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.

Friday, July 22, 2016

New Blues For You - Summer, 2016 Edition (Part 3)

After a bit of a forced hiatus, Friday Blues Fix is back with more new blues for you.  As always, expanded versions of these reviews can be found in past, current, or future issues of Blues Bytes, THE monthly online magazine of blues CD reviews.  This week, we will look at seven more new, or fairly new releases that deserve a spin on your CD player or iPod or the media player of your choice.

Daddy Mack Blues Band - A Bluesman Looks at Seventy (Inside Sounds):  Okay, so this one is not so actually came out last summer, but I just picked it up, so it's new to me.  Longtime readers here at FBF have heard me singing the praises of Mack Orr and his rock solid Memphis band ever since the beginning of the blog.  From the first time I heard Daddy Mack, I have been enthralled by his down-home greasy, gritty blues style.  There's nothing fancy here at all, just the old school blues played extremely well. 

As you might have guessed, this disc celebrates Orr's 70th birthday, and it's pretty easy to hear that he gets better with age.  With 14 excellent tracks, backed by his fine band (and guest stars Brad Webb, Carl Wolfe, and GTBB's Matt Isbell), there's plenty to enjoy from fans of traditional blues artists like Magic Slim, Muddy Waters, Albert King, and B.B. King.  I hear a lot of these guys when I play a Daddy Mack Blues Band CD.  You can't go wrong with any of his recordings, but this one is a great place to start.

Royal Southern Brotherhood - The Royal Gospel (Ruf Records):  The line-up may change from album to album, but the musical vision remains in place for RSB.  This time around, in addition to returning members Cyril Neville, guitarists Bart Walker and Tyrone Vaughan, and drummer Yonrico Scott, there's a new bass player (Darryl Phillips).  Guest Norman Caesar really fattens the band's sound with some tasty Hammond B3 on assorted tracks, too.

The band's combination of Southern rock and Crescent City-fueled R&B/funk continues unabated with this great new release, which features tracks that focus on each of the styles individually, plus a few that combine the genres with excellent results.  Many of the tunes were written by the band members, with Neville contributing several of his songs that focus on modern issues, along with a couple of strong ballads.  Walker proves to be a pretty effective partner in songwriting and vocalizing.  This one is my favorite of RSB's already impressive catalog (five releases in four years).


Reverend Freakchild - Illogical Optimism (Treated and Released Records):  I really dug the Reverend's previous release, Hillbilly Zen-Punk Blues.  He's quite a talented guitarist and has a versatile vocal style.  He's not afraid to take the blues in different directions either, mixing different genres together.  I promise that you've never quite heard anything like Reverend Freakchild and you get a full taste of his talents on this entertaining 3-CD set.

Disc One is called "Odds, Ends and Other Amazingness," which is appropriate, as he mixes a few new songs with some uniquely reimagined cover tunes....from Lennon to Dylan to the Meters to Blind Lemon Jefferson to Bo Diddley, with some gospel covers to boot.  Disc Two, called "Everything Is Now," features a dozen reworkings of "All I Got Is Now," a tune from his previous release.  The reworkings go from funk to country to reggae to punk to French and German versions.  Disc Three, "Kairos," is a short disc that showcases Florida's Ramblin' Jennings, a former preacher who now plays the gospel blues on South Beach.  It's raw and ragged and righteous!!

This set was a lot of fun to listen to.  You never really know what direction a Reverend Freakchild song is going to take, but you can be assured it won't be dull whatever he chooses.

Markey Blue - The Blues are Knockin' (SoulOsound Records):  It's been a big couple of years for the Nashville-based duo.  They advanced to the semi-finals at this year's I.B.C. and several of the songs from their previous CD, 2014's Hey Hey, gained spots on TV with one making a motion picture.  They've been nominated for Blues Blast Awards the last couple of years, too.  Singer Markey and guitarist Ric Latina's brand of blues combines elements of the Mississippi Delta with Memphis soul and the Chicago blues.

Their latest release features a bevy of well-crafted original tunes, and really showcases Markey's impressive versatile vocals and Latina's standout fretwork.  Among the songs are a couple of tribute tunes to two of their influences, B.B. King and Little Milton Campbell.  This pair has released two winners in a row and certainly deserve to be heard by a wider audience.

Big Harp George - Wash My Horse in Champagne (Blues Mountain Records):  While it certainly will finish in the Top Ten for Most Unusual Album Title this year, there's a lot of great music for blues harmonica fans on this disc.  Big Harp George Bisharat's specialty is the chromatic harmonica, but he doesn't play it like anyone else, preferring to play it through a voice mic instead of the traditional harp mic.  The result is a rich, liquidy sound that you don't ordinarily hear from a chromatic.

Bisharat is also a very good vocalist and songwriter, displaying a lot of range in his original tunes, moving easily from blues to rock to jazz to Latin influences.  He gets plenty of help from guitarists Kid Andersen and Little Charely Baty, a solid rhythm section, and a tight horn section on several tracks.  If you're wondering, "Where in the world did this guy come from," Bisharat was a criminal defense attorney and professor of law in California and has been a commentator on law and the Middle East for years, but he recently turned to playing his music full time.  Blues fans are happy that he made the transition.


Queen Delphine and the Crown Jewels - Come and Get It (Juke House Records):  This is a great 5-song EP that serves as an introduction of sorts to Queen Delphine (a.k.a. Harriett D. Ellis).  The Queen has a big powerful voice that will remind listeners of classic singers like Big Mama Thornton and Koko Taylor, and she's backed by an excellent band.

The EP features four original tunes, written by Ellis and her husband Lee, and one sizzling cover of Koko Taylor's "I'm A Woman."  Three of the original songs touch on Southern soul/blues, jazz, and gospel, and the fourth is an instrumental that gives the band a few minutes in the spotlight.  This is a very good set of traditional and modern blues and show Queen Delphine to be quite a compelling vocalist.  Hopefully, we will hear more from her soon.


Mighty Mojo Prophets - Record Store (Mojo King Music):  The Prophets issued their third album on their own label, and it's a doozy.  Packed with thirteen originals, all penned by singer Tom Eliff and guitarist Mitch Dow, this one will please those listeners who dig the blues the way they used to do them.....straight-forward, no frills, just rock-solid performances that never disappoint.

These guys know their way around an old fashioned shuffle for sure, but they also venture into soul territory and the swampy sounds of Excello show up, too.  One thing about the Mighty Mojo Prophets is that they stick to original material exclusively and it consists of old style tunes that would be a perfect fit in the era that they recall.  The title track will definitely make baby boomers wistful for the days when they could walk into their local record store and thumb through the albums in the rack.  

More to come in a few weeks.  

R.I.P. Willie Seaberry, owner of Po' Monkey's juke joint in Bolivar County, MS, who passed away last week.  He was 75 years old and truly a blues icon.  I never had a chance to visit Po' Monkey's and I regret not having the opportunity to meet him.

Friday, July 1, 2016

New Blues For You - Summer, 2016 Edition (Part 2)

Summer's here!  The time is right for more sneak previews of new blues releases.  Friday Blues Fix is back with reviews of seven.....that's right, SEVEN.....capsule reviews of brand new albums that be found at your local record store, or your online record store, or downloaded at your convenience.  Face it, folks!  There's NO reason why you shouldn't track down these great recordings as soon as possible.  As always, if you want even more information about these releases, I recommend you check out past, current, and future issues of Blues Bytes, THE monthly online magazine of Blues CD reviews.

Toronzo Cannon - The Chicago Way (Alligator Records):  Friday Blues Fix did Ten Questions With Toronzo Cannon a couple of years ago, but a few things have happened to him since then.  Off the strength of his previous two releases for Delmark Records (Leaving Mood and John The Conquer Root),blistering performances at various venues (including headlining the Chicago Blues Festival last summer), and this, his debut for Alligator, Cannon is approaching upper echelon status.

This one is his best yet....."electrifying" doesn't even begin to describe it.  He wrote all of the songs, which range from blues anthems that bands will be covering years from now, to stylish Windy City shuffles to soulful ballads to blues rocking rave-ups.  There's no doubt, based on the performances on this release, that Toronzo Cannon is a blues man on a get his sizzling brand of blues out there to as many folks as possible.  It's not too late to get on the bandwagon, and this is a great place to hop on.

The Bo-Keys - Heartaches By The Number (Omnivore Recordings):  For their third album, and first since the death of their guitarist, Skip Pitts, the Bo-Keys venture into country-soul territory, covering classic tunes from Hank Williams ("I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry"), Freddy Fender ("Wasted Days and Wasted Nights"), and Floyd Cramer ("Last Date"), Merle Haggard (the seldom-heard "The Longer You Wait"), plus the classic title track, first made popular by country singer Ray Price, but covered by dozens of other country stars over the years.

The group also covers Bob Dylan ("I Threw It All Away") and the legendary Swamp Dogg (a.k.a. Jerry Williams, Jr.) ("The Longer You Wait"), plus they add a couple of originals in the same vein.  Though they've primarily been an instrumental group on their previous albums, mixing in a few vocals, this time around they use vocals on nearly all the tracks, either by Percy Wiggins, who takes the lion's share of vocals, or by Stax legend Don Bryant, who ably handles the title track.  This excellent disc shows that the line between soul music and country music is a thin one indeed.

John Long - Stand Your Ground (Delta Groove Music):  St. Louis native Long grew up listening to his mother's old 78's and soon grew to love the blues and was learning country blues songs on his guitar.  Migrating to Chicago in the early 70's, he was mentored by Homesick James Williamson and was soon dubbed by no less a major figure than Muddy Waters to be "the best young country blues artist playing today."  Despite that glowing endorsement, Long recorded sparingly over the years; a cassette-only release in 1999 and 2006's Lost & Found on Delta Groove Records, one of that year's best albums.

Ten years later, Long released this long-awaited follow-up, and it's as good as it's predecessor.  With 13 tracks mixing vintage blues classics with equally worthy originals from Long, this may be one of the best country blues.  He's joined on a few tracks by a rhythm section, but for the most part, this is strictly Long, his guitar and harmonica, and that wonderful voice that sounds straight out of the 1920's or 30's.  The set list mixes blues and gospel, touching on both familiar themes and more modern fare (Parkinson's Disease on one track).  He pays tribute to Homesick James on one track, and even accompanies himself on percussion for one track with a 1938 Samsonite suitcase.  This disc is a barrel of fun and John Long is an underappreciated musical treasure.

Terrie Odabi - My Blue Soul (self-released):  Oakland-based Odabi got her start in music in the 80's, backing several local R&B singers and performing with two world music/techno groups, before joining the neo-soul movement.  She's now immersed completely in the blues, having finished in the semi-finals two consecutive years (2014 and 2015) at the I.B.C.  My Blue Soul is her first full length album and it's appropriately titled, mixing blues and soul in equal measure.

Odabi has a powerful and versatile vocal style, displaying a remarkable range, and that's a great thing, but she's also a first-rate songwriter, penning all of the original tunes, which not only touch on blues and soul, but even gospel on a few selected tracks, notably a cover of "Wade In The Water."  Backed by some of the best players in the Bay Area (guitarist Kid Andersen, who also produced, drummer Derrick "D'Mar" Martin, guitarist Terry Hiatt, saxophonist Nancy Wright, etc...), Odabi has herself a winner with this disc.....a great set of soul and blues.  Expect to hear more from her in the future.

Eric Bibb and North Country Far with Danny Thompson - The Happiest Man in the World (Stony Plain Records):  Years ago, singer/guitarist Bibb was living in Helsinki, where he met a couple of musician brothers.......drummer Janne and Olli Haavisto, who played dobro and pedal steel, and mandolin/mandola player Petri Hakala.  They began playing together as Eric Bibb & North Country Far.  One night, while exchanging stories, Bibb happened to mention bassist Thompson, who's played with Alexis Korner, Donovan, Richard Thompson, Nick Drake, and Pentangle.  Thompson was one of Olli Haavisto's musical idols.  The rest, as they say, is history, as the group headed to the U.K. to record this album with Thompson.

The session consists of 15 laid-back, genial tunes that mix  acoustic blues, folk, and roots.  The entire disc just has these warm, comfortable, lived-in quality.  You could easily see these guys setting up on the porch and playing this music for their friends.  Bibb writes songs that are upbeat and lighthearted for the most part, but he also tells entertaining character stories with some of his songs, about lovers separated or the passage of time in our lives.  There are also a couple of instrumentals that showcase all of the musicians.  This is a well-crafted set of acoustic blues that sounds like the labor of love that it obviously was.....a great disc to listen to on your own porch, if you have one.

The Jordan Patterson Band - The Back On Track Recording Project (Flaming Cheese Records):  In the mid 90's, singer/harmonica player Patterson was a star on the rise, coming off an excellent debut release on JSP Records, touring clubs and festivals, sharing the stage with James Brown, Carlos Santana, Robert Cray, Son Seals, and U.P. Wilson.  Then, he took a step back and decided to leave the spotlight to become a concert promoter and artist touring manager for some of the biggest stars of the late 90's and early 2000's.

After a decade and a half, Patterson began performing again in 2014, releasing an EP of five songs that went over so well, he recently expanded it into a ten-song set.  With superb backing from a double-barreled guitar duo, and guest appearances from Shawn Kellerman on several tracks, Patterson turns in a great set that shows he's still a force to be reckoned with on the blues scene.  He wrote all ten tracks and they mix blues with rock, funk, and R&B.  His singing, great to begin with, is even better than before, as is his harmonica playing.  Hopefully, he will make up for lost time and is back on the blues scene to stay.

In Layman Terms - Tangled (self-released):  This duo consists of brother and sister Cole (guitar) and Logan (bass) Layman.  Cole Layman counts Hendrix, Page, SRV, Bonamassa, and Trucks as musical influences.  Logan Layman plays a mean bass and has a strong and seasoned vocal style.  They've competed at the I.B.C. the past four years and work in a variety of settings - duo, trio (with their mother on drums), and in a full band.  Oh, by the way, Cole just graduated high school and Logan will be a junior in the coming school year!

They've also released a remarkable debut album that shows them to be pretty sound songwriters.  They're backed by an excellent band, including horns on a couple of tracks.  They also present an interesting take on, of all tunes, "Smokestack Lightnin',' that's different from any I've ever heard before.  This is an impressive debut by a talented pair of youngsters who sing and play like they've been at it for years.  Check out "Fake It til I Make It," a song on Tangled that the duo penned that's taken from a poem their mom wrote about her depression.

Happy listening!  More new blues coming in a few weeks!!