Blue Notes

Remembering Guitar Great Lonnie Mack, Who Died the Same Day as Prince

Besides Prince, last Thursday the music world lost another great talent when blues-rock pioneer Lonnie Mack passed away at age 74 near Nashville. Mack was hugely important in transforming the electric guitar into a lead instrument in rock music, and his influence on the development of guitar solos was a game-changer.

Born Lonnie McIntosh on July 18, 1941, and growing up poor in Indiana, Mack discovered the Grand Ole Opry on his family's radio, and became a fan of gospel and R&B music. At the age of seven, Mack got his first guitar, and became a studious devotee of the instrument, busking from time to time while absorbing the old-fashioned country, bluegrass and gospel music that he was surrounded by. He was influenced by artists like T-Bone Walker, Hank Williams, Les Paul, Ray Charles, Jimmy Reed and many others, and Mack developed a style rooted in R&B and the blues, but also borrowing techniques such as chicken-picking from bluegrass and country music.

At the age of 13 Mack dropped out of school and sneaked his way into playing shows at roadhouses, and quickly began to develop a reputation as a hotshot guitarist both on regional recordings for other musicians and live. By the late '50s Mack had his own band that played around the Midwest, and had created a unique stype of rock and roll heavily influenced by R&B. Mack had a fluid, very fast soloing style that was a departure from the kinds of solos that other rock players were typically using in the late '50s and early '60s, and his flashy playing quickly got noticed.

In 1963, Mack was working frequently as a session player for a Cincinnati-area record label named Fraternity when he and his band were offered the last 20 minutes of studio time left over from a band that was finished recording. Mack and his band cut their instrumental version of a Chuck Berry song, driven primarily by the young guitarist's innovative soloing, and titled the track "Memphis." Soon the track began climbing the charts, although Mack was busy touring and largely unaware of its rising popularity at the time. By that summer, "Memphis" had risen to No. 5 on Billboard's pop charts, a rarity for guitar instrumentals. The song went on to sell more than a million copies, and was soon followed by the gospel-inspired "Wham" later the same year. Both are now considered to be the earliest hit recordings of "blues-rock," a term that hadn't even been invented yet.

While his guitar playing is usually what most fans and music historians reference, Mack was also highly regarded for his vocal abilities, and in the '60s he began recording a series of songs that featured his singing talents. Along with the work of the Righteous Brothers, these critically acclaimed "blue-eyed soul" ballads are considered some of the best examples of that genre. Still, it was Mack's fiery guitar playing that was pivotal in changing rock history, as an enormous number of future rock guitarists were inspired by his playing. Guys like Duane Allman, Dickey Betts, Jeff Beck, Ted Nugent, Jimmy Page and countless others have indicated that Mack was a major influence on the development of their own styles, and it's not unfair to say that every guitarist playing blues-rock licks in the '60s and '70s was indebted to him in some way.

Mack's career as a popular artist had its ups and downs, and he doesn't seem to have been the type of musician who was driven primarily by a desire to be famous. He released three albums on Elektra Records between 1969 and 1971 before changing gears and recording country material for the rest of the decade. In the early 1980s, Mack had retreated from the rock and roll scene for almost ten years, and he wasn't a famous recording artist anymore. That began to change in 1983, after Mack was convinced to move to Texas by Stevie Ray Vaughan, who was both a friend and a fan of the older player. According to some sources, Vaughan and Mack had a close friendship and shared a connection like that of brothers or a close teacher and student.

Their association led to performances featuring both Mack and Vaughan, regaining the spotlight for Mack, who recorded a 1985 album co-produced by Vaughan (who also played guitar on it) titled Strike Like Lightning and successfully toured to support it afterwards. Mack recorded two more highly regarded albums in the '80s: 1986's Second Sight and 1989's Lonnie Mack Live - Attack of the Flying V, his final recorded work as a solo artist.

Lonnie Mack died on April 21, leaving behind an enormous legacy as a blues-rock pioneer and singer. His recorded work remains for all of us to enjoy, and, in the case of guitar players, to be inspired by and to learn from.
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Chris Lane is a contributing writer who enjoys covering art, music, pop culture, and social issues.