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Unsung Guitar Hero: Lonnie Mack

Sean McDevitt
|
09.05.2007

Gibson is proud to introduce our series on unsung heroes of the electric guitar with a profile of  Lonnie Mack, a pioneering father of blues-rock and a master of the Flying V. More than 40 years removed from his groundbreaking recordings for a Cincinnati record label, Lonnie Mack discusses his musical roots, the sound that made him famous—and the guitar he turned into a cultural icon.

Readers who picked up a copy of The New York Times on Sunday, July 14, 1985, might have caught this item:

"A set of first-class roadhouse rock turned into a celebrity event when the Rolling Stones guitarists Keith Richards and Ron Wood joined Lonnie Mack on Thursday at the Lone Star Cafe, 61 Fifth Avenue… 

Although Mr. Mack can play every finger-twisting blues guitar lick, he doesn’t show off; for most songs, he comes up with sustained melodies and uses fast licks only at an emotional peak. Mr. Mack is also a thoroughly convincing singer, whether his lyrics are boasting or hurting..." 

What the paper didn’t report—or perhaps simply didn’t know—were the identities of three others who were in the club that summer night more than 22 years ago: Mick Jagger, Paul Simon, and Bob Dylan. They’d all come to see the return of Mack, who’d been off the music scene for the better part of the previous decade and was touring behind his celebrated comeback album for Alligator Records, Strike Like Lightning.

Remembers Alligator founder Bruce Iglauer, the man who’d brought Mack out of retirement: “I was at the table next to Keith and Ron, and Ron kept poking me and asking me questions about Lonnie. Does he use a special tuning? Is that his original Flying V? How does he set up his amp? Later in the night, Ron and Keith jammed with Lonnie, and Lonnie pretty much tore them apart musically. Backstage, though, everyone was the best of friends.”

Mack’s stunning return to form in ’85—playing his 1958 Gibson Flying V and singing the blues with undeniable power, strength, and passion—was irrefutably one of the year’s highlights in American music.

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BUT THE STORY OF HOW LONNIE MACK came to be a seminal artist begins not in 1985, but much earlier—July of 1941, to be exact, when Lonnie McIntosh was born in rural southern Indiana, not far from the Ohio River, to a farmhand father and a homemaker mother. “It was a musical family,” the 66-year-old Mack remembers. “Mom and Dad, my brothers, my sisters. Most of the music was on my mama’s side of the family. It had a lot to do with fiddles, banjos, and guitars, music that was leaning more toward bluegrass, gospel, and some of the old country stuff.”

Young Lonnie, whose family moved to Aurora, Indiana, not far from Cincinnati, shortly after his birth, never had to look far for musical guidance: His father played the banjo and his mother played guitar, as did an uncle—an American Indian who had spent a lot of time in Texas and was well-versed in Merle Travis¬-style picking and Delta blues. Another key figure in Lonnie’s musical development was a blind blues and jazz guitarist named Ralph Trotto.

“I started playing [the guitar] when I was about four, or tryin’ to play, you know,” Mack remembers. “I could make a hook G, as they call it, where you just get the top and the bottom [strings] around the neck, start strumming and havin’ a little rhythm, you know. It was my oldest brother’s guitar. But the first real chords that was taught to me was taught to me by my mother. She had that real soulful, country, make-you-get-a-cold-chill kind of voice.”

Mack still remembers the sounds that first captured his ear. “The harmonies of bluegrass music really got to me,” he says. “I really loved harmony. We didn’t have a lot of facilities the way I grew up, because we was really poor. So we didn’t have record players and all that kind of stuff—of course, there wasn’t too many around, either, except those little crank-up jobs. My dad always kept a radio ’cause he liked listening to the Grand Ole Opry. I remember one radio that we had in particular. It was a big ol’ floor model Zenith. Had a battery in it the size of a car battery!”

That radio, it turned out, was a window into another world. It introduced Lonnie to black music, like the jazzy blues of T-Bone Walker and the boogies of Jimmy Reed. “I kept my family up at night, ’cause they went to bed early,” Lonnie recalls, “and I’d get up there underneath the big speaker, crank around the dial, and listen to all this foreign stuff. I found a bunch of daggone stuff that was like black gospel, like the early [Five] Blind Boys [of Mississippi], Archie Brownlee, and stuff like that. Boy, it had the harmonies, plus it had more of a beat that bluegrass don’t have. That radio, it became late-night business for my family.”

If there was a watershed moment when Lonnie Mack knew for certain that he wanted to make his living playing music, it arrived at the age of seven. Mack recalls that his family was living near railroad tracks in southeastern Indiana, and he was spending all his time playing his very own guitar—one he’d acquired in a trade for a bicycle. “I started playing for some of the railroad workers on their lunch breaks, and they put some coins in the guitar,” Mack remembers. “It was exciting. And I said, daggone, I’m doing what I love to do, and I just made some money doin’ it too. I came home and said, ‘Some day, Dad, you’re gonna hear me on that Grand Ole Opry!”

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Lonnie Mack and the Flying V: Soon They Would Both Be Legends

Lonnie was only 16 in 1957, but he wasn’t green. With the help of a burly physique and a fake ID he was playing in bars long before he was old enough to legally drink in one. He was also earning a pretty respectable living—enough of a living, in fact, that he began shopping for a new guitar.

Meanwhile, Gibson president Ted McCarty had an eye on the future. McCarty had already helped pioneer the development and production of the Gibson Les Paul as well as Gibson’s ES-335 series, and he was now looking to unveil something that celebrated Gibson’s forward-looking spirit. The result was none other than the Gibson Flying V, a guitar that embodied every characteristic of “tomorrow,” from the radical, dual-winged aerodynamic design to the pointed headstock and pickguard.

If McCarty wanted to see the future in a guitar, Mack was looking for something else: an axe that gave a nod to his Indian heritage. In addition to his uncle on his mother’s side, Mack’s father’s side has Creek Indian blood. (The lineage is distant, but it nonetheless resonates strongly with Mack to this day.) One of Lonnie’s fondest childhood memories is the Christmas where his father, unable to afford a store-bought toy, gave his son a bow and arrow that he’d fashioned himself from a hickory limb. As fate would have it, Mack’s enduring zeal for Indian culture would actually inform his choice of a guitar.

Mack first learned about the Flying V from his friend Glen Hughes, who ran a music store in the Cincinnati hamlet of Norwood, Ohio. “I was up there at his store one day, and he had just been up to [Gibson’s factory in] Kalamazoo, Michigan,” Mack recalls. “He knew that I was really proud of my Indian heritage, and he said, ‘Wait ‘til you see this, Lonnie.’ He had these drawings of these two guitars, the Explorer and the Flying V. They wasn’t even real pictures, just drawings. This was in ’57, so I was 16. And I seen that big arrow-looking guitar and I said, ‘Boy, I got to have one of them!’ And he said, ‘Well, they’re comin’ out with them!’”

Lonnie placed his order. And when Gibson’s Flying V hit the market the following year, he was a proud owner. “I think I paid pretty much the list price,” Mack remembers. “It was either $340 or $360, with the case—one or the other. It was a lot of money for a 17-year-old kid to come up with, but I was working, you know. I was a working musician, and I had lots of jobs. We was working 10 days a week—seven days and three matinees!”

Mack didn’t know it, but the rest of the world didn’t exactly share his enthusiasm for the Flying V. Fewer than 100 Flying V models left Gibson’s factory in 1958 and ’59, and the guitar was promptly discontinued as a result. A few more were made available in 1962 and 1963, but a real reissue didn’t happen until 1966. (Late-’60s models were owned by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and blues master Albert King.) The Flying V has since seen a number of varying redesigns and reissues, however, including a Lonnie Mack signature model in 1993.

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The Adventures of Lonnie’s ’58 Flying V 

Mack’s Flying V is not only an iconic instrument, but it’s also a survivor. It emerged unscathed—and even in tune, Mack says—after it was tossed from a van during an accident on an icy Iowa road in 1963. A couple of years later, the headstock was broken while Mack was on tour in Florida; and in the mid-1980s, the guitar suffered serious damage: It was broken where the neck joins the body as Mack was returning to the U.S. from Australia.

There’s yet another story that Lonnie, disgusted with his own playing, once hurled the Flying V into a dumpster. (The instrument was fortunately retrieved by a well wisher, who returned it to Mack.)

“It’s well used,” Mack laughs. “It ain’t no mint-condition guitar, that’s for sure. I’ve left that sucker sittin’ around on stages all over the world.”

As far as he knows, Mack’s Flying V is the seventh one ever manufactured by Gibson. “That’s what’s been told to me,” Mack says. “That’s what Glen Hughes told me, and that’s what I’ve been told all my life. I mean, I know I got in on [the Flying V] before they ever came out and I got the order in. But I don’t know how to prove it ’cause the number ain’t there.”

The original serial number was lost when the headstock was broken in the mid-1960s: Mack shipped the guitar by bus from Florida to Tennessee, where it was repaired at the Shobud store in Nashville. The guitar has also had some different looks over the years: Mack said he once painted the axe purple in an effort to make it match a motorcycle he had, but the paint job went bad and the color morphed into a semi-pink hue. (“I wasn’t too proud about that,” he says.) It has since been given a cherry finish.

Mack says he’s changed the springs in the added Bigsby tremolo, in addition to giving the guitar a few fret jobs, but the original hardware remains intact.

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The Arrival of a Guitar Hero 

Mack played in country and rockabilly bands in the mid- to late-1950s, and by the early 1960s was a highly-regarded session man for Cincinnati-based King Records, where he played on singles by artists like Freddie King, James Brown, and Hank Ballard. Mack was also fronting one of the Indiana-Kentucky-Ohio region’s hottest bands, Lonnie Mack and the Twilighters. (It was the owner of the Twilight Inn in McGonigle, Ohio, who named the band and convinced Lonnie to shorten his surname from McIntosh to Mack.)

Mack also worked for another Cincinnati label, Harry Carlson’s Fraternity Records, which was distributed by King. 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”).

The tune wouldn’t become a national hit until June of 1963, when it cracked the Billboard Top 40 singles chart before eventually peaking at No. 5, but its enduring legacy has little to do with its ultimate chart position and everything to do with its sonic template. “Memphis” contained the musical components of what’s now known to the masses as blues-rock: lightning-fast fretboard speed; Chicago-style blues bends; and a heavy, rich vibrato, not mention heavy dosages of a whammy bar and an ear-catching Magnatone amplifier tone that Mack had copped from an Ohio guitarist named Robert Ward. It was, for all practical purposes, a new musical vocabulary.

“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 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.”

Mack hit the road as a sideman following the recording of “Memphis,” but he didn’t stay out for long. Once the single became a hit, Mack quickly returned to the studio to cut an entire album. The resulting collection, The Wham of That Memphis Man!, wasn’t released until 1964. But in the meantime, a follow-up single, “Wham!,” found success on the coattails of “Memphis.” It reached No. 24 on the Billboard charts in September of 1963.

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.”

But to appreciate the depth of Lonnie Mack’s artistry, it pays to go beyond his hit singles. Mack recorded numerous sides for Fraternity between 1963 and 1967, and there isn’t a dog in the bunch. Young guitarists everywhere, many of them now referring to a tremolo bar as a “whammy” bar, cut their teeth on the tunes found on The Wham of That Memphis Man!, a record that featured other important instrumentals like “The Bounce,” “Susie Q,” “Down and Out,” along with the simply jaw-dropping “Chicken Pickin’,” a bona fide master class in speed and precision that few other guitarists have ever approached, let alone equaled.

Beyond the groundbreaking guitar work, Mack also delivered some of the most compelling blue-eyed soul and R&B vocal performances ever waxed, something that undeniably sets him apart from the likes of Duane Eddy and Link Wray and demands that he not be pigeonholed as strictly an instrumentalist, his spectacular technique notwithstanding. “Mack cut instrumentals in order to please Fraternity boss Harry Carlson,” Bill Millar wrote in the extensive liner notes to Memphis Wham!, an Ace Records issue of Mack’s classic sides. “It wasn’t what he did onstage, where he sang soul stuff: Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, even underground classics like Bobby Parker’s ‘Watch Your Step.’”

Mack’s staggering soulfulness is clearly on display on ballads like “I’ll Keep You Happy,” “Why,” and “Where There’s a Will There’s a Way”—Lonnie’s third Fraternity single and a tune that received airplay on black radio stations, including one in Birmingham, Alabama, until Lonnie arrived one day for an interview and revealed he was white.

“Lonnie’s early recordings were amazingly good, and amazingly consistent,” remembers Iglauer, whose label did a vinyl reissue of The Wham of That Memphis Man! in 1990. “There is just not a weak track on that album, and there were plenty of subsequent singles that were just as good. Lonnie also had totally soulful vocals. The fact that he received airplay on R&B radio stations—who never guessed that he was white—shows just how good a soul singer he was, and is.”

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IN 1968, MACK’S REPUTATION as a world-class artist was reinforced when Al Kooper sang the guitarist’s praises in a lengthy Rolling Stone article, and soon thereafter Mack, whose Fraternity contract had been sold, joined Elektra Records and headed out to California. He went on to release three albums between 1969 and 1971: Glad I’m in the Band, Whatever’s Right, and the country- and singer-songwriter influenced The Hills of Indiana. (Elektra also reissued The Wham of That Memphis Man! during Mack’s tenure with the label.) But none of the Elektra efforts gained commercial traction.

“Those were pretty much the slow days,” Mack recalls. “My music wasn’t working that good then. I ain’t really happy with a lot of the stuff I did there. The music scene was really changing, gettin’ in to more of the heavy stuff. I couldn’t get enough work to keep a band occupied, so they put me to work in the A&R department out there, and that wasn’t really my cup of tea, pushing pencils and flying around to all these places. I spent most of my time in the air.”

Mack’s Elektra period, however, did yield one enduring rock and roll snapshot: He happened to be in a Los Angeles studio one day during the first week of November of 1969 as Elektra’s top act, the Doors, were busy recording Morrison Hotel in a studio just down the hall. Bassist Ray Neapolitan was going to be late to the day’s session, and producer Paul Rothchild, trying to finish off what had emerged to be a troublesome track, went looking for a substitute—and found Mack.

“What we’ve got here is just a bluesy groove with a little turnaround,” keyboardist Ray Manzarek told Mack. “We call it ‘Roadhouse Blues.’”

Recalls drummer John Densmore in his book, Riders on the Storm: My Life with Jim Morrison and the Doors:

"A hefty guy with a pencil-thin beard, he had on a wide-brimmed floppy hat that had become his trademark. Lonnie Mack epitomized the blues—not the rural blues, but the city blues. He was bad. “I’ll sing the lyrics for you,” Jim offered meekly. [Jim] was unusually shy. We all were, because to us, the guitar player we had asked to sit in with us was a living legend. Three hours later, we had gotten the track."

Mack also handled bass chores on another Morrison Hotel track, “Maggie M’Gill.”

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THE SEVENTIES WOULD TURN out to be Mack’s lost decade. Save for two country releases in 1977, nothing was added to his discography between the years of 1972 and 1984. In the late 1970s, Mack had worked on an album called South, but the project was shelved when Mack’s friend and collaborator on the project, Ed Labunski, died in a Pennsylvania auto accident in 1980. (South has since seen the light of day and is available through Mack’s Web site.) That period of Mack’s life, while marked by tragedy, did yield a significant development that would affect the future: It was when Mack first met Stevie Ray Vaughan.

“It was in Austin in 1979,” Mack recalls. “We was looking for people to play in this band that we were putting together. His brother, Jimmie, who was an acquaintance of mine, had told me, ‘We need to go hear my little brother. He’s a big fan.’ So we went to see him, and he was playing “Wham!” when we came in the door. It was real exciting. We spent two or three days in Austin and hung out with Stevie, and he played me every record he ever had in his life, I think. We had a good time.”

By 1981, Mack was back playing in Cincinnati-area clubs. He was just 40 years old, and his skills remained formidable, but it seemed that obscurity was encroaching. By 1983, however, a new creative chapter was beginning.

“When Ed died, I came back to the Cincinnati area, and I got a band together with my youngest brother and some of his friends, and my old keyboard player Dumpy Rice, who had played with the original Twilighters,” Mack remembers. “We was playin’ around the area, and Bruce Iglauer—he’s from Cincinnati—he was in town one weekend visiting his mama and knew about me from the old days, and he heard I was playin’. He came up to see me, and that’s how that deal came down.”

Mack was already on Iglauer’s radar. Author and manager Ben Sandmel, who had grown up with Iglauer in Cincinnati, had visited with Iglauer at his north side Chicago home several months earlier, “and he spent about two hours playing Lonnie Mack records for me and saying, ‘You’ve gotta get interested in him.’

“It was after that that I went to see Lonnie,” Iglauer says. “I went to see him at a roadhouse outside of Hamilton, Ohio. Lonnie was playing that night for almost nobody. He thought the gig was bad, but I thought it was pretty wonderful.”

A deal with Alligator was in place by ’84, and later that year Mack entered a recording studio—with Stevie Ray Vaughan on board—and waxed the acclaimed full-fledged rocker Strike Like Lightning, which to date has sold more than 100,000 copies, an unqualified success by the standards of any independent label. It was an album that undeniably changed Mack’s life. Beyond the overseas dates, prime festival slots, and guest jams with an array of blues and rock legends, Mack—for the first time ever—traveled in a tour bus after years of towing a trailer behind his Cadillac.

Mack went on to record two subsequent albums for Alligator: Second Sight (1987), and the enduring Live! Attack of the Killer V (1990), an album that includes an eight-minute version of Mack’s signature tune, “Cincinnati Jail”—an autobiographical song in which Mack recalls a mid-'70s incident where, after allegedly slapping the fender of an unmarked police car that’d come too close to him on a Cincinnati street, he was shot—in the posterior—by an off-duty cop—and then unceremoniously tossed into the Cincinnati Jail.

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LONNIE MACK NOW LIVES THE QUIET LIFE outside of the central Tennessee town of Smithville (pop. 4,000). Mack says he picks up a guitar almost every day, although not the one you might expect: The Flying V, while always within reach, usually takes a back seat to Mack’s ’60s Epiphone Texan (model FT 79N). He still contemplates another shot at the music business, but he’s not sure that he’s ready to leave behind the things he’s got right now.

“I don’t miss the road part of it so much, because I’m sorta burnt on all the traveling,” Mack says. “But I miss the stage. I miss the performing and making people happy.”

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.”

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