Lonnie Mack

TrackAlbum
WhyThe Wham Of That Memphis Man!
MemphisThe Wham Of That Memphis Man!
Wham!The Wham Of That Memphis Man!
Baby What's WrongThe Wham Of That Memphis Man!
Where There's A WillThe Wham Of That Memphis Man!
In The BandGlad I'm In The Band
She Don't Come Here AnymoreGlad I'm In The Band
Things Have Gone To PiecesWhatever's Right
Falling Back In Love With YouStrike Like Lightning
I Found A LoveAttack Of The Killer V

 

Lonnie Mack photo 2

 

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Lonnie Mack photo

 

Contributor: Dave Stephens

Up to April the 21st 2016, the day he died, Lonnie Mack was the best living white soul singer in the world, so good that he could even be mentioned in the same sentence as some of the all-time great black stars of what is essentially a black genre, and yes, I’m talking about the likes of Bobby Bland, Wilson Pickett and others. Rock History books, if they mention Lonnie at all, will merely record the fact that he was a guitarist who had a couple of hits and sometimes sang (and they probably won’t add the last bit). Since writing that sentence I thought I should perhaps check. “The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia Of Rock And Roll” published in 1983 didn’t even have an entry for Lonnie. And that’s from an outfit who should have known better (though maybe the franchise did dilute the original message at times).

So what evidence is there for my statement which, to some, may seem at least a wee bit OTT. Take a listen to a track which didn’t even get released as a single but was included on his first LP release on the small Fraternity label in 1964. The song was Why and it was written by Lonnie. The eminent critic Greil Marcus has selected this track as one of the great vocals in rock’n’roll. He went on to describe Why as “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”.

Back to the beginning and let me say immediately that Wikipedia has outdone itself in documenting the life story of Lonnie, going into detail on his guitar gear and style, noting all those folks he influenced and so on and so forth. I commend it to you with no reservations.

As a consequence of the diligence of Wiki I’m going to keep my biographical notes fairly brief. Lonnie was born (as Lonnie McIntosh) on July 18, 1941, in Dearborn County, Indiana. From his early childhood he had exposure to all kinds of roots music and he started playing guitar at the age of seven. He dropped out of school early and started playing in bars in Cincinnati, sometimes solo, sometimes as part of a band. His recording debut came with a version of Western Swing number Pistol Packin’ Mama. In the early sixties he picked up session work for the small Fraternity label out of Cincinnati plus the rather better known King Records.

In recognition of his excellent guitar work, Fraternity offered him a recording contract and his debut came with an instrumental version of Chuck Berry’s Memphis Tennessee. It got shortened to Memphis, and somewhere in that timeframe Lonnie’s own name got shortened to Lonnie Mack. The record climbed to #4 in the US National Chart in Summer ’63. Unfortunately this was to be his biggest hit by far. Fraternity followed it with another fast instrumental in Wham! which also caught the public’s attention but it only registered at #24 in the US Chart. And that was about it as far as record buyers were concerned (though I should add that there was one buyer, a certain Stevie Ray Vaughan down in Dallas, who was exceedingly impressed with Wham!). Bear in mind that we’d then moved on to late ’63 by which time the group boom in the UK was starting to spread across the Atlantic which was pushing quite a number of US hit parade artists into the cold.

Both of Lonnie’s initial singles for Fraternity featured instrumentals on their A and B side. His third single, Baby What’s Wrong coupled with Where There’s A Will, featured Lonnie on (then unexpected) vocal, the first being a version of Jimmy Reed’s Baby What You Want Me To Do, and the latter an even more surprising gospel cum soul number. More on these later.

Lonnie stayed with Fraternity until 1968 but only had one album release, the self-produced The Wham Of That Memphis Man! in 1964. Thankfully Ace Records UK, bless ’em, have filled the breach and issued several sets of Lonnie’s Fraternity material, a lot of which hadn’t come out on record at all. These include an expanded The Wham Of…, retitled simply Memphis Wham. Of all the Mack material available this is the one I’d regard as absolutely essential.

Lonnie then moved to Elektra and three albums were released between ’69 and ’71. The first two focused strongly on Lonnie’s vocal strengths in a predominantly soul/blues framework but with the occasional nod to country music. The third, The Hills Of Indiana, was country through and through.

During the seventies, Lonnie recorded more country or countryish music for small labels. These went almost totally unsung at the time. I confess to not being familiar with these but have sampled as much as I can. They’re technically superb with Lonnie displaying great musical versatility and dexterity but lacking the edge of his soul oriented performances. I should add that Lonnie has to be one of rock’s ultimate super technicians in terms of his ability to deliver across a range of musical instruments and amplifying equipment let alone genres.

There was a bootleg that came out in 1983, and subsequently became an official release in 1998, entitled Live At Coco’s which captured a Mack live performance. Reportedly this is excellent but it’s not available from either Amazon US or UK. Perhaps Lonnie’s recent death might bring us a re-release.

Come 1984 and Lonnie signed to Alligator Records, home for semi-retired bluesmen (I don’t think they ever retire fully!). His first album for the label was masterminded by Stevie Ray Vaughan, long-term Mack fan and acolyte. It was a return to blues rock, perhaps fitting for one who’d been instrumental (pun unintended) in starting the genre. And it was to be the first of several albums for Alligator.

In more recent years as Lonnie’s health deteriorated the recordings dried up although he issued several new songs via his website. The acoustic blues The Times Ain’t Right is one.

Lonnie died at the Centennial Medical Center in Smithville, Tennessee just last month. Much of the world didn’t seem to take a lot of notice. Whether that had anything to do with the fact that Prince died on that day, we’ll never know.

Before moving on to the music, a couple of comments:

Lonnie’s guitar style was highly distinctive, dare I say, unique; in the early rock era only Link Wray and Duane Eddy could match him for instant recognition. On those early records his sound largely came from the emulation of the style and guitar/amp set up of a semi-obscure soul blues singer/guitarist called Robert Ward. For those who’ve never heard Robert, take a listen to the Falcons (featuring a young Wilson Pickett). That’s Robert’s vibrato guitar behind Wilson.

Lonnie took that sound – a combination of guitar and amp with magic settings! – and utilised an extremely fast version of country music chicken picking, totally unlike more typical blues guitarists who stuck to variations on the seventh chord. What came out the other end was a very fluid, almost liquid, sound which the world heard first on Memphis.

My second comment is more of a non apology (something that seems to be quite fashionable these days). Half of my Top Ten comes from Lonnie’s first album. To say that Lonnie’s career was front-loaded would be an understatement. Yes he did go on and do other things but few tracks from his, in pop terms, quite long career, match some of the tracks on this set. I even rejuggled my first draft of a Top Ten to fit one more from this album in.

I’ve already mentioned Memphis and Wham!. Listened to today, both have a freshness you won’t necessarily find in all the records from that era. Fraternity couldn’t really be blamed for following Memphis with something at least superficially similar. After all this was what every record label did in those days. In fact there are significant differences between the two, from the ascending chord sequence in the Wham intro to the introduction of horns in the overall sound.

I’ve also made reference to single #3. Taking the sides in turn, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, with the possible exception of the Elvis ’68 Special take, Lonnie’s Baby What’s Wrong is the best version of the Jimmy Reed ‘standard’ I’ve heard, and I’ve heard a lot (including some which are distinctly less than memorable). No one can compete directly with Reed’s slow slurry original which is down home with a vengeance. Consequently, a new approach is almost de rigueur. Lonnie opens as if he’s playing Memphis on steroids – one should remember that Berry and Reed were major users of that particular riff – and the unsuspecting listener is lulled into thinking that another instro is in process in front of him/or. There’s an inventive turnaround and then Lonnie’s vocal starts; no screaming or shouting but you know he means it. When we get to the line “You got me running baby, you got me hiding …“, Lonnie’s joined by a girlie group, but these girls aren’t the usual sort of chorale who pop up on sixties teen fluff, they’re more gutsy like the Raelettes. Lonnie, we’re informed, produced these records. He knew what he was doing.

Flip this record and you get Where There’s A Will (though actually sung as “Wherever there’s a will (there’s a way)”. Take a listen to the clip below from the (Five) Blind Boys Of Mississippi with Archie Brownlee on lead. It’s a brilliant record and Lonnie Mack obviously knows it backwards – his rasps and screams echo those from Brownlee. But it’s not a straight copy, Lonnie puts his stamp on it. And it’s possibly as good as Why. Which is where we came in.

This is a good moment to move on. Elektra were evidently aware of the Mack voice since there was a stress on vocals rather than instrumentals on his three albums for the label. They also attempted to broaden his range which, perhaps, resulted in mixed success. Lonnie’s third album for the label, was as I’ve remarked earlier, country and little else. While proving beyond any doubt that he could handle such material, it lacks the edge of his soul stuff. One for the completist rather than the casual buyer.

You can’t aim such criticism at Lonnie’s first two Elektra albums. For a label that, until then, I’d associated much more with folk and the psychier side of rock, Elektra provide a more than competent backdrop for our man’s soul workouts. My first from 1969’s Glad I’m In The Band is the (near) title track In The Band which Lonnie had a hand in writing. I’m on the verge of using adjectives like lightweight and charming to describe this one and the former, certainly, is one that would never have been applied to his Fraternity performances. It’s a joyful effort that, for some strange reason, conjures up the Salvation Army in my head (though I hasten to add, there are no tambourines).

My second selection from this album is another Mack co-write, She Don’t Come Here Anymore. It’s a long slow builder in the tradition of Why and it’s a song that dates back to the Fraternity days. Contained herein is one of those recitations much loved by soul singers and some of the sixties rock ballad guys. The term ‘country soul’ has relevance here.

Things Have Gone To Pieces is a country song written by Leon Payne which was released on a flipside by George Jones in 1965. It’s one of those songs where the lyrics could be maudlin or trite in the wrong hands; “and tonight the light bulb went out in the hall” is a sample line. Lonnie tackled this one on his second Elektra album, Whatever’s Right. While you’ll be aware that Lonnie’s listened to George he’s nowhere near as extreme as the maestro who positively milks those lyrics. Mr Mack gives us a perfect country performance with a Floyd Cramer-ish piano doing the necessary. For me, Lonnie nailed his country credentials to the mast with this one. It would appear to have been a favoured song. Wiki reports on a session where he and Janis Joplin duetted on it accompanied by Jimi Hendrix and Jerry Garcia.

Notwithstanding the above, I’m skipping the Mack country albums because (a) I don’t know them that well, (b) sampling hasn’t revealed any not-to-be-missed tracks, and (c) much-better-known-than-me critics haven’t found anything too scintillating either.

Moving swiftly past the not-currently-available Live At Coco’s – which is a pity because it contains a seven and a half minutes version of Stormy Monday – we get to the Alligator albums.

I ummed and ahhed for ages between two tracks on Strike Like Lightning, trying to figure out which one to drop. Eventually, I decided to keep both descriptions (probably putting off the evil moment when I selected the Bold option).

Falling Back In Love With You opens with piano, not unlike Things Have Gone To Pieces but this piano isn’t Cramer-ish, no this has a distinct blues feel and the first pianist that comes to mind is Charlie Rich. In fact Rich is the best reference point for the entire song (and performance)which mixes lounge, blues and country with perhaps a smidgeon of gospel. In other words just the sort of thing that Charlie used to do with aplomb. What’s more, Lonnie carries it all off superbly. The writing is credited to Lonnie and whether he is aware of the Rich comparison, we’ll never know.

For a man who’s sometimes regarded as a rock blues pioneer, Lonnie actually recorded very few straight blues and by straight I mean, slow, few frills and preferably acoustic. Oreo Cookie Blues, however, does fit that template. It goes without saying that Lonnie is totally at ease and the fact that it evokes a certain Mr Hopkins is an immediate plus point. The number of live performances captured on YouTube is also evidence of the popularity of the song/performance. However, as you’ll have spotted, I’ve gone for Falling Back In Love With You as my selection, due to the greater level of invention involved. Do yourself a favour though, and listen to Oreo Cookie Blues as well (see clip near the foot of the post… Ed.).

Lonnie recorded I Found A Love at least three times and, in case there was ever any doubt, this is the song from the Falcons that I featured somewhere near the beginning. I’ve gone for the one on the Alligator album, Attack Of The Killer V (a reference to our man’s Flying V guitar which I’ve failed conspicuously to mention up to now).

Comparisons between this one and the Falcons original are invidious. Both are brilliant, majestic even. Lonnie slows down his performance, extends the length and ups the intensity. Wilson’s voice has more warmth and there’s greater bounce in the original, contributed in part by the Falcons’ bass man. In the Mack version the guitar unsurprisingly plays a much stronger role and there’s more light and shade across the length of the performance. Both grab you immediately and don’t let go. I’m just grateful to have them.

 

Quotes

“The songs that he did were just so incredible to me. I would try to mimic all the notes he would play on his guitar. His records, I knew everyone of them. I couldn’t wait for them to come out. When certain guitar players like Lonnie Mack would come out, the guitar players of that day would see who could play it the best.” Bootsy Collins

“Listen to the original Wham! and Suzie Q for the definitive touch, tone, lyricism and soulful musical attitude. Lonnie figured out before anybody else just how to project the right notes and the ultimate sound that penetrated deep into our sensual souls.” Ted Nugent (in a 2012 interview)

“Although Mr. Mack can play every finger-twisting blues guitar lick, he doesn’t show off; he comes up with sustained melodies and uses fast licks only at an emotional peak. Mr. Mack is also a thoroughly convincing singer.” New York Times (reviewing Lonnie Mack’s 1985 tour)

“Lonnie Mack was one of the first white guys to really make a mark playing blues-infused guitar. 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.” Dick Shurman (Blues historian and record producer)

“This tune offers a false choice: listening to the most stately ballad in the annals of white blues, or listening to a man kill himself. The choice is false because in the last verse, you don’t get to choose.” Greil Marcus (again on Why)

“Ultimately – for consistency and depth of feeling – the best blue-eyed soul is defined by Lonnie Mack’s ballads and virtually everything The Righteous Brothers recorded. Lonnie Mack wailed a soul ballad as gutsily as any black gospel singer. The anguished inflections which stamped his best songs (Why, She Don’t Come Here Anymore, Where There’s A Will) had a directness which would have been wholly embarrassing in the hands of almost any other white vocalist.” Bill Millar (British critic in his 1983 essay “Blue-Eyed Soul: Colour Me Soul”)

“The term ‘influential’ is applied to almost anyone these days but there’s still a case for saying that the massively popular blues-rock guitar genre can be traced way back to the strength, power and emotional passion of Lonnie Mack.” Bill Millar

“Mack’s vibrato-drenched guitar stings, wounds, and amazes. It remains his defining moment.” AllMusic (reviewing The Wham Of That Memphis Man! reissue)

 

Footnotes

While it’s documented that Lonnie appeared on a couple of tracks on the Doors album Morrison Hotel what is less well known is that he guested on Michael Nesmith’s From A Radio Engine To The Photon Wing.

Lonnie also guested on a version of Kansas City released as a single from James Brown in 1967.

Almost every essay on Lonnie contains facts and/or theories on how he came up with that sound, although there’s broad agreement on the Robert Ward connection. One of the more unusual ones I’ve read stated that a key factor in the creation of that unique guitar sound was feeding the signal through a Leslie Cabinet, a device more commonly used with a Hammond Organ – I recall that Georgie Fame used to have one on stage.

The Gibson Flying V guitar used by Lonnie was #007 off the production line.

Stevie Ray Vaughan played second guitar on many of the tracks on Strike Like Lightning.

Pistol Packin’ Mama, originally from Western Swing man Al Dexter, and Lonnie’s debut single, was also recorded by Gene Vincent.

As always with the production of a Top Ten, a number of tracks jostle for attention. I’d give an honourable mention to Farther On Up The Road which is amongst the extra tracks in Ace Records’ Memphis Wham. It’s not up there with the great Bobby Bland original but it’s the best white version I’ve heard.

One evening Lonnie visited Russ Miller, producer and A&R Exec for Elektra Records. He had two LPs under his arm and he asked Russ to listen to them. One was Roberta Flack, and the other was Mickey Newbury’s Mercury LP Looks Like Rain. Miller loved both, and in “Follow The Music”, the book that tells the story of Elektra, Miller states in relation to the Newbury album, “I was so moved I cried”. He (Miller) was then instrumental in getting Newbury signed to Elektra where he made those records he’s best remembered by.

I recently (Sep 2016) received an email from Steve Paine, the man behind the excellent Wiki feature on Lonnie. He told me about one particular piece of session work that took place between that short period of Memphis fame and his rediscovery by Elektra. The work was for Albert Washington and the results can be found on the Ace UK Records collection entitled Blues And Soul Man. These are Steve’s words:

“Lonnie told me about this session. He said he got a wee-hours call from Harry Carlson (President and co-founder of Fraternity), waking him from a deep sleep. Carlson said he had just written a song for Washington, and studio rental time was running out….would Lonnie please hurry down to the studio and contribute a guitar part? Lonnie never turned down any request from Carlson, who he viewed as a father-figure (Lonnie even named one of his sons after Carlson). The song, “I’m Gonna Pour Me A Drink” was recorded in one take…an off-mic run-through or two to familiarize Mack with the tune, and then the tape recorder was switched on.”

This is it:

Steve also informed me that he’d performed a major update on his already very comprehensive Lonnie Wiki entry and there are now references to this Toppermost in Footnotes 88 and 89.

 

 

Lonnie Mack (1941-2016)

 

Lonnie Mack official website

Lonnie Mack biography (iTunes)

Dave Stephens had a long career in IT – programming, consultancy, management etc. – before retiring in 2007. After spending time on the usual retiree type activities he eventually got round to writing on one of his favourite subjects, popular music, particularly, but not only, the sort that was around in his youth. He gained experience at ‘the writing thing’ by placing CD reviews on Amazon. This led to his first book “RocknRoll” which was published for Kindle in 2015. He followed this up with “London Rocks” in July 2016. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

We are indebted to Steve Paine, the author of the Wikipedia article on Lonnie Mack, for the following links. Firstly, “from 2008 on NPR (National Public Radio) Fresh Air rock historian Ed Ward considers the legacy of Lonnie Mack . There was also an excellent broadcast (originally from 2011) from a Cincinnati radio station, including interviews with Mack’s bass-player from the 70s and the recording engineer for Memphis, Wham and Lonnie’s entire first album.”

TopperPost #522

7 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    May 19, 2016

    Dave, thanks for this excellent and thorough introduction to an artist whose work I didn’t really know before this. This fine list gives me an opportunity to explore his work further…

  2. John Chamberlain
    May 20, 2016

    Well, I learnt plenty here; Thanks from one of the many, sadly, who only knew Memphis at the time!

    • Dave Stephens
      May 20, 2016

      The remarkable Memphis would have assured Mack a place in rock history books but what lay beneath the surface was even more remarkable. Glad to have revealed something of it.

  3. Steve Paine
    Jun 5, 2016

    Hello Dave, excellent article. I am the author of the Wikipedia article on Mack. I’ve sent you an email via this website and have asked the recipient to forward it to you.

    • Dave Stephens
      Jun 6, 2016

      I’ve been privileged to exchange not one, but several emails with Steve Paine. He became a close friend to Lonnie over the years and it’s that that was partially responsible for such an excellent Wiki profile on the man. Below is an excerpt from a recent email from him:

      “The only time I saw him perform in public was at the Rock Hall of Fame in Cleveland in 2008. It was a tribute concert for Les Paul, who was turning 93, but still played. Lonnie had not performed before an audience in several years, let alone a large one, with cameras rolling. He was quite nervous about it. It gave him a horrible headache and he had to lie down. When the time came, however, that old hillbilly blew the roof off the place on “Wham”. Then he participated in an extended blues jam with James Burton, Duane Eddy, Billy Gibbons, Slash and others. He enjoyed himself, but seemed happy to kick back when it was over. When it was time to leave, we were ushered out the back door to a waiting hotel limo. As we left, several young kids wiggled through the police line and ran up to get Lonnie’s autograph. They had been brought to the concert by their grandparents. He talked about that for a long time.”

  4. Rob Millis
    Jun 20, 2016

    A fantastic piece. Testimony to the man’s all-round talent is that you chose to lead in with the angle of Mack the great singer rather than Mack the guitar legend. The Robert Ward tonal influence and “magic settings” is of course courtesy of the Magnatone amplifier with its distinctive pitch-bend vibrato effect; these rare and fragile beauties have recently been reissued but be warned, they’re a couple of grand for the smallest model with the effect in question!

    • Dave Stephens
      Jun 21, 2016

      Rob, many thanks. Very few seem to be aware of the man’s great vocal abilities. I guess few would unless they’d bought that first album. Elektra didn’t go out of the way to plug their offerings.

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