Lonnie Mack passed away on April 21st. Never heard of him? You’re certainly not alone. But you’ve most assuredly heard him, or at least his echoes, in the hundreds of rock and roll guitarists who were influenced by him. [Note: all indented paragraphs below are from the other sources that are linked in this post.]
“Lonnie Mack was one of the first white guys to really make a mark playing blues-infused guitar,” said record producer and blues historian Dick Shurman. “I think of him as a prototype of what later could be called Southern rock. His music was a blend — it wasn’t a conscious blend — he brought black and white styles together seamlessly.”
“I think there’s a pretty strong argument to be made that Lonnie is the first true blues-rock guitarist, and perhaps the first rock guitar hero,” says Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer, a Cincinnati native who first discovered Mack’s music as a teenager in the Queen City. “He’s the first guitarist that I know of to take elements of blues, country, and earlier rock, and bring them to what you could call a ‘rock and roll’ energy level. As a frontman, he was perhaps rock’s first virtuoso guitarist. Plus, I think it’s safe to say that he brought more elements of blues into rock guitar than anyone before him. He was both a groundbreaker and a brilliant musician.”
Lonnie was born near Cincinnati and his first studio gigs were as a session man (for the likes of James Brown) at King Records and the sister label Fraternity in Cincinnati. It was a Fraternity session that gave him his accidental big break…
And it was on a Fraternity session, recorded at King’s studios in 1962, that Mack stepped into history: His band was backing a female vocal group called the Charmaines when—according to one of several varying accounts—the session finished about 20 minutes ahead of schedule. Mack used the balance of the time to cut two sides, among them a single-take, two-and-a-half-minute instrumental version of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee” (shortened by Mack to “Memphis”).
“Memphis” hit the charts the following year, and its follow-up single, another rocking instrumental called “Wham” also had a profound influence on the future of blues rock:
Down in Texas, “Wham!” had captured the imagination of a nine-year-old boy, as noted in this passage from “Stevie Ray Vaughan: Caught in the Crossfire,” by Joe Nick Patoski and Bill Crawford:
“Whether it was the maniacal, out-of-control attack, the raunchy, fuzzed-out distortion, or the lightning speed with which it was played, Mack’s 1963 instrumental did a number on Steve. He played “Wham!” over and over and over until the grooves began to wear off the 45. He slowed it down to 33 1/3 RPM to decipher the notes that blurred past at the speed of sound and the tricky turnarounds…
His single-minded determination not only annoyed his elder brother, it drove his father nuts. After hearing the song for what must have been the 726th time, Big Jim Vaughan burst into Steve’s room, yanked the record off the turntable, and smashed it to bits. Undeterred, Steve simply went out and bought another copy.”
My love for SRV was how I found out about Lonnie. Every time Stevie would play a concert in Cincinnati, I would attend, and SRV would always bring up Lonnie Mack to play a song or three. In the late 80s, I saw Lonnie Mack play a concert at a tiny Cincinnati bar, in an upstairs room that was usually home to a DJ playing dance tunes. Lonnie and his band absolutely tore it up, and I was thrilled to get a chance to talk to him after the gig and get his autograph.
But he wasn’t just an incendiary guitarist, he also had a very soulful voice.
Greil Marcus selected this track by Lonnie Mack as one of the great vocals in rock n roll and he detailed why in his 2009 lecture “The Songs Left Out of “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency”. Greil described ‘Why?’ thus: “a soul ballad so torturous, so classically structured, that it can uncover wounds of your own. Mack’s scream at the end has never been matched, God help us if anyone ever tops it”.
I highly recommend that you read this great article about the life and times of Mr. Mack.
In the meantime, there’s the issue of his legacy. Mack was criminally overlooked when Rolling Stone published its “100 Greatest Guitarist of All Time” cover story in the summer of 2003. He also remains excluded from induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And like so many artists the world over, he isn’t fond of the business machinations of the music industry.
“I ain’t got no regrets, but at the same time, it ain’t something that I would recommend to a young kid right now like I used to,” Mack says. “Because you have no control of anything anymore. The only way you can make any money is to do what everybody’s tellin’ me I need to go do: Go back out and tour and get the money at the door. That’s the only sure money there is.”
He pauses. And a second later, it seems he’s come full circle.
“I mean, you’d better love it,” he continues. “I mean, daggone! Why I got into it in the first place wasn’t about the money. I got into it because I loved it.”