Lonnie Mack (born 18 July 1941)
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Lonnie Mack born Lonnie McIntosh in Dearborn County, Indiana is an American rock, blues and country guitarist and vocalist.
In 1963 and early 1964, he recorded a succession of full-length electric guitar instrumentals which combined blues stylism with fast-picking techniques and a rock ‘n’ roll beat. The best-known of these are “Memphis”, “Wham!”, and “Chicken Pickin'”. These instrumentals established the standard of virtuosity for a generation of rock guitarists and formed the leading edge of the “blues-rock” guitar genre. Reportedly, the tremolo arm commonly found on electric guitars became known as the “whammy bar”, in recognition of Mack’s aggressive, rapid manipulation of the pitch-bending device in 1963’s “Wham!”.
In 1979, music historian Richard T. Pinnell, Ph. D., called 1963’s “Memphis” a “milestone of early rock guitar”] In 1980, the editors of Guitar World magazine ranked “Memphis” first among rock’s top five “landmark” guitar recordings. He is widely regarded today as a pivotal historical figure in expanding the role of the electric guitar in rock. Despite a modest all-career recording output as a rock artist, he has been called “one of the great rock guitarists of all-time”. Mack is also regarded as one of the finest early “blue-eyed soul” singers. Crediting both Mack’s R&B vocals and his guitar solos, music critic Jimmy Guterman ranked Mack’s first album, 1963’s The Wham of that Memphis Man!, No. 16 in his book The 100 Best Rock ‘n’ Roll Records of All Time.
Mack released several singles in the ’50s and ’60s, as well as thirteen original albums spanning a variety of genres between 1963 and 1990. He enjoyed his greatest recognition as a blues-rock singer/guitarist, with productive periods during the ’60s and the latter half of the ’80s. However, an aversion to notoriety led him to switch musical genres and idle his career as a rock artist for years, even decades, at a time.
In 2011, he announced an upcoming self-published album of informally recorded compositions, including the recently released acoustic blues single “The Times Ain’t Right”.
Beyond his career as a solo artist, Mack recorded with The Doors, Stevie Ray Vaughan, James Brown, Freddie King, Joe Simon, Ronnie Hawkins, Albert Collins, Roy Buchanan, Dobie Gray and the sons of blues legend Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, among others.
Lonnie Mack’s music career began in the mid-1950s. It included historically significant recordings, critical and popular recognition, and periods of reclusion, rediscovery and comeback. However, he never became a commercial superstar. He performed regularly until 2004. He still occasionally appears at special events. On November 15, 2008, he performed at production of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honoring Les Paul. In 2011, after a 21-year recording hiatus, he announced the upcoming release of a self-published “album” consisting of entirely new, informally recorded tunes.
As a frontman, Mack has been described as rock’s first “virtuoso” lead guitarist and its first “guitar hero”. In the early 1960s, he augmented the electric blues guitar genre with fast-picking techniques borrowed from traditional country and bluegrass styles, leading one early reviewer to puzzle over the “peculiar running quality” of Mack’s bluesy solos. These recordings prefigured the fast, flashy, blues-based lead guitar style which dominated rock by the late 1960s.
Although best known as a guitarist, Mack was a double-threat performer from the outset. A 1968 feature article in Rolling Stone magazine rated Mack a better gospel singer than Elvis Presley, who earned all of his Grammys as a gospel singer.
By the 1980s, Mack was recognized as a pioneer of virtuoso rock guitar, having influenced every major rock guitarist of the day, according to Guitar World magazine, “from Clapton to Allman to Vaughan” and “from Nugent to Bloomfield”. His pioneering “blue-eyed soul” vocals remain notable for their gospel-like fervor.
Mack’s recordings drew on rural and urban blues, country, bluegrass, rockabilly, vintage R&B, soul, and gospel styles. Attempts to classify Mack’s music proved challenging, but the common thread in Mack’s best-known music is a unique mix of black and white musical roots, later dubbed “roadhouse rock”. Music critic Alec Dubro summarized: “Lonnie can be put into that ‘Elvis Presley-Roy Orbison-Early Rock’ bag, but mostly for convenience. In total sound and execution, he was an innovator”. In a 1977 interview, Mack commented on his merger of country and blues styles: “I think they’re about the closest musics there are. They’re the earth-musics of the white and black people. Country is never gonna die, and neither is the blues—and rock and roll is a little bit of both.”
Mack’s managers over the years have included the late Harry Carlson of Fraternity Records, John Hovekamp, formerly the manager of Pure Prairie League and James Webber, formerly Vice President of Elektra Records. Webber is listed on Mack’s website as his current manager.
Childhood and early influences
In 1941, Mack’s family moved from Appalachia in southeastern Kentucky to a small subsistence farm in southern Indiana where he spent most of his childhood. Although there was no electricity on the farm, the family had a primitive battery-powered radio, and were devotees of “The Grand Ole Opry” radio show. As a child, listening after the rest of the family had gone to bed, Mack became a fan of early R&B and black gospel music.
Mack began playing at the age of 7, using an acoustic guitar he had traded for a bicycle. While still a small child, he was playing guitar for tips at a hobo jungle near his home, and outside of the Nieman Hotel in nearby Aurora, Indiana. Mack: “I started off in bluegrass, before there was rock ‘n’ roll. My family was like a family band. We sang and harmonized, and Dad played banjo. We were playin’ mostly gospel, bluegrass and old-style country. We played a lot of that old-style Jimmie Rodgers (country singer) and Hank Williams kinda music.”
Mack’s mother was his earliest country guitar and singing influence, and a blind gospel singer, Ralph Trotto, was his earliest musical mentor. Mack recalls that at the age of ten he was introduced to an elderly black guitarist who “played gut-bucket and slide and Robert Johnson-type guitar”. Mack, who was “into Merle Travis finger-pickin’ style”, suddenly realized that he could combine his fast-picking techniques with an exciting and different musical genre.
Mack acknowledged Jimmy Reed, Ray Charles and Bobby “Blue” Bland as musical influences in several recordings. Early in his career, Mack recorded tunes by Reed, Charles and Bland. He has also cited ’50s R&B vocalist Hank Ballard and country vocalist George Jones as singing influences. Mack recorded tunes by each of them as well. Various sources have noted that Mack’s playing shows influences of electric blues guitarist T-Bone Walker (one of whose tunes he recorded), country guitarist Merle Travis and jazz guitarist Les Paul. Mack’s highest-charting single, the 1963 instrumental “Memphis”, was based on the melody of a Chuck Berry tune.
Mack dropped out of school at the age of 13, after a fight with a teacher. In his mid-teens he began performing in roadhouses in the Cincinnati area.
As a teen-aged solo artist in the late ’50s, Mack recorded a cover of Clarence Poindexter’s 1943 western swing hit, “Pistol-Packin’ Mama” on the Dobbs label. During the same period, Mack played lead guitar for his older cousins, Aubrey Holt and Harley Gabbard, on two recordings, The Stanley Brothers’ “Too Late To Cry” and the cousins’ own “Hey, Baby”. These two singles were released in 1959 on the Sage label. “Pistol-Packin’ Mama” and “Too Late To Cry” have been out-of-print for decades. “Hey, Baby”, a rockabilly tune with close-harmony bluegrass vocals, was reissued by the German label, Bear Family Records, in 2010 and is now available in the U.S.
By the late 1950s, Mack had assembled a band of his own. They performed throughout Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio, playing both rockabilly and, increasingly, R&B-tinged rock & roll. In the early 1960s, Mack shortened his name from “McIntosh” to “Mack” and named his band “The Twilighters”, after the Hamilton, Ohio club where they had a steady engagement.
“Memphis”, “Wham!” and the birth of blues-rock guitar
In the early ’60s, Mack often worked as a session artists for Fraternity, a small record label in Cincinnati. There, he played guitar on a number of singles by local R&B artists, including Max Falcon, Beau Dollar and the Coins, Denzil Rice (who, as “Dumpy” Rice, went on to become the piano player in Mack’s band) and Cincinnati’s leading female R&B trio, The Charmaines.Several of these recordings are found on compilation CDs entitled Lonnie Mack: From Nashville to Memphis (Ace, 2004) and Gigi and the Charmaines (Ace, 2006).
On March 12, 1963, at the end of a recording session backing up The Charmaines, Mack and his band were offered the remaining twenty minutes of studio rental time. Not expecting the tune to be released, Mack immediately recorded a rockabilly/blues guitar instrumental loosely based on the melody of Chuck Berry‘s 1959 UK vocal hit, “Memphis, Tennessee”.Mack had improvised the guitar solo in a live performance a few years earlier, when another member of the band (who usually sang the tune) missed a club date. Mack’s instrumental version was well-received, so he adopted it as part of his live act.
The tune featured a then-unique combination of several key elements. As recorded in 1963, it had seven distinct sections, with an unusually fast 12-bar blues solo. “An extended guitar solo exploiting the entire range of the instrument rings in the climax of the song in the fifth section. Lonnie Mack begins this portion by quoting several measures of the riff one octave higher than before. From there, he breaks into his choicest licks, including double-picking and pulling-off techniques–all with driving, complicated rhythms and technical precision”.
By the time “Memphis” was first broadcast in the Spring of 1963, Mack had already forgotten the impromptu recording session and was engaged in a nation-wide performing tour with singer-songwriter Troy Seals. A friend located him on tour, and told him his tune was climbing the charts.In a 1977 interview, Mack recalled: “I was completely taken by surprise. I [hadn’t] listened to the radio. I had no idea what was happening”.
By late June, “Memphis” had risen to No. 4 on Billboard’s R&B chart and No. 5 on Billboard’s Pop chart. Up to that point in time, only three other rock guitar instrumentals had penetrated Billboard’s “Top 5”. It was the only top-20 single of Mack’s career. In 1964, Johnny Rivers released his own version of “Memphis”, recombining Berry’s vocal treatment with signature elements of Mack’s instrumental. Rivers’ version scored No. 2 on the US Hit Parade.
Still in 1963, Mack released “Wham!”, a gospel-inspired guitar instrumental, which reached No. 24 on Billboard’s Pop chart in September. He soon recorded several more full-length rock guitar instrumentals, including his own composition,”Chicken Pickin'”, and an instrumental version of Dale Hawkins’ “Suzie Q”. Mack used a Bigsby tremolo arm on “Wham!” and several other tunes to achieve sound effects so distinctive for the time that guitarists began calling it the “whammy bar”, a term by which it is still known.
According to music historian and guitar professor Richard T. Pinnell, Ph. D., Mack’s fast-paced interpretation of blues stylism in “Memphis” was unique in the history of rock guitar to that point, producing a tune that was both “rhythmically and melodically full of fire” and “one of the milestones of early rock and roll guitar”.
Although the term “blues-rock” had not yet come into common usage in 1963, “Memphis” is now widely regarded as the first genuine hit recording of the blues-rock guitar genre. “Wham!” soon became the second.
During 1963, after the release of “Memphis” and “Wham!”, Mack returned to the studio several times to cut additional recordings, including instrumentals, vocals and ensemble tunes. Fraternity packaged several of these, along with his 1963 singles, into an album entitled The Wham of that Memphis Man!.
Mack’s guitar instrumentals were blues-based, but unusually rapid, seamless and precise.His vocals were strongly influenced by Black gospel music. All of the tunes were backed by bass guitar and drums, and many also featured keyboards and a Stax/Volt-style horn section. Several cuts included an R&B backup chorus, provided by The Charmaines. In his book, The 100 Best Rock ‘n’ Roll Records of All Time, Jimmy Guterman ranked the album No. 16, saying:
The first of the guitar-hero records is also one of the best. And for perhaps the last time, the singing on such a disc is worthy of the guitar histrionics. Lonnie Mack bent, stroked, and modified the sound of six strings in ways that baffled his contemporaries and served as a guide to future players. His brash arrangements insure that [the album] remains a showcase for songs, not just a platform for showing off. Mack, who produced this album, has never been given credit for the dignified understatement he brought to his workouts.
The Wham of that Memphis Man! was released within weeks of the beginning of the British Invasion. Competing with likes of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones was an obstacle encountered by many, but Mack faced an additional challenge: In the words of critic John Morthland, “It was the era of satin pants and histrionic stage shows, and all the superior chops in the world couldn’t hide the fact that chubby, country Mack probably had more in common with Kentucky truck drivers than he did with the new rock audience”. Mack slowly slipped back into relative obscurity until the late ’60s.
The Wham of that Memphis Man! has been reissued at least ten times, most recently in 2008. However, most of Mack’s Fraternity recordings are not found on the album. Fraternity continued to release additional Mack singles during the 1960s, but never issued another album. Some of his Fraternity sides, including some alternate takes of tunes released in the 1960s, were first released three or four decades after they were recorded, on a series of Mack compilation albums.
In 1968, with the blues-rock movement approaching full force, Mack entered into a multi-record deal with Los Angeles’ Elektra Records, and relocated to the West Coast. A feature article in the November 1968 issue of Rolling Stone magazine rated Mack “in a class by himself” as a rock guitarist, and compared his R&B vocals favorably with Elvis Presley’s best gospel efforts. Rolling Stone urged Elektra to reissue Mack’s 5-year-old Fraternity album. Elektra soon obliged, reissuing The Wham of that Memphis Man!, with two additional 1964 tracks, under the title For Collectors Only. Rolling Stone’s October 1970 review of For Collectors Only compared Mack’s guitar work to “the best of Eric Clapton“.
The Wham of that Memphis Man!/For Collectors Only remains Mack’s most significant early album. In his review of a 1987 reissue, Gregory Himes of The Washington Post wrote: “With so many roots-rock guitarists trying to imitate this same style, this album sounds surprisingly modern. Not many have done it this well, though.”
Mack recorded three new albums with Elektra, including Glad I’m in the Band and Whatever’s Right, both released in 1969. These were eclectic collections country and soul ballads, blues tunes, and updated versions of earlier recordings. In contrast to The Wham of that Memphis Man, both 1969 albums emphasized Mack’s vocals and de-emphasized his guitar work. Only two instrumentals appear on these albums, a full-length blues guitar piece on Glad entitled “Mt. Healthy Blues”, and a re-make of “Memphis”. Despite the shift in musical emphasis, Mack’s output from this period was well-received by music critics. This, from a contemporary assessment of Glad:
Mack’s taste and judgment are super-excellent. Every aspect of his guitar bears a direct relationship to the sound and meaning of the song. [H]is voice is strong without straining and of great range and personality. [I]f this isn’t the best rock recording of the season, its the solidest.
— Rolling Stone, May 3, 1969, p. 28
Representative of these two albums were two consecutive vocals on Whatever’s Right. Mack sings Willie Dixon‘s “My Babe” in a soul style typical of that era. Within seconds of the closing measure on that tune, he begins his vocal on “Things Have Gone To Pieces”, a country tune previously recorded by George Jones. He repeated the pattern in Glad by performing a country tune, “Old House”, and the soul tune, “Too Much Trouble” in sequence.
Sales of these albums proved disappointing. Upon completing them, Mack assumed a “Chet Atkins-Eric Clapton role at Elektra, doing studio dates, producing and A&R.” During this period, Mack was invited to play on The Doors’ 1970 album, Morrison Hotel. The original album’s liner notes credited him with the electric bass parts on “Roadhouse Blues” and “Maggie M’Gill”. However, in the ensuing years, some have questioned whether his contribution to the album stopped there.
Most of the speculation involves the tune “Roadhouse Blues”. In an out-take (first released in 2006) from the first day of the recording session, the album’s producer, Paul Rothchild, is heard bemoaning guitarist Robbie Krieger’s efforts on the tune. Mack appeared the next morning, and the recording session resumed. On the take released with the 1970 album, singer Jim Morrison is heard calling out “Do it, Lonnie, do it!” during a bluesy guitar break. Twenty years later, the band’s drummer, John Densmore, wrote:
Lonnie sat down in front of the paisley baffles that soak up the sound. A hefty guy with a pencil-thin beard, he had on a wide-brimmed hat that had become his trademark. Lonnie Mack epitomized the blues—not the rural blues, but the city blues; he was bad. “I’ll sing the lyrics for you”, Jim [Morrison] offered meekly. [Morrison] was unusually shy. We all were, because to us, the guitar player we had asked to sit in with us was a living legend.
— John Densmore, Riders On The Storm, Dell, 1990, p. 235′
Despite these clues suggesting that Mack played the lead guitar part on “Roadhouse Blues”, that distinction remains officially credited to Robbie Krieger.
By the early 1980s, Mack had been largely absent from the rock music scene for over a decade and his visibility as a popular recording artist had waned considerably. He chose this low point in his career to resume performing and touring, emphasizing a hard-driving blues-rock/rockabilly fusion style that became the cornerstone of his sound for the rest of his career.
His first album from this period was Live at Coco’s, recorded in 1983. It is Mack’s only mid-career roadhouse performance preserved on disc. Originally a “bootleg” recording, Mack sanctioned its commercial release in 1998. On Coco’s, Mack and his band can be heard playing familiar tunes from the Fraternity era, lesser-known tunes from the ’70s, tunes which appear on no other album (e.g., “Stormy Monday”, “The Things I Used To Do” and “Man From Bowling Green”) and tunes which did not appear on his studio albums until several years later (e.g., “Falling Back In Love With You”, “Ridin’ the Blinds”, “Cocaine Blues” and “High Blood Pressure”).
Still in 1983, Mack relocated to Texas, where he played regularly at venues in Dallas and Austin. Early in this period, Mack entered into a performing collaboration with Stevie Ray Vaughan. Little known outside of Texas in 1980, Vaughan’s own career took off during this period; by 1985 he was an international blues-rock guitar sensation. Mack and Vaughan had first met in 1979, when Mack, acting on a tip from Vaughan’s older brother, went to hear him play at a local bar. Vaughan recalled the meeting in a 1985 interview:
I was playin’ at the Rome Inn in Austin, and we had just hit the opening chords of “Wham!” when this big guy walked in. He looked just like a great big bear. As soon as I looked at his face, I realized who he was, and naturally he was blown away to hear us doing his song. [W]e talked for a long time that night. [Lonnie said] he wanted to produce us.
— Sandmel, “Rock Pioneer Lonnie Mack In Session With Stevie Ray Vaughan”, ‘Guitar Player, April 1985, p33
Mack and Vaughan became close friends after that first meeting. Despite the generation gap between them, Mack said that he and Vaughan “were always on the same level”, describing Vaughan as “an old spirit…in a young man’s body”. Mack regarded Vaughan as his “little brother” and Vaughan said Mack was “something between a daddy and a brother”. When Mack was stricken with a lengthy illness in Texas, Vaughan put on a benefit concert to help pay his bills; during Mack’s recuperation, Vaughan and his bass-player, Tommy Shannon, personally installed an air-conditioner in his house.
In the purely musical sense, the relationship between Mack and Vaughan had begun long before they met. Vaughan said that “Wham!” was “the first record I ever owned”, that Mack was “the baddest guitar player I know”, and that Mack “really taught me to play guitar from the heart”. Vaughan’s musical legacy includes four versions of “Wham!”—two solo versions and two dueling-guitar versions with Mack. He also recorded Mack’s “If You Have To Know” and an instrumental homage to “Chicken-Pickin”, which Vaughan called “Scuttle-Buttin'”.
Strike propelled Mack back into the spotlight at age 44. Much of 1985 found him occupied with a promotional concert tour for Strike which included guest appearances by Vaughan, Ry Cooder and both Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones, among others. Videos of Mack and Vaughan playing cuts from Strike are found on YouTube and similar websites. In 2007, Sony’s Legacy label released a 1987 “live” performance of Mack’s “Oreo Cookie Blues” featuring Mack and Vaughan trading leads on electric guitar.
The Strike Like Lightning tour culminated in a Carnegie Hall concert billed as Further On Down the Road, a tip of the hat to Mack’s 1964 recording by the same title. There, he shared the stage with blues guitar stylist Albert Collins and blues-rock guitar virtuoso Roy Buchanan. The concert was marketed on home video and remains available from Flying V Records on Mack’s website.
In 1986, Mack recorded another Alligator album, Second Sight, which featured both introspective and up-tempo tunes as well as an instrumental blues jam. In 1988, he moved to Epic Records, where he recorded the critically acclaimed rockabilly album, Roadhouses and Dance Halls, including the autobiographical single, “Too Rock For Country”.
In 2000, he appeared as a session player on the album Franktown Blues, by the sons of blues legend Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup. Mack provided guitar solos on two cuts, “She’s Got The Key” and “Jammin’ For James”. He continued to tour until 2004, in both America and Europe.
Despite reports of his death, Mack still lives, in rural Tennessee. He is working on a memoir and is engaged in a songwriting collaboration with award-winning country and blues tunesmith Bobby Boyd. He still occasionally appears at benefit concerts and special events. On November 15, 2008, Mack was a featured performer at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 13th annual Music Masters Tribute Concert, soloing on “Wham!” in honor of electric guitar pioneer Les Paul. In June 2011, he announced an upcoming self-published album of informally recorded tunes, making one of the tunes, “The Times Ain’t Right”, available without charge on his website, Lonniemack.com.
- 1963: The Wham of that Memphis Man!
- 1969: Glad I’m in the Band
- 1969: Whatever’s Right
- 1971: The Hills of Indiana
- 1973: Dueling Banjos
- 1977: Home At Last
- 1978: Lonnie Mack With Pismo
- 1980: South (rel. 1999)
- 1983: Live at Coco’s (rel. 1999)
- 1985: Strike Like Lightning
- 1986: Second Sight
- 1988: Roadhouses and Dance Halls
- 1990: Attack of the Killer V