Legendary British Bluesman Peter Green's Back On The Scene

Fleetwood Mac founder finds strength in Robert Johnson songbook after decades of battling mental health problems.

Peter Green's had a lot of ups and downs in his musical career. Thankfully, after decades in the dark, the man who wrote "Black Magic Woman" and founded Fleetwood Mac seems to be coming round.

Green recently released Hot Foot Powder (Snapper Music) and has been touring England with legendary blues booster John Mayall. According to his label, U.S. dates are just around the corner.

Hot Foot Powder is another step on Green's comeback road that began in 1998 with the album Robert Johnson Songbook, which won Green a W.C. Handy award for Comeback Album of the Year.

Hot Foot Powder, like its predecessor, is made up entirely of Johnson material. On it, guests such as Dr. John, Hubert Sumlin and Otis Rush help flesh out the songs of the larger-than-life Delta blues figure. David "Honeyboy" Edwards, who as a youth knew Johnson, also helps out with some guitar work on "Travelin' Riverside Blues."

Green first gained widespread notoriety when he replaced Eric Clapton in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. While in that band, he met bassist John McVie, with whom Green and drummer Mick Fleetwood eventually formed Fleetwood Mac. Green and Fleetwood previously had worked together behind Rod Stewart in a group called Shotgun Express.

Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac was an immediate success, but after three years and three albums, Green's mental health was such that he had to leave the band in 1970.

He subsequently recorded some solo material, made guest appearances on records by Memphis Slim, B.B. King and others but generally dropped out of sight for most of two decades. Word was that he'd grown his fingernails and quit playing guitar.

By the mid-'90s, however, interest in and curiosity about Green was growing. He'd been the subject of a biography and a tribute album and named by MOJO magazine in 1996 as one of the top three all-time guitarists, behind Jimi Hendrix and Steve Cropper. Finally, Nigel Watson, who'd played congas on Fleetwood Mac and on Green solo albums in the early '70s, became reacquainted with Green through his (Watson's) sister.

Although Green was no longer playing at this time, he was moved to pick up his instrument one day after hearing Watson playing a Johnson song as they sat in the kitchen.

This led to the formation of the Splinter Group: Green, Watson, drummer Cozy Powell, Whitesnake bassist Neil Murray and keyboard player Spike Edney, who'd worked previously with Bob Geldof, Queen and Dexy's Midnight Runners.

The band recorded an eponymous live record and toured Europe in 1997 opening for King.

In 1998, Green and Watson released a collection of duets on Johnson songs, The Robert Johnson Songbook (Artisan).

The Splinter Group recorded two other records, Destiny Road (Artisan, 1999) and another live one with a different lineup, the two-disc Soho Sessions (Snapper, 1999) dedicated to the late Powell, who'd died in a car wreck at age 50.

Hot Foot Powder, which broke into the Billboard blues chart at #13 upon its release in mid-May, is a second installment of Green and Watson's work honoring legendary Delta bluesman Johnson. On it, they're backed by upright bassist Pete Stroud, guitarist and piano player Roger Cotton and drummer Larry Toffee. Dr. John shows up on "From Four Until Late," and legendary Howlin' Wolf sideman Sumlin contributes some licks to "Dead Shrimp Blues."

San Francisco Bay Area journalist Lisa Zimmerman covered Green's 1998 appearance at the Fillmore Auditorium, the guitarist's first West Coast gig since 1971, but found him a difficult subject to interview. But, in a statement, Green talked a bit about why he's repeatedly drawn to the music of Johnson: "To me Robert Johnson is also the beginning of jazz and blues as a style of music. ... He was kind of like the original jazz singer to me in a way; a musician with a brilliant sense of humor, and blues often ain't got that, obviously."