Rolling Stone‘s interview series King for a Day features long-form conversations between senior writer Andy Greene and singers who had the difficult job of fronting major rock bands after the departure of an iconic vocalist. Some of them stayed in their bands for years, while others lasted just a few months. In the end, however, they all found out that replacement singers can themselves be replaced. This edition features former Fleetwood Mac singer Billy Burnette.
Billy Burnette has been creating music on a professional level for so long that he barely remembers recording his first single, 1960’s “Hey Daddy (I’m Gonna Tell Santa On You),” which came out when he was just seven years old, and features Hall of Famer James Burton on guitar. That would be the thrill of a lifetime for most people, but it was just another day for Burnette, son of rockabilly icon Dorsey Burnette.
In the years that followed his childhood novelty song, he wrote songs that have been covered by Ray Charles, the Everly Brothers, Faith Hill, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ringo Starr, Tanya Tucker, Gregg Allman, and too many others to mention. He has also served as a touring guitarist for Bob Dylan and John Fogerty, released a string of acclaimed solo albums, and even took acting roles in a wide variety of under-the-radar Nineties movies like Richie Rich’s Christmas Wish and Carnosaur 3: Primal Species.
His most high-profile gig of all began in 1987, when Fleetwood Mac recruited him to replace Lindsey Buckingham for the Tango in the Night world tour. He remained in the group for the next eight years, in which he not only sang signature Buckingham tunes like “Go Your Own Way” every night onstage, but also became one of the band’s primary songwriters and vocalists in the studio.
“It was a magical part of my life,” Burnette tells Rolling Stone on the phone from his home in Nashville. “I was so close with Mick [Fleetwood] back then. We did everything together. We even went through our divorces together. I love Mick, and I also love Stevie [Nicks], John [McVie], and Christine [McVie]. I’m sure it was a magical time for them too.” [Editor’s note: The interview took place two weeks before Christine McVie’s death at age 79.]
Burnette began singing when he was three with his dad’s band, an influential Memphis act called the Rock and Roll Trio that saw success with songs like “Tear It Up.” As a kid in the Fifties, he met Ricky Nelson, Sam Cooke, and Fabian. He toured Japan on a bill with Brenda Lee when he was 12, right around the time the Beatles hit and he discovered rock music.
“I snuck into concerts in L.A. for years,” he says. “I asked Jimi Hendrix one night how I could get into his concert at the Forum. He goes, ‘Carry this.’ And I carried his guitar alongside him and got in. I saw Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, Led Zeppelin, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. I just saw everything I could back then. I loved music.” For much more on Burnett’s story, check out his memoir, Crazy Like Me — or read on for the wildest chapter in his rock & roll life.
I read that you visited Charles Manson’s Spahn Ranch as a teenager. Tell me about that.
God, that was scary. We had no idea what was happening there. There was nothing in the press about it yet. They put me on a horse and went, “This is Tex Watson’s horse.” The horse ran up to the hills and I got all scratched up from the tree branches. It was a nightmare. I’ve been scared of horses ever since then.
I drove my dad’s Lotus Europa out there. They wrote “Pig” on it in dust. They were telling me to get out of the machine and come join their group out there. I wasn’t interested. The whole thing was just really scary.
Did you meet Manson?
Yeah. I met him a couple of times. One time, I was hitchhiking. My folks lived in Woodland Hills, and I used to hitchhike to the beach all the time with my guitar. He picked us up one day and gave us a ride home from Topanga Beach. Also, my dad knew Terry Melcher. We knew a lot of people after the strory broke who were involved with it.
Who are some of your biggest influences as a guitar player?
There were so many great guitar players just hanging around my dad’s house. Thumbs Carllile was an amazing guitar player. Glen Campbell and James Burton were both great too.
When I was 18, my dad took me down to Chips Moman’s down in Hollywood. I went back to Memphis, where I was born, and Chips had just recorded Elvis and everybody. There was a guitar player there name Reggie Young. He’s probably one of my favorite guitar players ever. He was so great. He did the intro to “Hooked on a Feeling.” He’s also on “Suspicious Minds” and “Drift Away.” In fact, I was there in Nashville when Dobie Gray cut “Drift Away.” I went to the studio with them and Reggie when they cut it. I picked it out at the time to be a hit.
Did you meet Elvis Presley?
I met Elvis when I was a little kid. I was downtown in Memphis. He was passing out teddy bears since he had the song “Teddy Bear” out. He asked me if I wanted a teddy bear. I don’t remember this, but my mom told me the story.
I didn’t meet him as an adult, but I was invited out to Graceland once to write a couple of things. Some friends of mine had written “You Were Always on My Mind,” and he’d just cut that. And Red West was a good friend of ours. He said, “Elvis wants you to come out to the house to write something for him.” We were going to do that, but it didn’t line up. This business is so much about timing and whether it’s in the stars or not.
You did a bunch of solo records in the Seventies and Eighties. Did it frustrate you that none of them found a big audience?
It was frustrating. I think I started out too early. In fact, I was a week out of graduating high school when I went to Memphis for Chips Moman. I had a deal with Columbia Records. It was happening pretty quick. I wish I had stuck with my garage bands and came up that way. But I always had a record deal or a writing deal or something to do.
Tell me your first memories of ever hearing Fleetwood Mac.
I remember going to a concert night at Royce Hall at UCLA to see Delaney and Bonnie. On the way home that night, I heard “Oh Well.” I go, “God, what’s that guitar lick?” And it was Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green. I went home, learned that lick, and started buying the albums.
I heard Stevie and Lindsey’s album [Buckingham Nicks] through the walls one day at [record executive] Lester Sill’s office. I went, “Wow, that sounds great.” Next think you know, they’re in Fleetwood Mac. Boom. That was it.
What did you think of Rumours when it came out?
I loved it. I was probably their biggest fan in the world. I couldn’t believe how great it was. I was like, “I want that. That’s what I want to do.” Lindsey had the finger-picking thing that I liked to do. There were people all around me that did that kind of music, the L.A. thing. I worked at the Palomino Club in the house band. I was around musicians all the time. When Fleetwood Mac hit the scene, I went, “Wow, this is incredible stuff.”
What did you think about Tusk?
I love Tusk. There isn’t anything they did at the time I didn’t like. Then I met them. My cousin Rocky and I were invited to a Dick Clark anniversary event. That’s where I met Mick Fleetwood. And then Mick and Lindsey called me the next night and went, “Don’t you want to join my band?” I went, “Don’t you guys already have one?” [Laughs]
I was trying to be funny, but Lindsey went, “I’m playing Saturday Night Live and we want you to join the band I’m putting together to do that.” That was the first gig I did with them. That was in 1982.
What was it like to suddenly be on live TV with Mick and Lindsey?
It was amazing. We were pretty wild back in those days [laughs]. We were totally out of control. I mean, we did music and we did our job, but when it was time to party, we knew how to party.
You mean staying up late and getting drunk and doing drugs?
Staying up late? Staying up all night [laughs]. But it was great. Lindsey and I became great friends. I wrote with him. I helped him out with some songs. I wrote some words of [the 1982 Fleetwood Mac song] “Oh Diane.” He said he didn’t like them, but he used a few of my words.
You started out in Mick’s band the Cholos, which later became the Zoo.
Yeah. Lindsey was in the Cholos, too, at first. We did some tracks, but who knows what happened to them? Mick and I put together the Zoo. We used Stevie and Christine and Lindsey. The whole band was on everything, pretty much.
You guys covered “Tear It Up” by your dad’s band.
We did that with the Zoo. And when I first joined Fleetwood Mac, Jimmy Barnes got up and sang “Tear It Up” with us one night. The girls were like, “Let’s keep that in the set.” And so that was our encore every night for about ten years.
Tell me about your tours with the Zoo in the Eighties.
We toured with the Beach Boys in 1985. One night, Mick and I were out partying, and we were not sober. We got kicked off the tour because we were dancing in some restaurant and the Beach Boys found out about it. I love the Beach Boys. They were dear friends of mine. But somebody in their organization fired us off the tour. I was really good friends with Carl [Wilson], though. I loved him. He was my favorite singer in the band.
You co-wrote “Angel Come Home” with Carl on the first Zoo record.
Yeah. Christine went out with Dennis Wilson for a while. When we cut that song, it was everyone in Fleetwood Mac besides Stevie and John McVie. Lindsey worked on that record. Christine worked on it. I remember Glen Campbell coming into the studio that night, and we stayed up all night working on it.
It seems like this band existed since Stevie was busy with her solo career, and Mick wanted to keep going.
Oh yeah. And we toured all over the world. We did a three-month tour in Australia. We went to a place called Mount Isa, which was wiped out by a hurricane. We went all over Australia, and loved it.
You wrote “So Excited” for Christine McVie’s solo record in 1984, too.
We were already friends by that point, and always hanging out. She was one of my best friends.
Those Christine songs in the Eighties should have been bigger hits. She could have been a real solo star.
Oh yeah. She wrote most of the Fleetwood Mac hits. “Don’t Stop,” “You Make Loving Fun,” “Over My Head.” That song actually broke the band. Warner Bros. was done working the  album. And then “Over My Head” busted out as a fluke. It became a big hit.
Do you think the Zoo parties were the best parties you’d ever been a part of?
Oh yeah [laughs]. No doubt about it. There were a bunch of us that ran around Malibu. It was a wild scene. Everyone you can imagine was hanging out with us. We were the party band. When we played somewhere, we’d have everyone play with us. In Austria, we had Jimmy Barnes and Colin Hay from Men at Work. There was also Billy Thorpe. We wrote “Shakin’ The Cage” with him, which was the only hit the Zoo ever had.
Fast forward to 1987. How did they ask you to join Fleetwood Mac?
They had a meeting that day. Things got weird between Stevie and Lindsey. I was actually in the studio with Roy Orbison that day. He was doing one of my songs for the Mystery Girl album. T-Bone Burnett was producing it. T-Bone Wolk was playing bass. I went in and went, “Is T-Bone here?” T-Bone Wolk went, “Yeah, I’m T-Bone.” I go, “No you’re not.” [Laughs.] I just knew T-Bone Burnett.
We cut my song “(All I Can Do Is) Dream You.” It was me, Rick Vito, Jim Keltner, and T-Bone Wolk. We cut a great track. Roy used it for his Black and White special. He wanted me to do that with him, but I was on the road with Fleetwood Mac.
Getting back to when I was asked to join the band, I was in the studio with Roy. Mick goes, “Can you join Fleetwood Mac? We’d need you to get free from all your contracts and everything.” I’d just been nominated for my record [Soldier of Love] for Best New Country Artist. Things were starting to go somewhere. I had to get out of my deal with Curb MCA. They weren’t happy about that since I just got the nomination.
You didn’t hesitate to say yes to Mick with all that going on at the time?
Not at all. How can you? It was Fleetwood Mac.
Tell me about band rehearsals. You suddenly how to learn a lot of material, including an entirely new album, for a tour.
I was so into playing with Mick. We had already done a couple of albums and toured all over. I also knew Christine really well. Stevie and I had done a duet for one of her albums. It was called “Are You Mine” that Jimmy Iovine produced. It was a great night. Jimmy was very sweet. We had Brian Setzer play on it. It was a big thrill for me at the time to do a duet with Stevie.
When I joined the band, I already felt like part of the family. So it was easy. I’ll never forget the first day of rehearsal when Stevie walked up to me in the parking lot. We rehearsed at this place where I had filmed a movie before. She walked up and goes, “Sounds like Fleetwood Mac to me.”
We rehearsed the songs. Everyone got along great. We did our first date in Kansas City. It was fantastic. I don’t think we got a bad review on that Tango in the Night tour until we got to Pittsburgh. The critic said, “Billy Burnette merely aped Lindsey’s parts,” which I did. Rick [Vito] and I played the stuff to the T of how it was supposed to be played. We were both guitar players, and we could hit the parts. In fact, the song “Everywhere,” Christine asked me to play that song and sing those parts. For me, that was a hard thing to do, but I did it.
Were you nervous before that first show in Kansas City, thinking the fans might reject you since you weren’t Lindsey?
It was scary. But it wound up being amazing. Somebody had a big banner that said “Lindsey Who?” That made us feel good. We were on our way. It was a big tour, and everyone got into it.
I know you did most of the singing, but how exactly did you and Rick Vito divide up Lindsey’s guitar parts?
He did mostly the lead stuff. I did the parts that were on the records. We got together and worked it out. We’d known each other for years, and Rick was a huge Peter Green fan. In fact, he did a Peter Green song in the show. I did “Oh Well.” Rick did “I Love Another Woman.” We split up the parts. We knew what we were doing before we got with the band.
How did it feel to sing “Go Your Own Way”? This is a pretty personal song about Stevie and Lindsey’s relationship, and now you’re singing it as an outsider.
It just worked. We did a great version of it with the band. The band that Rick and I were with was a really great band. Lindsey, of course, was one of my favorite guitar players and artists in the world. That part of it was tough. But he sat in with us when we came to the Forum [in 1990].
Did you speak with him and make sure he was OK with you taking his spot in the band?
Oh yeah. We got along good. He didn’t hold it against me at all.
You sold out Wembley Stadium in 1987. That must have been nuts.
Wembley Stadium was our biggest gig at the time. We cleared a million dollars that night. I had my mom, my wife, and my kids with me that night. I turned around and told my mom, “We made a million tonight.” She was so excited. If I remember, she sat in the royal box with Prince Andrew. We tried to get him to go to a party with us, and he said he couldn’t do it. She broke all the protocol.
I can’t imagine standing on that stage and seeing more than 100,000 people watching your show.
It was 127,000 that night. It was amazing. You couldn’t even see the end of the crowd because a fog had set in. They had Jumbotrons way in the back for people that couldn’t see.
Some of Lindsey’s vocals are pretty high. Were they hard to sing?
They were completely high. After a while of being on the road, I got the band to come down to E flat. That made the guitars easier. A lot of bands do that now anyway. I started that with Fleetwood Mac. We did it one night because one of the girls was kind of sick. I said, “Let’s bring it down to E flat.” We brought it down and just stayed there.
Did you feel like an equal member of the band, a hired hand, or somewhere in between?
I felt really equal. It just felt natural. I don’t want to say that I took over, because Stevie and Christine both did some talking, but I sort of became the spokesperson for the band. It was pretty natural since I’d been working with them so long, and we’d jammed so much, that it was pretty natural for us to do it onstage.
Tell me about recording Behind the Mask. That was your first time cutting an album with them.
Before that, we did two cuts for their Greatest Hits record [in 1988]. We did “As Long As You Follow,” which was kind of a hit for Christine. That was my first time in the studio with them. But starting Behind the Mask was scary. It had an edge to it, since this is a band that had been so big. They were Number One for over a year with Rumours. How do you top that? As I said, the business is so much about timing. At that time, that type of rock music wasn’t really happening for anybody. Grunge had just started to come in. It was a different time, as far as radio goes.
Did you enjoy the creative process of making the album?
It was a great time. I lived out in the West Valley then. So did John McVie. We shared a car into town every day. We had a ball in the city. We’d get there around noon, start working really hard, break for dinners, and then come back the next day, and then probably take everything off we did the previous day.
They used to write songs in the studio. They’d bring in a couple of ideas and build on them. I came from the songwriter school where you demo first, and then finish them.
All three of you sing on “In the Back of My Mind.”
That was a song I wrote with David Malloy. He’s a writer-producer here in Nashville. We wrote that song for Fleetwood Mac. Mick liked it, so we cut it. I think we had two or three big tape machines tied together. Greg Ladanyi was producing the record. We had more tracks on that song than we had on any other song in the band’s catalog.
You wrote “When the Sun Goes Down” with Rick Vito.
That was just an afternoon of us getting together and writing something new for the band. They loved it. In Fleetwood Mac, everybody got together and decided what…