Fleetwood Mac were Brit-rock stalwarts when, in 1974, they hit on the idea of pepping up their lineup. They invited a folky Californian, Lindsey Buckingham, to join, but he refused to come without his girlfriend, Stevie Nicks. The band agreed, on one condition: their sole female member, Christine McVie, had to feel comfortable with Nicks.
They met over dinner in Los Angeles, and McVie, finding Nicks “funny and nice, but also, there was no competition”, waved her through. That decision led to the enlarged band becoming the sultans of soft rock, underlining McVie’s status as the quiet pillar of the Mac apparatus. (And she was right; Nicks complemented rather than competed. She was the ethereal conjuror, McVie the “very, very, very English” – in Nicks’s appraisal – countermeasure, and neither ever upstaged the other.)
McVie, who has died aged 79, was co-lead singer, keyboardist and author of many of the group’s canonical tunes, including Say You Love Me, Over My Head and You Make Loving Fun. Understatement shaped her identity, with Rolling Stone magazine rather insultingly calling her “the epitome of rock’n’roll sanity”. That kind of thing riled her: “I was probably the most restrained, but I was no angel,” she protested, claiming that one of her most acclaimed compositions, Songbird, owed its existence to “a couple of toots of cocaine and a half-bottle of champagne”.
Nevertheless, she avoided the spotlight, often literally. At gigs her domain was a relatively modest keyboard set-up at the side, safely away from stage centre, and despite her talent – “the finest blueswoman and piano player in all of England,” the drummer, Mick Fleetwood, maintained – she was self-deprecating about her abilities.
Deeply melodic love songs, burnished by her warm alto, were McVie’s stock in trade, but she could address her unhappy ex-husband, John McVie, with equal tenderness. The 1977 Top 3 hit Don’t Stop, later used as the theme tune for Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, did just that. Written during sessions for the landmark Rumours album, when relations between the pair were at their worst, it sunnily encouraged John, the band’s bassist, to look forward rather than brood about the past. (She blamed their periodic break-ups, culminating in divorce in 1976, on the stress of being in the same group, and her husband’s heavy drinking: “John is not the most pleasant of people when he’s drunk,” she said in 2003. “I was seeing more Hyde than Jekyll.”)
She didn’t deliberately write commercial songs, she insisted; they just came out that way. Which was just as well – in 1975, as the group were grinding through an American tour, their US label chose Over My Head to soundtrack a radio campaign for their self-titled new album. The LP duly became their first real smash, selling more than 9m copies. For that matter, the 1977 behemoth Rumours arguably owed a good chunk of its 45m sales to the two McVie tracks released as singles, Don’t Stop and You Make Loving Fun, which remain soft-rock touchstones to this day.
The younger child of Cyril Perfect, a music teacher, and his wife, Beatrice (nee Reece), Christine was born in Bouth, then part of Lancashire and now in Cumbria, and raised in Bearwood, West Midlands. Her mother’s avocation was spirituality and Christine was uncomfortable around her circle of faith-healer friends, but an even heavier burden was being saddled with the name Christine Perfect. “Teachers would say: ‘I hope you live up to your name, Christine.’ So, yes, it was tough.” She so disliked it that after her divorce she kept her married name.
As a child, she studied classical piano and cello, only becoming interested in rock at 15, when her brother left Fats Domino sheet music on the household piano. She was an instant convert to the blues, developing a driving, boogie-woogie left-hand piano style, but music became secondary to her other consuming interest, art. Five years at Birmingham Art College yielded a sculpture degree, but she emerged with a revived passion for music, thanks to having spent her university time busking with her friend Spencer Davis and playing bass in a band called Sounds of Blue, led by Stan Webb.
Listlessly working as a window dresser at Dickins & Jones department store in London after graduation, Christine was delighted to be asked to join Webb’s new outfit, Chicken Shack, as keyboardist and vocalist. One of the only women in the mid-1960s British blues scene to both sing and play an instrument, she got noticed. Though she later dismissed Chicken Shack as a “mediocre sort of white blues band”, she sang lead on their only Top 20 song, a dreamy cover of Etta James’s I’d Rather Go Blind, and was voted Melody Maker’s top female vocalist of 1969 (she won the same award in 1970, after releasing a solo album entitled Christine Perfect).
She fancied the guitarist Peter Green of the rival blues act Fleetwood Mac, but it was John McVie who asked her out. “It was Peter Green I had a bit of an eye on,” she said during a Desert Island Discs broadcast in 2017. “I started talking to John and fell head over heels with him.” They married in 1968, and a few months later, deciding she was not seeing enough of her husband, she left Chicken Shack with the intention of being a housewife. It lasted only until her manager persuaded her to make the solo LP, an “immature” effort she later preferred to forget. The next step was joining Fleetwood Mac as a permanent member in 1970, having already played uncredited on several studio sessions.
She was dubious about the band’s decision to relocate to Los Angeles in 1974, but reconciled herself to Californian rock-star life, buying Anthony Newley’s old house and a pair of Mercedes-Benzes with her lhasa apso dogs’ names on the number plates. While making the follow-up to Rumours, Tusk, she dated the Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, but her next significant relationship, with the Portuguese keyboardist Eddy Quintela, was happier and more productive. He played on her second solo album, Christine McVie (1984), and after their marriage in 1986 the pair wrote one of Mac’s biggest hits of the 80s, Little Lies. The marriage foundered, however, when McVie found herself craving a quiet life in England; she quit the band in 1998 and bought a Tudor house in Wickhambreaux, Kent.
Fifteen years of “this country life with the welly boots and the dogs and the Range Rover” proved enough, and matters definitively came to a head when she fell down a flight of stairs and became dependent on prescription painkillers. It was, she said, a bleak time, not least because another attempt at a solo career had failed to launch. She had made the album In the Meantime with her nephew, Dan Perfect, in 2004, purposely veering away from Fleetwood Mac’s big-ticket lushness. But without it, the relaxed, mid-tempo songs had little zing; moreover, a fear of flying kept her from travelling to promote it. Innately a team player, after therapy to overcome her phobia she rejoined Mac permanently in 2014.
Reaction to her return was roaringly positive, both from fans and the band themselves; to Mick Fleetwood, it made the group “complete” again. In the same year, she received an Ivor Novello lifetime achievement award. McVie’s last recording was a self-titled joint album with Buckingham, a Top 5 British hit in 2017. It caught her in a reflective mood but her gift for melody was undimmed. Her final public performance was at a tribute show for Green in London in February 2020.
In June this year, a solo compilation, Songbird, was released, but McVie was adamant that she wouldn’t tour again. “I don’t feel physically up for it. I’m in quite bad health. I’ve got a chronic back problem, which debilitates me. I stand up to play the piano, so I don’t know if I could actually physically do it.”
She and Quintela divorced in 2003. Her brother, John, and nephew survive her.
• Anne Christine McVie, musician, born 12 July 1943; died 30 November 2022