Friday, July 29, 2016

Wham! - Remembering Lonnie Mack

A couple of weeks ago, I was browsing Amazon with a fistful of birthday gift cards burning a hole in my pocket.  I have eclectic tastes in music beyond the blues, so the "Recommended for You" option under my Amazon account is pretty much all over the place, and usually not much help for recommending what I want to hear at that time.  This time, though, it worked out pretty well because one of the CDs listed was Strike Like Lightning by the late, great Lonnie Mack.

Strike Like Lightning was one of the first blues albums I ever owned.  Now, I had no idea who Lonnie Mack was at the time....way back in 1986.  It was actually the cover that caught my eye, one of the coolest ever.  When I picked up the album and turned it over to the back cover, I saw Lonnie Mack and Stevie Ray Vaughan.  Now I definitely knew who Stevie Ray Vaughan was and I saw where he not only produced the album, but he also played guitar on it.    I bought a cassette copy and proceeded to have my proverbial socks rocked off.

Stevie Ray Vaughan and Lonnie Mack

While I was familiar with SRV's guitar work, I had never heard anything like Lonnie Mack's sound.....faster than the speed of sound, vibrato-laden, fiercely intense.  I saw immediately that there was a reason Vaughan was involved in this project.....Lonnie Mack had been a big influence on his playing.  That was pretty obvious, especially on the songs where they played together.

As good as Mack was on guitar, he was equally great on vocals.  He had a distinct, soulful style that owed as much to soul as it did country music.  He knew his way around a soul ballad for the point where his songs were played frequently on R&B radio stations back in the early 60's.  On Strike Like Lightning, he was equally comfortable on soul or country ballads, urban blues, rock n' roll, and traditional country blues.  There was a lot of great music crammed on that ten-song album.

About a year later, I got to see Lonnie Mack at a local blues festival.  In its day, the Chunky Rhythm & Blues Festival saw some great line-ups, but the line-up was pretty impressive that day.  I can recall seeing Anson Funderburgh and Sam Myers, the Kinsey Report with Big Daddy Kinsey, Chick Willis, and Gary "B.B." Coleman and I was a couple of hours late getting there.  Koko Taylor was also there, with her band, the Blues Machine, and Lonnie Mack was supposed to be the closer.

By the time he came on, it was about 10:30 or 11:00.  Ole Miss was a co-sponsor of the festival, so a lot of their students were in attendance early on.  There were also a lot of locals that I'd known for years, but really didn't know that they even liked the blues.  By the time Mack showed up, about 75% of the audience had moved on to other activities.  There was about an hour gap between his appearance and Ms. Taylor's, so a lot of folks shrugged their shoulders and left.  The great thing about that was that my friends and I were able to move up to the stage.  I was about ten feet away when he came out, in a foul mood.

He grumbled through a couple of songs, but gradually began to perk up a bit, eventually engaging in a little gruff, but lighthearted banter with some of us in the audience, which led into one of his most popular songs, "Oreo Cookie Blues," an acoustic blues paying tribute to the chosen late night snack of millions.  By the time that one concluded, ol' Lonnie Mack was rarin' to go.

He launched into his signature instrumental, "Wham!," at that point.  As I said, I was about ten feet away from the stage and for about half that song, he was almost face-to-face with me.  "Wham!" was a huge hit for Mack in the 60's, and he and SRV had updated it most impressively on Strike Like Lightning, calling it "Double Whammy."  This version was definitely a double whammy and Mack knew it while he was the point that he shot a wink to the audience as he was playing.  Before he closed, he sang a version of  The Falcons' "I Found a Love" that was almost as good as Wilson Pickett's original.

I got to see him a few years later in Memphis, as part of the Memphis Horns' 25th anniversary celebration in 1992.  He was pretty grumpy that night, too, fussing about the sound between his three songs, and even griping as he walked off the set at the conclusion of his set.  Still, the music was fantastic and he was one of the highlights of a star-studded tribute.  

Strike Like Lightning arrived in the mail earlier this week, and I've been playing it non-stop in my truck since then.  It's been really great to hear it again, and it makes me sad that we lost Lonnie Mack this past April at 74 years of age from natural causes.  Although I didn't know much about Lonnie Mack when I first started listening, I eventually found out much much more.  He released a couple more albums with Alligator in the late 80's/early 90's (1986's Second Sight and 1990's Live!  Attack of the Killer V), and both were pretty killer stuff.   

During Mack's stint with Alligator, the label also reissued his classic album from 1964, The Wham of That Memphis Man!  That album was as perfect a blend of blues and rock n' roll as there's ever been.  Not only was he playing some incredible guitar, but he was just as amazing on the vocals.  I later found out that scores of rock guitarist owned this album back in the day.  Guitarists like Vaughan, Duane Allman, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Dickey Betts, Ted Nugent, Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson, and so many others (even funkmeister Bootsy Collins) give credit to Mack as a major influence on guitar.  Vaughan once said that he played the "Wham!" single so many times while trying to learn the guitar parts that his father destroyed the record.

Lonnie Mack was born July 18, 1941 in rural Indiana.  Growing up, he was part of a musical family and therefore was exposed to a variety of music, beginning with country music and bluegrass, then shifting to rockabilly after Elvis made the scene, then moving on to rock n' roll, soul, and R&B.  He began playing at age 6, and listed Merle Travis as an early influence, as well as T-Bone Walker, and Robert Ward, whose liquidy guitar sound inspired him to play his Gibson Flying V through a Magnatone speaker.  Mack's brother, Bill McIntosh, later became an in-demand session guitarist in Nashville and appeared on Strike Like Lightning.

Mack grew up singing in church, which helps account for his smooth and soulful style.  His vocals were influenced by country music star George Jones and blues singer Bobby "Blue" Bland, which sort of verifies that the line between the two genres is a thin one.

Armed with his Flying V (#7 of the first year's production run), which he equipped with a tremolo bar.  Mack played various clubs in Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky with a group called the Twilighters.  He also did session work for Fraternity Records, a small Cincinnati label.  It was with Fraternity where he recorded the instrumentals "Memphis," "Wham!," and "Chicken Pickin'," and vocal tracks "Where There's A Will," "Satisfied," and "Why?"


All of these songs were collected on The Wham of That Memphis Man!  I can't recommend this album enough!  By the way, after "Wham!" was released, the tremolo bar became known worldwide as a "whammy bar."  Mack actually didn't even know that Fraternity had issued "Memphis" as a single until he heard it on the radio.  He had recorded it at the end of another artist's session.  Within a few weeks, the song had hit the national Top Five.

Mack also did session work for Cincinnati's King Records in the 60's, backing James Brown, Hank Ballard, Freddy King, and others.  Rolling Stone even did a rave review of The Wham of That Memphis Man in 1968, which led to Mack playing at the Fillmore East and West, and signing a record deal with Elektra Records, where he released three albums (Whatever's Right, Glad I'm in the Band, and The Hills of Indiana).  He also played on the Doors' (his Elektra labelmate) Morrison Hotel album, taking a fierce solo on "Roadhouse Blues," and in his own words, "coming about this close to kicking Jim Morrison's ass," after putting up with the singer's antics during the session (you can hear Morrison yelling "Do it, Lonnie, do it," just before he launches into his solo).

Albert Collins, Lonnie Mack, and Roy Buchanan

Mack eventually grew frustrated with the record business and moved back to Indiana, even though he did make a couple of albums for Capitol in the mid 70's that leaned more toward country (Lonnie Mack and Pismo and Home at Last).  In the mid-80's, Vaughan encouraged Mack to move to Austin, TX, and the guitarist slowly got his mojo back, performing frequently with SRV.  Alligator approached Mack to record Strike Like Lightning, and soon he was back in the spotlight, even appearing in a documentary, Further on Down the Road, with fellow blues guitar legends Albert Collins and Roy Buchanan.  He also recorded for Epic Records in the late 80's, a country/R&B mix called Roadhouses & Dance Halls.

In the mid-2000's, Mack stopped touring, but he continued to write songs, settling in Smithville, TN.  He passed away in Nashville on April 21, 2016.  Prince passed away on the same day, so Mack's death sort of slipped through the cracks, much like most of his music career.  Though he was highly regarded by guitarists in multiple genres, Mack largely remained a cult figure.  He didn't have much patience with the music business which probably did contribute to his lack of popularity among the public.  It's a pity, because Lonnie Mack had a lot to offer music fans of several genres.  If you're not familiar with his music, I strongly encourage you to check out his body of work and prepare to be impressed.


DatabaseMX said...

Excellent write up on Lonnie. Appreciated!

Graham said...

Thanks for reading!!