It’s one of the hardest propositions in American popular music: how does a musician from a wildly successful group navigate going solo? For every Michael Jackson, Beyoncé, or Justin Timberlake, there are dozens of performers that weren’t able to approach that level either artistically or commercially. Fortunately, Stevie Nicks was no stranger to musical transitions. After leaving the group Fritz and forming a duo with Lindsey Buckingham, the pair joined Fleetwood Mac. The well-documented success of that band gave Nicks the opportunity to co-found Modern Records and release her solo debut, Bella Donna, 40 years ago this month. It was just another step on the path that would lead to her being the first woman to be inducted twice into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Stephanie Nicks was born in Arizona in 1948. Singing at four and playing guitar at 16, “Stevie” starting writing songs and played with a folk rock band in high school. While she was a senior in high school in California, she met Lindsey Buckingham. Soon after, she joined the band Fritz alongside him, and the young couple’s group would open for the likes of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. The pair went to San Jose State, but they later dropped out to chase their shared musical dreams. They worked a variety of jobs prior to recording their debut album at Sound City studio; Buckingham Nicks was released in 1973. At the time, they both worked in and around the famous studio. When drummer Mick Fleetwood of the bluesy British band Fleetwood Mac visited the studio, he heard the duo’s song, “Frozen Love.”
That happenstance discovery paid off later when Bob Welch left Fleetwood Mac. In need of a new guitarist, Fleetwood approached Buckingham. Buckingham said he’d join the band only if Nicks could join, too. Fleetwood and bandmates John and Christine McVie agreed, and the new configuration of the band was born. Fleetwood Mac had already had a long period of success, but the addition of two new singers and songwriters to the band opened up new possibilities. 1975’s self-titled Fleetwood Mac was emblematic of what the quintet could do; Nicks wrote the instant classics “Rhiannon” (#11) and “Landslide,” and the album eventually went to #1 in the States, selling in excess of seven million copies. Incredibly, that was just a warm-up.
The tour for Fleetwood Mac had been a success, but relationships in the band were disintegrating as they approached their next album. The McVies divorced, Nicks and Buckingham were splitting, and Fleetwood was going through his own divorce. The whirlwind of tensions combined with the group’s talent to make one of the most popular albums in human history. Rumours contained three songs written solely by Nicks: “I Don’t Want to Know,” rock radio staple “Gold Dust Woman,” and the million-selling U.S. #1 “Dreams.” Nicks co-wrote “The Chain” with the rest of the band, and was clearly the thematic center of Buckingham’s “Don’t Stop” and “Go Your Own Way.” The emotional content and top-notch songs connected with, well, everyone; the album sold 10 million copies globally in a month. In the U.S. alone, it’s been certified for sales of over 20 million copies. On the 2020 installment of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, it sits at #7.
In 1979, the band released Tusk; Nicks’s most popular contribution to the album was the song “Sara.” The tune was inspired in part by her close friend, Sara Recor; Nicks and Fleetwood had a brief affair, which ended as Fleetwood turned to Recor, whom he later married. During this period, it was clear that Nicks was amassing more songs that she could contribute to each Fleetwood Mac album, given how many band members were capable of writing strong songs. During the recording of Tusk, Nicks began to demo a series of songs that would make up her solo debut. Along with Danny Goldberg and Paul Fishkin, Nicks founded Modern Records to release her music.
40 years ago this week, Nicks released Bella Donna. By September, it would be the #1 album in the U.S., and it would remain in the Top 200 until June of 1984. The album represents Nicks as a whole artist incorporating rock, balladry, and two classic duets: “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” with Tom Petty (#3) and “Leather and Lace” with Don Henley (#6). “After the Glitter Fades” also made the Top 40. However, the indisputable classic of the album, and a track that became Nicks’s signature solo song, remains “Edge of Seventeen.” Everything about the Nicks persona (ethereal but earthy, witchy yet accessible, simultaneously delicate and determined) is locked into that song. The instantly recognizable guitar part was courtesy of legendary session and touring player Waddy Wachtel, but the atmosphere is classic Nicks. The album is also notable for the arrival of back-up singers Sharon Celani and Lori Perry (now Nicks, as she married Stevie’s brother, Christopher), who have been Nicks’s back-ups ever since.
Nicks toured on Bella Donna, but soon reported back to Fleetwood Mac to record Mirage. It was the start of the one of the longest-running balancing acts in popular music. With the exception of a handful of years in the 1990s, Nicks has been a part of Fleetwood Mac since she first joined, appearing on seven studio albums and numerous live albums and collections. As a solo artist, she’s mounted 17 tours and released eight studio albums, two live albums, and five compilations. Her sales totals, both with Mac and without, are staggering; Fleetwood Mac has sold over 120 million albums, and Nicks has accounted for more than 10 million on her own. She’s been nominated for eight solo Grammys and several more with the band (who won Album of the Year for Rumours and a Hall of Fame Award in 2003).
Fleetwood Mac was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998. In 2019, Nicks was inducted for her solo work, making her the first woman to be inducted twice. Her influence is incalculable. Recognized as one of rock’s great songwriters, she’s also widely regarded as a booster of other women and an avid supporter of young talents like Harry Styles (who performed at her solo Hall of Fame induction). Her signature wardrobe, frequently flowy and often black, is unmistakable. She’s also known for her generosity, with programs like Stevie Nicks’ Band of Soldiers, a charity to support wounded members of the military.
More than anything, Nicks is a survivor; she’s overcome addiction and the changing tides of musical taste to remain one of the most beloved figures in popular music. Her catalog is full of classics and she’s inspired a countless number of artists that came after her. Whether she’s part of a group or a solo act, Steve Nicks made an immutable impression on American music. Thunder might only happen when it’s raining, but the music made by Nicks will be around forever.
Featured image: Featureflash Photo Agency / Shutterstock.com
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now