With all the (deserved) hoopla around the disappearance of Prince, it came to my attention this afternoon that Lonnie Mack had just died, and here is an player who was as consistent as consistent could be over a long and varied career, well-known to many who play guitar, less so to those who don’t follow the evolution of popular (and less popular) music over the years.
I heard Mack’s version of Memphis, the chuck Berry tune, on AM radio when i was in junior high school in San Francisco and fell in love with it. Sadly, it was the last I heard of him for a half-dozen years while I meandered through explorations in R&B, pop, psychedelic, jazz, classical, Latin and whatever else vibrated in and around my ears and fell in love with blues and blues-rock. I was on a visit to the Bay Area in 1969 when I bought a ticket to see Johnny Winter at Winterland, and was particularly curious to see what would happen with the opening act which just happened to be Lonnie Mack. It was a fascinating show, as Mack did Memphis and some other older things that I had never had a chance to hear because I had never seen the album that featured Memphis, and some entirely new material, including ballads, story songs, and a tune or two that bordered on religious. He seemed an imposting presence with a burly and hirsute look, vest and mush mouse hat with what looked like a ring of beer tabs. The crazy thing was watching Winter and friends emerge suddenly from the wings to check out this guy on stage because he could play stinging licks while still carrying a vocal line, and because he had a pitifully small amplifier in an era where banks of Marshall stacks seemed to be the norm: he just mic’d it into the PA and had his tailored sound sent out plenty loud courtesy of Bill Graham.
A couple of somewhat lacklustre albums followed, always enough to maintain interest, but sometimes tending toward the maudlin, and then Mack went truck driving and disappeared.
Mack burst back on the scene in the mid-80s in the company of none other than Stevie Ray Vaughan, at the time about the best endorsement a resurgent guitarist could desire. By this time I was thoroughly familiar with the early album he had recorded that produced the hit Memphis, but which also included Wham, Suzie Q., Chicken Picken, Turn On Your Love Light, and Farther On Up The Road, and it was rewarding to hear the versions that appeared as covers on SRV’s recordings and, finally, to see the product of some active collaborations.
I still love hearing Mack’s stuff, partly for nostalgic reasons, but also because I still find pleasure in his playing and singing just for what it is. It’s not a tragedy that Mack passed away at this stage as he was well into his seventies, but a little sad to think that there will be no more reappearances, and that there won’t be any new tunes from Mack in that style that he so favoured. So perhaps we can all just go and learn a lick or two in the Lonnie Mack style and so pass on what was best about what he did over so many years.