2021 marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Bella Donna, the solo debut of the iconic Stevie Nicks.
A critically acclaimed, multi-platinum success, Bella Donna has proven to be an enduring work whose legacy has seen it influence everything from modern rock to dance-oriented R&B. And yet the inaugural solo venture from the Fleetwood Mac singer was viewed as anything but a sure thing before its release.
In the early ’70s Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, then her music partner and boyfriend, had attracted a decent following on the California music scene, first as part of the group Fritz, then as a duo. Their 1973 LP Buckingham Nicks, however, while now a collector’s item for vinyl aficionados, failed to ignite on launch, leading to the duo lose their major label deal. But the album did provide an effective showcase of the pair’s capabilities and brought them to the attention of Fleetwood Mac. That band, mostly known for its melding of ‘60/‘70s art rock and British blues, was at a crossroads. Having lost a couple of key members, Mac was looking for someone to provide a counterpoint to the sunny pop sensibilities of pianist/singer/songwriter Christine McVie. Buckingham and Nicks proved to be ideal additions; that classic combination saw massive successive with Fleetwood Mac in 1975 and especially the legendary Rumours in 1977, before misunderstood masterpiece Tusk slowed the band’s momentum in 1979.
Throughout that run, Nicks’ compositions had become some of the band’s best known hits and concert staples: “Rhiannon,” “Landslide,” “Dreams,” “Gold Dust Woman,” “I Don’t Wanna Know” and “Sara” were instantly identifiable fan favorites that put Nicks squarely in the spotlight. And while the singer has spoken of her love for the band and her gratitude for how it changed her life, the success came with any number of downsides.
Her messy breakup with Buckingham was a key factor fueling the intense relationship drama that was the creative genius of Rumours. But it also spurred years of friction and infighting that took a toll on the entire band. While Nicks’ vocals and writing proved to be a potent attraction for fans, since she wasn’t an instrumentalist and didn’t arrange music, she often found herself relegated to the sidelines for long stretches during the production process, and could feel like her voice wasn’t heard on important issues. The band’s last minute decision to cut Nicks’ “Silver Springs” from Rumours, and band leader Mick Fleetwood’s refusal to return rights to the song to Nicks, would be a sore spot for the singer for the next two decades.
Even during the Mac’s late ’70s heyday, Nicks had already begun to successfully venture outside the band. She appeared on two Top 5 pop hits in the late ’70s, serving as Kenny Loggins’ duet partner on “Whenever I Call You Friend” and contributing a featured harmony to John Stewart’s “Gold.” And while the Linda Ronstadt cover would prove more popular with AOR stations, Nicks contributed a striking featured harmony to Warren Zevon’s original version of “Mohammed’s Radio,” an enduring cult favorite in the classic rock pantheon. These forays demonstrated that Nicks could spark interest outside of Fleetwood Mac.
But infamously, the band’s label, Warner Music, didn’t sign Nicks to a deal for her solo material the way they had with Buckingham and McVie. The apparent thinking was that without the influence of McVie’s sunny California pop/rock sensibilities or Buckingham’s forward-looking rock experimentation, left to her own devices Nicks would produce airy, esoteric art pop that lacked her band’s commercial appeal. When Nicks’ management didn’t find any other interested takers, they formed Modern Records to release her solo debut, signing a distribution only deal with Atco (ironically, Modern would be folded into Atlantic Records after the success of Bella Donna, which eventually would land Nicks’ solo catalogue in the Warner family of labels).
Now the captain of her own musical ship, Nicks tapped the power of her many industry friendships to assemble a strong team to help craft her solo debut. That started with hiring A List producer Jimmy Iovine, a hitmaker who’d worked with Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Patti Smith and the Dire Straits, to helm the project. She tagged in friends like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (with particularly significant contributions from Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell), Eagles members Don Henley and Don Felder, Roy Bittan of the E Street Band and in demand session players Waddy Wachtel (guitars) and Russ Kunkel (drums). Nicks was also joined here by backing vocalists Sharon Celani and Lori Perry, who would become more or less permanent members of the singer’s recording and touring ensembles.
Iovine proved to be a canny choice to oversee Bella Donna. He may not have possessed Buckingham’s mad genius or penchant for creatively subverting Nicks’ compositions, but he had a strong mainstream rock sensibility and assured that everything sounded bright, clean and classic. That’s helped the album age well and avoid ever sounding tied to a particular moment or trend. Moreover, Iovine wisely constructed the album’s sound to build a bridge to Nicks’ Fleetwood Mac work without slavishly copying it. Instead, he subtly worked in other sounds, like Nicks’ roots music influences, to expand the boundaries of the singer’s gypsy pop and mystical rock while amping up her penchant for gothic drama on other cuts. That approach produced a collection that could appeal to Nicks’ existing fan base while still providing enough stylistic differentiation to justify the album as a solo outing.
With a strong framework to support her, it was down to Nicks to deliver, which she did quite successfully. Bella Donna produced a quartet of Top 40 hits, three of which also scored on the Rock chart. It was a Top 10 album that has sold millions of copies over the years. And happily is quite good, losing none of its power four decades down the road.
Bella Donna is best represented by its two major hits “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” and “Edge of Seventeen,” bracing pieces of early ’80s AOR that have become staples of Classic Rock radio. The former found Nicks collaborating with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on a cut (penned by Petty and Campbell) that slyly split the difference between the California rock of Fleetwood Mac and the Heartbreakers’ own southern rock stomp. Petty hung back and let Nicks take center stage, but their vocal interplay on the song’s chorus drove home the song’s gutsy melody with real rock swagger and Nicks was never less than convincing as a beguiling rock chanteuse. “Edge,” meanwhile, quickly developed into Nicks’ solo signature for good reason. It brimmed with energy, a skittering, paranoid guitar line and insistent percussion providing a solid backbone for Nicks pushing the song to soaring, arena rock heights. Celani and Perry’s harmonies proved key, reinforcing Nicks and allowing the vocal lines to soar above the anthemic instrumentation and achieve the big, muscular sound that made the song equally appealing to rock and pop audiences. “Edge” has earned its status as a genuine pop culture touchstone many times over.
Bella Donna’s other two hits were strong examples of Nicks and Iovine expanding her sound with roots music sensibilities. Nicks and Henley scored a Top 10 duet with “Leather and Lace,” a song Nicks had originally been commissioned to pen for country stars Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter. Iovine wisely kept the production simple (no more than guitar, piano and drums), providing a subtle, earthy backdrop for the impassioned vocals Nicks and Henley supplied. The song’s “less is more” approach conjured a genuinely emotional, longing quality that makes the duet almost as enduring as the album’s two big rock hits. Meanwhile, the almost forgotten Top 40 single “After the Glitter Fades” moved Nicks as close to country pop as she’s ever ventured in her solo work, a weary, show biz survivor’s lament about the cost of fame that would have fit in quite nicely with what Nashville was producing by the late ‘80s.
Bella Donna had more to offer than just its hit singles, though. The album opening title track was another successful foray into melding southern rock into Nicks’ sound, balancing it nicely with the muscular electric guitar line from Wachtel that allowed Nicks to unleash one of her best vocals and positioned the song to serve as the album’s mission statement. Henley provided harmonies to album closer “The Highwayman,” a mid-tempo foray into New West country rock mythology. “Kind of Woman” upped the gothic melodrama for an atmospheric, haunting ballad that would have been right at home with some of Petty’s more pensive swamp pop moments. “Think About It” provided a solid mid-tempo pop sound that delicately laced in just enough twang to give the song a bit of an edge without taking it too far into roots music.
Nicks hewed closer to Fleetwood Mac territory on the two remaining cuts without slavishly copying her band’s approach. Perhaps the closest thing to the Mac sound was “Outside the Rain,” which bore a strong resemblance to Nicks’ beloved Mac hit “Dreams” while changing it up enough to avoid being a retread. And with “How Still My Love,” Nicks delivered a moody, edgy ballad that evoked some of the off-kilter experimental energy that Buckingham brought to her work.
Bella Donna made Nicks a huge solo star to compliment her Fleetwood Mac success. She juggled her Mac commitments and solo career for much of the ’80s, becoming one of the biggest music stars of the era, racking up an impressive string of solo rock and pop hits, while also voicing some memorable Mac singles of the era. As time has rolled on, Nicks’ work has proven to be highly influential across genres, including alternative (Smashing Pumpkins, Hole), pop (Miley Cyrus), country (Lady Antebellum, Dixie Chicks) and even R&B (Destiny’s Child). As new generations continue to discover her music, the songs of Bella Donna remain as vital and engaging in the present day as they were on release.