The greatest man I know from The Greatest Generation

My Uncle Don passed away recently, at the age of 92. Took a nap and never woke up. He had dementia, but physically was still strong as an ox. He even took a open-air plane ride less than a year ago.

uncle don plane2

If you read his obituary, you get a glimpse of what an amazing guy he was:

  • married for more than 60 years
  • father of 5
  • grandfather of 11
  • great-grandfather of 4
  • WWII veteran – Lieutenant pilot in the Army Air Force, flying missions aboard C-46 and C-54s while stationed in the South Pacific, Karachi and in the China-Burma-India theater
  • Senior class president at Syracuse University, student council chairman, president of Pi Mu Epsilon, the mathematics honor society, and vice-president of Tau Beta Pi, the engineering honor society
  • 37-year career with Exxon Chemical
  • founding member of a Catholic church in Houston, and a religious education teacher
  • Saxophone player and tennis player
  • Animal lover

But that just scratches the surface. After my mother died at age 33 and my dad moved the family (4 kids under age 10) from Jersey City, New Jersey to the sticks of Arkansas, we spent several childhood summers living with my uncle and aunt in Houston. We didn’t think anything of it at the time, but in hindsight it was such an amazing sacrifice for Uncle Don – who had 5 kids of his own, mind you – to take on another brood of 4 from his wife’s brother for three months of every year. And he did so much more than provide room and board… it was in Houston under his tutelage that my siblings and I learned how to swim, and ride bikes. He took us to Astros games, to amusement parks, to ice cream parlors, and loved us as if we were his own kids. It gave us a sense of normalcy in a childhood that was otherwise anything but normal. And for that we’ll forever be grateful.

uncle don sax

Rest in peace, Uncle Don.

uncle don headshot

A music player that actually plays music

NPR Music is a great source for new tunes as well as music news and reviews. I love their “First Listen” section where you can stream new albums, and their “Tiny Desk Concerts” are fun too. But until recently, the way you had to listen to the music — their proprietary music player — was a source of endless frustration. It’d crash constantly, and if you were halfway through listening to an album you’d have to start all over at the beginning. (Yes, I realize I’m complaining about free music.)

But now NPR updated their music player. It works much better than the old one, and you can even stream live radio, with some of my favorite stations like KEXP in Seattle, The Current in Minneapolis and WNKU in Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky.

npr music logo

Happy listening!


Big Mack Attack

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.”



Long live the Hag

In loving memory of a true original, Merle Haggard:


Porter Wagoner is a bit off grammatically, but he speaks the truth at the end of the video:

“Of all the singers there is, I just think he’s the greatest man to listen to and puts a story across better than anybody, anywhere.”

Merle and “Kern River” both have a special place in my heart because I lived in Bakersfield, California for a couple of years. That’s where Merle was born (in a converted railroad boxcar!) and raised, and where the Kern River is. Here’s an excerpt from his NY Times obit:

Defying the conventions of the Nashville musical establishment, Mr. Haggard was an architect of the twangy Bakersfield sound, a guitar-driven blend of blues, jazz, pop and honky-tonk that traced its roots to Bakersfield, Calif. In Mr. Haggard’s case the sound defined a body of work as indelibly as that of any country singer since Hank Williams.

merle haggard

Score one for the little guys

Villanova won the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship Monday night, in dramatic fashion.

I was excited for them because my brother-in-law is a ‘nova grad and because my alma mater, Xavier, plays in the same conference as them (and was one of only 5 teams to beat them this season, btw). But I was also happy because Villanova is a small school, and they usually don’t get to wear the crown. Here’s a stat from an article about the game and how it was a victory for all the little guys:

Entering Monday’s game, Kentucky, Duke, Connecticut and North Carolina had won 12 of the previous 20 national championships in Division I basketball… Even the teams that sneaked into the club in the past 20 years — Syracuse, Louisville, Florida, Kansas, Michigan State, etc. — do not qualify as true underdogs.

At a time when many of the traditional powerhouses are recruiting one-and-done players, schools that keep their players all four years probably have a better chance of winning it all. So here’s hoping the little guy era has begun.


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