1969 was a good year for British blues. While it lost the super trio Cream who finished their farewell tour at the end of 1968, many other bands released great blues-influenced records that year. It seems as if each band had its guitar superstar who defined the sound of that band. Ten Years after and Alvin Lee released two albums in 1969 on the Deram label. Free with Paul Kossoff on guitar also released their two first albums on Island. Leading them all was Fleetwood Mac with perhaps the best blues guitar player on that scene at the time, Peter Green. 1969 was their best year with the singles Man of the World and Oh Well and their last album with Green, Then Play On. Somewhat in the shadow of these successful bands was a less known band, led by guitarist Stan Webb. Chicken Shack was their name and in 1969 they saw minor success with their version of the song I’d Rather Go Blind.
Chicken Shack rose from a band Stan Webb (guitar), Andy Sylvester (rhythm guitar), Christine Perfect (Piano) and Chris Wood (Saxophone and Flute) started in Birmingham, named Sounds of Blue. Christine Perfect started as a bass and harmonica player, and then switched to piano when a new bass player was recruited. The band did not last long, and Chris Wood would later have a great career with Traffic, including their milestone album John Barleycorn Must Die. Christine Perfect left the band and the music scene in general, but when she got a call from Webb and Sylvester asking her to join their new band, she agreed and Chicken Shack was born. The band’s name was suggested to them by American blues pianist Champion Jack Dupree. It was black slang for a road-house blues venue.
Christine Perfect’s story is unique, as she was maybe the only female musician in the emerging British blues movement of the mid to late 60s. While switching to piano was not a problem for her, playing blues with the instrument she began to study as a child was a different story. She remembers: “I didn’t have a clue as to what to do on piano. Stan Webb bought me a Freddie King album… and that was the beginning of my absolute love for the blues.” Perfect was listening intently to Sonny Thompson, the legendary pianist who played and co-wrote many songs with blues guitarist and singer Freddie King.
While this was not her main focus at the time, Christine Perfect contributed a number of songs to Chicken Shack’s repertoire. On the band’s 1968 debut album 40 Blue Fingers, Freshly Packed and Ready to Serve, she composed and sang When the Train Comes Back
and You Ain’t No Good. Two more contributions followed with the next album, O.K. Ken? with Get Like You Used to Be and A Woman Is the Blues, both of them co-written with Stan Webb.
Chicken Shack had strong ties to Fleetwood Mac in the late 60s. The bands first met at the Windsor National Jazz and Blues Festival in 1967, a three-day outdoor event with a lineup that you can only drool over. A small sample of the participating artists included Pink Floyd, Yusef Lateef, Small Faces, The Move, The Pentangle, Cream and Jeff Beck. Chicken Shack were the new kids on the block and acted as the opening act for Fleetwood Mac who had better audience recognition due to its members work with John Mayall. This was Fleetwood Mac’s first incarnation, and they didn’t even have one of the band’s namesakes yet, as John McVie was reluctant to leave his steady position at John Mayall’s group. The two bands recorded their albums for the Blue Horizon label and shared the same manager and producer, the label’s founder Mike Vernon.
Christine Perfect loved the sound of Fleetwood Mac and came to see them playing live gigs when she had the opportunity. Her association with the band also included guesting on piano on Mr. Wonderful, the band’s second album from 1968. You can hear a spirited piano accompaniment she contributed to Rollin’ Man.
Following the release of Mr. Wonderful in August 1968, Perfect married John McVie and eventually left Chicken Shack with the intent of becoming a housewife. But before that she recorded with Chicken Shack the band’s most successful single, one that climbed to number 17 on the charts on Jun 14, 1969.
In February 1969 Chicken Shack went into the studio to record their version of I’d Rather Get Be Blind. Musicians on that single were Christine Perfect (Organ, Vocals), Stan Webb (Guitar), Andy Sylvester (Bass Guitar, Organ Bass Pedals) and Dave Bidwell (Drums). The single was recorded at CBS studio on New Bond Street in London, ran by engineer Mike Ross. Ross recorded all of Fleetwoood Mac’s early albums, including the single Albatross, as well as The Who’s Happy Jack and I Can See For Miles. The horn section on I’d Rather Be Blind was arranged by Terry Noonan who also wrote the wonderful string arrangement for Fleetwood Mac’s single Need Your Love So Bad.
The song was partly written by Etta James, who in 1967 was one of the first artists on the Chess label roster to record at Muscle Shoals. In 1967 Leonard Chess was looking for a way to rejuvenate the label’s sound and could pick no better than the FAME Studios at Muscle Shoals, where rival label Atlantic recorded Wilson Pickett’s Mustang Sally and Aretha Franklin’s I Never Loved A Man and Do Right Woman. Etta came down from Chicago and in two days in August 1967 cut one of the best two-sided singles in the history of R&B – Tell Mama and I’d Rather Go Blind. Her performance of the song is probably the definitive one that most folks will identify with the song. Leonard Chess, a rather shrewd business man who could dish profanities left and right, almost came to tears when he first heard Etta James’ recording of I’d Rather Go Blind.
Soon after Chicken Shack’s single release Christine Perfect (now McVie) left the band, but she did not stay retired long. In the autumn of 1969 she was persuaded by Mike Vernon to record tracks for a solo album, in which she performed a different version of I’d Rather Go Blind. Later that year she won the Melody Maker Award for best female vocalist for her record with Chicken Shack. She was also awarded the title of having one of the top ten pairs of legs in all of Britain. A year later she won the award again for her solo album. A few months later she joined Fleetwood Mac and the rest is history.
McVie considers her writing with Fleetwood Mac much more mature than the songs she wrote for Chicken Shack and her first solo album. Indeed the songs she later wrote for Fleetwood Mac such as Songbird, Oh Daddy, Brown Eyes and the mega hits Over My Head, Say You Love Me, Don’t Stop and You Make Loving Fun are all great songs. Still, those 60s songs have their charm, and her delivery of I’d Rather Be Blind is one of the best in her career. It is soulful but in a British way reserved and devoid of vocal theatrics, a trap that some female soul singers fall into when they sing lyrics concerning being ditched by their man.
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