band amid the shifting personnel, and came out with something that was more jazz than blues, in McVie's view, and jazzier than he wanted to be. McVie's arrival enabled Fleetwood Mac to become everything that Green saw in its potential and more — they went on, even in the blues years, to regularly reach the uppermost levels of the charts in England, and were getting reviews second only to Cream (and sometimes not second) among blues outfits. A recording contract with Blue Horizon made that company's fortune and yielded sales high enough to get the group signed to Reprise Records (part of Warner Bros. Records) following its second album.
That record included some piano played by Christine Perfect — the lead singer of a Blue Horizon act called Chicken Shack — who McVie first met at the Windsor Jazz Festival, where both groups were performing, and they were married less than six months later in August of 1968. Fleetwood Mac added guitarists Jeremy Spencer and Danny Kirwan to their lineup and eventually Christine McVie would formally join as well, and take over a lot of the lead vocals. Green, Spencer, and Kirwan all eventually departed under the weight of various personal and psychological stresses, and Bob Welch passed through as well, and all the while Fleetwood and the McVies soldiered on, releasing albums that sold in the hundreds of thousands over time, and building a substantial (if not huge) audience in America. McVie's playing on those albums was exceptionally fine — anyone who wants to hear some of the most beautifully melodic pop/rock bass work ever should give a fresh listen to Penguin (1973), one of the classics of what proved to be the "bubbling under" years for the band. They were successful enough, and sufficiently well known as a top-flight blues band in England, to yield a string of notorious impersonator bands, which resulted in lawsuits and Fleetwood and McVie eventually getting legal possession of the Fleetwood Mac name.
Amid all of this activity, McVie still struggled with his chronic alcoholism, which rose and fell but never quite disappeared. Eventually, it led to the breakup of the McVies' marriage, but not before the group added another couple — Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks — to its lineup and ascended to a level of mega-pop stardom rivaled only by the likes of the Beatles. The self-titled Fleetwood Mac album turned McVie into a superstar, along with the rest of the band, while its follow-up, Rumours, recorded as his marriage was disintegrating, only solidified the group's newfound status, exceeding the earlier album's sales. By the time sales began to die down from that album, McVie was married a second time. His career has continued apace since then, he and Fleetwood regarded as one of the best rhythm sections in the history of rock music, and essentially writing their own ticket in terms of recordings. He has reportedly cleaned himself up of drug and alcohol dependencies, and found time to cut his first-ever solo project, John McVie's Gotta Band with Lola Thomas, on which he even made a rare appearance on backing vocals.
Despite the band's inevitable celebrity status and the resulting press coverage, McVie has managed to keep a lot of his private life relatively private. McVie's best spokesman, apart from himself in the occasional interviews he gives, is his music, which now comprises a 44-year legacy and counting. In addition to his work with the band that carries his name, he has never been averse to working with former associates including his ex-wife Christine, former mentor Mayall, and longtime friends such as the late Warren Zevon, and he and Fleetwood have also lent their talents and celebrity to figures who they respect and admire, such as Grass Roots bassist/lead singer Rob Grill. ~ Bruce Eder