Lonnie Mack - Biography
By J Poet
Lonnie Mack is one of the most influential guitar players in the history of rock’n’roll, credited my many critics as the founder of blues rock, with a style that blended early rockabilly with blues, rock and psychedelic music in the early 60s. His wham bar heavy style was a major influence on Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Jimmy Page and Stevie Ray Vaughan and his playing on records by Hank Ballard, Freddie King and James Brown helped create the sound of modern rock. He’s played country, blues, rockabilly, southern rock, R&B, Americana, bluegrass and gospel in his long career and is a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and the Southern Legends Entertainment & Performing Arts Hall of Fame. As of 2009, Mack is living in semi-retirement in Tennessee working on his autobiography and overseeing his own Flying V label. Lonnie passed away on April 21, 2016 at age 74.
Lonnie McIntosh was born in 1941, in Harrison, Indiana, close to the border of Ohio and Kentucky. His extended family included many musicians and his parents listened to the Grand Ole Opry on a battery powered radio. He picked up guitar when he was seven and was playing on the street for tips before he was ten. His mother taught him how to pick guitar country style and an African American family acquaintance named Ralph Trotto taught him slide guitar techniques. He dropped out of high school when he was 13 and started playing in roadhouses. He made his first records at 17, including a cover of Clarence Poindexter's "Pistol-Packin' Mama" on the Dobbs label.
In 1958, Mack bought the seventh Gibson Flying V guitar ever made and it became his trademark for the rest of his career. His band, Lonnie Mac and The Twilighters created a buzz in the tri-state Indiana/Ohio/Kentucky area and Mack found session work at Cincinnati indies King and Fraternity Records, where he played sessions with Hank Ballard, Freddie King, James Brown, Max Falcon, Beau Dollar and the Coins, Denzil Rice, and The Charmaines. Some of those singles are collected on Lonnie Mack: From Nashville to Memphis (2004 Ace UK) and Gigi and the Charmaines (2006 Ace UK.)
At the end of a Charmaines session in 1963, Mack cut an instrumental version of Chuck Berry's "Memphis," then hit the road in the band of songwriter Troy Seals. Fraternity released "Memphis” as a single and it shot up to #4 on the R&B chart and #5 on the pop chart. He followed with the instrumental hits “Wham!,” "Lonnie On The Move," "Chicken Pickin’,” and "Coastin'." Mack’s guitar was run through a Leslie amp, more commonly used by Hammond B3 organists, to get a fat thick sound. When coupled with his use of the wham bar to created distorted bent chords and notes, his guitar took on a cosmic, psychedelic sound. He convinced Fraternity to let him cut an album and produced The Wham of That Memphis Man (1963 Fraternity, 1985 Alligator) one of the best guitar albums in rock history. "Where There's a Will,” a track featuring Mack’s bluesy vocals was climbing the R&B charts until DJs discovered he was white.
There was another stumbling block. The Beatles and the British Invasion hit in December of 1963, almost wiping out the pop music industry as it had been. Mack kept touring and playing, and relocated to Los Angeles and played on albums like Freddie King Sings Again (1965 King) and James Brown Sings Raw Soul (1976 King), but no more albums appeared until 1969. The British Blues Rock movement, spearheaded by Cream and John Mayall, hailed Mack as an influence and Elektra Records signed him. They put out Glad I'm in the Band (1969 Elektra), the raw R&B of Whatever's Right (1969 Elektra), For Collectors Only (1970 Elektra), a reissue of The Wham of that Memphis Man! given a stereo mix, and the early country rock of The Hills of Indiana (1971 Elektra.) For some reason, the albums concentrated on Mack's vocals, and while he’s a soulful singer, it’s his guitar work that made him a legend. During his time at Elektra he sat in with The Doors on the Morrison Hotel (1970 Elektra) sessions and probably played lead guitar on “Roadhouse Blues.”
Disgusted with the music biz, Mack retired for a while He only made two more records in the 70s, Home at Last (1977 Capitol) and Lonnie Mack with Pismo (1977 Capitol) with guest shots from Troy Seals, Graham Nash, and David Lindley. Both were country rock albums with no lead guitar to speak of. He briefly played with Ronnie Hawkins in the early 80s and contributed to his album Legend In His Spare Time (1981 Quality Canada.)
In the early 80s Mack put together another band and it the road. Live at Coco's (1999 Flying V) was recorded in 1982, but not released until Mack started his own logo, and includes hits like "Stormy Monday", "The Things I Used To Do," "Man From Bowling Green," and "High Blood Pressure." In 1983 Mack moved to Austin, TX and met Stevie Ray Vaughan who produced Strike Like Lightning (1985 Alligator) that album that put his career back on track. Vaughan and Mack traded licks on “Wham (Double Whammy),” "Satisfy Susie,” and "Oreo Cookie Blues." It was one of the best selling indie albums of the year.
Mack was back! Second Sight (1987 Alligator) and the blazing live set Attack of the Killer V: Live (1990 Alligator) led to better bookings and more relentless touring. Sony picked him up and released Roadhouses and Dancehalls (2001 Lucky Dog), but true to the prophetic tile of one album tune “Too Rock for Country” the label didn’t know how to promote it. They pitched it to country stations, even through the album was getting raves in the rock press. The album was a critical smash, but Sony soon deleted it.
Once again disgusted with the music biz, Mack moved in Tennessee and started his own Flying V label. His releases include Cincinnati to California, 1968-1969 (2001 Flying V) two CDs culled from his Elektra years, Jack Holland’s The Pressure's All Mine (2000 Flying V), a country rock album from featuring Mack’s guitar and songwriting, and Direct Hits and Close Calls (2000 Flying V) another reissue of The Wham of that Memphis Man! along with a second CD of singles from his Fraternity years. He appears now and again for special gigs- mostly benefits, seemingly content to rest on his considerable laurels.