Here is a brief, two question music quiz to get your mental gears turning: Question 1 – True or False: Stevie Nicks was invited to join Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Question 2 – Multiple Choice: So far in her career, multi-instrumentalist Celisse has worked with or on – A) Melissa Etheridge, B) Lizzo, C) Saturday Night Live, D) the national touring company of the Broadway show Wicked, E) the Broadway revival of Godspell. I won’t keep you in suspense. There have been various versions of the Stevie Nicks / Heartbreakers story, but the answer to Q1 is ‘false’.
Q2 is a bit of a trick question because I left out F) All of the Above, which would have been a tipoff that A) through E) might all be correct responses. Let me add a little context to both of these short explanations, starting with the Stevie Nicks question.
Late in 1980, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were in the studio working on their next album, Hard Promises. Producer Jimmy Iovine was orchestrating the proceedings as he had on the previous Petty album, Damn the Torpedoes. Recounting this period in the 2007 documentary Running Down A Dream, Petty recalled, “Stevie Nicks was saying all the time: ‘I’m going to leave Fleetwood Mac and join The Heartbreakers.’ Yeah, that’s good, Stevie, but there aren’t any girls in The Heartbreakers.” This does not exactly sound like an invitation to join his band, does it? In fact, the comments by Nicks kind or irked TP at the time.
For her part, Nicks had spent the better part of the previous year recording Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk album. According to Classic Rock Magazine, “[Tusk] was at the time the most expensive and time-intensive rock album ever recorded.” Intraband friction was also at an all-time high during this period, so perhaps Nicks thought a new band might be just the ticket to help her keep her sanity. Stevie said (also in Running Down A Dream), “I almost preferred the Heartbreakers’ music to Fleetwood Mac’s music at that time.” Whether she was totally serious about joining TP’s band or just idly musing about her career, she did want to become friends with them. She admired their sound enough to enlist the Heartbreakers’ producer, Jimmy Iovine, to work on her first solo record. Nicks reasoned the way to infuse her album with the TP and the Heartbreakers’ sound was to work with the guy who got it down on tape. Iovine and Nicks would be romantically linked for a time, but there is no indication that Nicks was playing him just to get close to Petty. Iovine would end up being a pivotal player in the story and both artist’s bank accounts would benefit greatly from his involvement.
The second option for getting ‘the Tom Petty sound’ on her record was to see if Nicks could get TP to write her a song. Again, Petty picks up the story: “She started a campaign for me to write her a song, and I kept saying, ‘No, I don’t have time.’ And she said, ‘Please, just write me a song.’ So she wore me down. When you write for other people, you often write in their style. But the truth is if somebody comes to you looking for a song, they’re really looking for something that sounds like you . . . She was more attracted to the bluesier music because it was something she didn’t do. So I wrote her a song called Insider. I played it for Jimmy and he was just elated.” Petty sang the song with Nicks and in doing so, he found their voices blended well together. Once Insider was recorded and they listened to the playback, Tom changed his mind, telling her, “Stevie, I’m really sorry, but I don’t want to give you this song.” The songwriter in Nicks understood. None-the-less, Petty “felt terribly guilty” so he offered her another track that had not made the final cut for Hard Promises. Here, it gets a little complicated. As the Heartbreakers’ producer, Iovine already had the music bed for Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around on tape with Petty’s vocals. Adding Nicks’ vocals was the easy part. Explaining it to Petty, who was upset that Iovine had added Nicks to the Heartbreakers’ track without telling him, took a little more doing. Tom said, “Jimmy, you just took the song!” to which Iovine replied, “This is gonna buy you a house.” The episode bothered Petty for a long time, but as his future dealings with Nicks illustrates, he didn’t keep it in his grudge file. Iovine was correct about the economic side of his decision.
Released as the first single from her solo album Bella Donna in May of 1981 (the album was released in July of 1981), Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around was credited to ‘Stevie Nicks with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’. Iovine miffed Petty a second time because the release no doubt affected the sales of the Heartbreakers’ single A Woman In Love that had been released at the same time. Miffed or not, Petty got more from the experience than royalty checks as he and Stevie became fast friends. Nicks recalled that later, after she had been in and out of rehab, she was having a difficult time focusing on writing music. Over dinner, she asked Tom if he would write her another song. He flat out refused, saying, “I’m not going to help you write a song because you are, in my opinion, one of the premiere songwriters of our time. You just need to go back to your house and sit in front of your piano and start writing.” Nicks recalled, “Something about the conversation really hit me. It gave me a new lease on life – if Tom Petty thinks I can do it, then I guess I can. I pretty much credit Tom with my solo career.” The ever modest Petty never saw it that way, but in the end, Nicks still gives him the credit he deserves for kick starting her solo career and supporting her up when she needed help.
Benmont Tench, one of the Heartbreakers’ founding members and keyboard player, commented about this same period for CRM: “There was no drama between her and the Heartbreakers. In Fleetwood Mac, there was a lot of personal stuff going on. Then she steps into the room with us, a rock’n’roll band that’s fronted by a guy she adores. I think it was a breath of fresh air for her. Several years before Tom died, Stevie came on a tour with us and played tambourine and sang back-up. During the tour, Tom gave Stevie a sheriff’s badge that was sterling silver with diamonds, and it said: ‘Honorary Heartbreaker’.” Maybe Stevie Nicks joining the Heartbreakers would have worked out. Maybe things happened just the way things needed to happen.
Celisse Henderson seems too young to have been touched by the short A) to E) list presented in the opening quiz. When she appeared playing guitar behind Lizzo on Saturday Night Live in December of 2019, her introduction to the national audience could only have been improved if she had been identified. She had received an Instagram query from music director Devin Johnson who had said, “[Lizzo] loves your stuff. She would love for you to play with her on SNL.” When she arrived at rehearsals, she was informed that Lizzo wanted her to do more than just play lead guitar for this appearance. Lizzo also wanted to use the spot to honor one of her heros, the late Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Wardrobe was even making the young guitar player a coat like the one Sister Rossetta wore.
Recalling the story, Celisse laughed: “I don’t know if they knew how deep the Sister Rosetta thing was with me. I was like: ‘I not only have a tattoo of Sister Rosetta on my arm – I happen to have her guitar!’” According to CRM, “Celisse’s cream-colored three-humbucker ‘63 Gibson SG reissue is like the one Tharpe famously wielded in the 60s and is her favorite. But her respect for Tharpe goes beyond the blues woman’s guitar playing.” “Sister Rosetta Tharpe is the sole reason we have the genre of rock’n’roll,” Celisse told CRM. “So often, the Stones and other big rock gods credit Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters for being the foundation. But the truth is Chuck and Muddy were all in the clubs and churches listening to Sister Rosetta Tharpe. She was playing this style in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. I think we sometimes have a bit of amnesia in music history. Luckily, over the last couple of years people have been discovering her videos, and she was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”
Not a bad take from a young woman who started tinkering on the violin at age two but claims her first ‘real’ instrumental training began when she started playing classical piano at age four. She explains, “I have this big classical music background and I come from a super-conservative family, so electric guitar has never been their bag.” It was assumed that Celisse would follow her parents career path, both of whom have master’s degrees in choral conducting, but she had different ideas. She laughs about it these days saying, “Even after I’ve had a good amount of success, I’m kind of the shame of my family. My parents are still like: ‘Oh, you never got your degree.’ I’m like: ‘I am doing okay.” She put down $100 for an Ibanez guitar and enrolled in a guitar class about the time she turned 18. She had already done the national tour with Wicked by the time they asked her to play guitar on stage near the end of her song (Learn Your Lessons Well) in the Godspell revival. She strummed along on stage but the two guitarists in the pit orchestra did the heavy lifting. She told CRM that when the Godspell contract was over, “I was like: ‘I should buy an electric guitar and just learn the basics.’ So I did that, and searched ‘12-bar blues’ on YouTube. Suddenly I began hearing all my Hendrix, Chuck Berry, and Muddy Waters records differently. I began trying to learn things off them by ear.”
Her next gig was running background vocals for Melissa Etheridge. A few weeks into the tour, Etheridge approached her and said, “I hear that you play guitar. We should have you play on a couple of songs.” Celisse continues, “It was a great opportunity so I prepared very thoroughly and learned all the parts. At our first show on the next run, as I played, she kept turning around and looking at me like: ‘Oh, so you really do play!’ I just kept going with guitar from there.” If one can find the video of her SNL performance with Lizzo from December of 2019, it will be apparent that she wasn’t there just as window dressing. Celisse has only just begun what will likely be a long career in the music business.
Currently working on her own album, Celisse’s songs run the gamut from rock, soul, funk, and even in to the gospel vein (as heard on her version of the classic folk and civil rights anthem Keep Your Eyes On The Prize). She may be young, but Celisse already has a deep understanding of the music business. Celisse (she is now recording under her first name) is adamant about doing a proper release: “The musical climate right now is exciting, but if you release your stuff without the right channels, it’s kind of like a tree falling in the forest – does anybody hear it?” Her new single, Freedom is now out and is available from www.celissehenderson.com.
It speaks well that an artist as young as Celisse sees the big picture for her chosen profession: “The thing about being a black woman playing rock’n’roll is, so often it’s looked at as a novelty, and people are like, ‘Oh wow, it’s so crazy to see you do this.’ To a certain extent, I understand that because there just hasn’t been very much representation. But there’s this other part of me that’s like, ‘It’s actually the most normal thing, because it started with a black woman.’ We just don’t talk about her as much as we do the other players. So I’m here to remind everybody, ‘Hey, this genre – it’s a black art form, It started with a really incredible black woman doing this in churches.’”
Stevie and Celisse are two musicians whose early careers are separated by forty years, yet they share the same drive and vision. Some will claim that success in the music business is largely driven by luck, but it seems that the old adage still applies: You need to make your own luck. That they are ‘women musicians’ makes no difference. Both Stevie and Celisse have kept Their Eyes On The Prize. Nicks has already had a phenomenal run and Celisse is just getting started. No doubt we will be hearing more from both in the future.
Top Piece Video: Stevie and Tom doing it right – live on stage!