Groundbreaking guitarist and vocalist Lonnie Mack, known as one of rock’s first true guitar heroes, died on April 21, 2016 of natural causes at Centennial Medical Center near his home in Smithville, Tennessee. His early instrumental recordings – among them Wham! and Memphis -- influenced many of rock's greatest players, including Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, Keith Richards, Jimmy Page and especially Stevie Ray Vaughan. He was 74.
Rolling Stone called him “a pioneer in rock guitar soloing.” Guitar World said, “Mack attacked the strings with fast, aggressive single-string phrasing and a seamless rhythm style that significantly raised the guitar virtuoso bar and foreshadowed the arena-sized tones of guitar heroes to come.” The Chicago Tribune wrote, “With the wiggle of a whammy bar and a blinding run of notes up and down the neck of his classic Gibson Flying V, Lonnie Mack launched the modern guitar era.”
Drawing from influences as diverse as rhythm and blues, country, gospel and rockabilly, Mack’s guitar work continues to be revered by generation after generation of musicians. He recorded a number of singles and a total of 11 albums for labels including Fraternity, Elektra, Alligator, Epic and Capitol.
Mack was born Lonnie McIntosh on July 18, 1941 in West Harrison, Indiana, twenty miles west of Cincinnati. Growing up in rural Indiana, Mack fell in love with music as a child. From family sing-alongs he developed a deep appreciation of country music, while he absorbed rhythm and blues from the late-night R&B radio stations and gospel from his local church. Starting off with a few chords that he learned from his mother, Lonnie gradually blended all the sounds he heard around him into his own individual style. He named Merle Travis and Robert Ward (of the Ohio Untouchables) as his main guitar influences, and George Jones and Bobby Bland as vocal inspirations.
He began playing professionally in his early teens (he quit school after a fight with his sixth-grade teacher), working clubs and roadhouses around the tri-state border area of Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio. In 1958, he bought the guitar he would become best known for, a Gibson Flying V, serial number 7, which he equipped with a Bigsby tremolo bar. (After the release of Wham!, the tremolo bar became known worldwide as a “whammy bar”.) In addition to his live gigs, Lonnie began playing sessions for the King and Fraternity labels in Cincinnati. He recorded with blues and R&B greats like Hank Ballard, Freddie King and James Brown.
In 1963, at the end of another artist's session, Lonnie cut an instrumental version of Chuck Berry's Memphis. He didn't even know that Fraternity had issued the single until he heard it on the radio, and within a few weeks Memphis had hit the national Top Five. Lonnie Mack went from being a talented regional roadhouse player to a national star virtually overnight.
Suddenly, he was booked for hundreds of gigs a year, crisscrossing the country in his Cadillac and rushing back to Cincinnati or Nashville to cut new singles. Wham!, Where There's A Will There's A Way, Chicken Pickin' and a dozen other records followed Memphis. None sold as well as his first hit (though Where There's A Will earned extensive black radio airplay before the DJs found out Lonnie was white), but there was enough reaction to keep him on the road for another five years of grueling one-nighters.
Fraternity Records went bust, but Lonnie kept on gigging, and in 1968 a Rolling Stone article stimulated new interest in his music. He signed with Elektra Records and cut three albums. Elektra also reissued his original Fraternity LP, The Wham Of That Memphis Man!. He began playing all the major rock venues, from Fillmore East to Fillmore West. Lonnie also made a guest appearance on the Doors' Morrison Hotel album. You can hear Lonnie's bass on Roadhouse Blues. He even worked in Elektra's A&R department. When the label merged with giant Warner Brothers, Lonnie grew disgusted with the new bureaucracy and walked out of his job.
Mack headed back to rural Indiana, playing back-country bars, going fishing and laying low. After six years of relative obscurity, Lonnie signed with Capitol and cut two albums that featured his country influences. He played on the West Coast for a while and even flew to Japan for a “Save The Whales” benefit. Then he headed to New York to team up with an old friend named Ed Labunski. Labunski was a wealthy jingle writer that wrote "This Bud's For You" who was tired of commercials and wanted to write and play for pleasure. He and Lonnie built a studio in rural Pennsylvania and spent three years organizing and recording a country-rock band called South, which included Buffalo-based keyboardist Stan Szelest, who later played on Lonnie's Alligator debut. Ed and Lonnie had big plans for their partnership, including producing an album by a then-obscure Texas guitarist named Stevie Ray Vaughan. But the plans evaporated when Labunski died in an auto accident, and the South album was never commercially released. Lonnie next headed for Canada and joined the band of veteran rocker Ronnie Hawkins for a summer. After a brief stay in Florida, he returned to Indiana in 1982, playing clubs in Cincinnati and the surrounding area.
Mack began his re-emergence on the national scene in November of 1983. At Stevie Ray Vaughan's urging, he relocated from southern Indiana to Texas, where he settled in Spicewood. He began jamming with Stevie Ray (who proudly named Wham! as the first single he owned) in local clubs and flying to New York for gigs at the Lone Star and the Ritz. When Alligator Records approached Lonnie to do an album, Vaughan immediately volunteered to help him out. The result was 1985’s Strike Like Lightning, co-produced by Lonnie and Stevie Ray and featuring Stevie's guitar on several tracks.
Mack’s re-emergence was a major music industry event. Keith Richards, Ron Wood, Ry Cooder and Stevie Ray Vaughan all joined Lonnie on stage during his 1985 tour. The New York Times said, “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.” Other celebrities -- Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Paul Simon, Eddie Van Halen, Dwight Yoakam and actor Matt Dillon -- attended shows during the Strike Like Lightning tour. The year was capped off with a stellar performance at New York's prestigious Carnegie Hall with Albert Collins and the late Roy Buchanan. That show was released commercially on DVD as Further On Down The Road.
Mack recorded two more albums for Alligator, 1986’s Second Sight and 1990’s Live! Attack Of the Killer V. In between he signed with Epic Records and released Roadhouses And Dancehalls in 1988. Mack continued to tour into the 2000s. He relocated to Smithville, Tennessee where he continued writing songs but ceased active touring. In 2001 he was inducted into the International Guitar Hall Of Fame and in 2005 into the Rockabilly Hall Of Fame.
He is survived by five children and multitudes of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.