Lonnie Mack, center, performing in 1985 with Keith Richards, left, and Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones at the Lone Star in New York City. Alligator Records
Lonnie Mack, a guitarist and singer whose impassioned, fast-picking style on the early 1960s instrumentals “Memphis” and “Wham!” became a model for the blues-rock lead-guitar style and a seminal influence on a long list of British and American artists, died on Thursday in Nashville. He was 74.
Alligator Records announced his death but did not specify the cause.
Mr. Mack was a country boy from southern Indiana who grew up on the Grand Ole Opry, rhythm and blues radio, and the gospel music he sang at his local church, influences that he blended as both a singer and guitarist.
“Memphis,” his instrumental version of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee,” was a rockabilly-blues ripsnorter with a scorching 12-bar solo. Released in 1963, it rose to No. 5 on the pop charts, sold more than a million copies and galvanized young guitar players around the world.
The music historian Richard T. Pinnell called “Memphis” “a milestone in early rock guitar” in Guitar World magazine in 1979. Just as influential was “Wham!”, also from 1963, with its flamboyant use of a vibrato bar, a device that became known as a whammy bar.
“Mack took the rough, country-inspired rockabilly style of the ’50s and rocketed it into the future,” the music critic Greg Kot wrote in The Chicago Tribune in 1989. “He played it hot, with screaming single-note sustains and shuddering vibrato, a siren call to a legion of aspiring guitar heroes.”
Continue reading the main story
The records were studied closely by a long list of British and American guitarists, including Jeff Beck, Duane Allman, Dickey Betts, Jimmy Page and Stevie Ray Vaughan. In 1980, Guitar World placed Mr. Mack’s 1964 album, “The Wham of That Memphis Man!,” first on a list of 50 landmark records, ahead of recordings by Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Mr. Beck, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the Allman Brothers.
Mr. Mack tended to play down his importance. In a 2005 interview he said, “I was a bridge-over between the standard country licks in early rock ‘n’ roll and the screamin’ kinda stuff that came later.”
Lonnie McIntosh was born on July 18, 1941, in West Harrison, Ind., northwest of Cincinnati, where his parents had moved from southeastern Kentucky. His mother taught him a few chords on an acoustic guitar when he was still a boy.
“I started off in bluegrass, before there was rock and roll,” he said in the 2005 interview. “My family was like a family band. We sang and harmonized, and Dad played banjo. We were playing mostly gospel, bluegrass, and old-style country.”
He dropped out of school in the sixth grade after fighting with a teacher and began playing professionally in local clubs, eventually changing his last name to Mack. His smooth, smoky vocal style, with a slight rasp, was influenced by both the country star George Jones and the blues singer Bobby Bland. As a guitarist he often cited the country musician Merle Travis as an early model, as well as the blues players T-Bone Walker and, later, Robert Ward.
In 1958 he bought a Gibson Flying V electric guitar — No. 7 in the first year’s production run — and used it throughout his career. With a group of musicians sometimes billed as the Twilighters, he played clubs and roadhouses in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky and did session work at Fraternity, a small Cincinnati label that recorded “Memphis,” “Wham!” and one of Mr. Mack’s compositions, “Chicken Pickin.’”
Several of his instrumentals, as well as the soul vocals “Where There’s a Will,”“Satisfied” and “Why?” were collected on “The Wham of That Memphis Man!” The album was reissued as a collector’s edition, with additional tracks, by the Elektra label in 1969.
In the mid-1960s Mr. Mack and his band members worked as session musicians at King Records in Cincinnati, playing on recordings by the Hank Ballard, James Brown and Freddie King.
Continue reading the main story
A rave review of “The Wham of That Memphis Man!” in Rolling Stone magazine in 1968 led to bookings at the Fillmore East and West and a contract with Elektra, where he recorded three albums and played lead and bass guitar on the song “Roadhouse Blues,” by the Doors.
He remained a cult figure, in part because of his distaste for the music business. “Seems like every time I get close to really making it, to climbing to the top of the mountain, that’s when I pull out. I just pull up and run,” he told the music writer Peter Guralnick in Country Music magazine in 1977, shortly after he signed with Capitol records.
Mr. Mack, who lived in Smithville, Tenn., is survived by five children and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.
In the early 1980s, after moving to Texas at the urging of Mr. Vaughan, Mr. Mack moved closer to the limelight, performing with Mr. Vaughan as a kind of Zen guitar master. Mr. Vaughan said that “Wham!” was the first record he bought. He played it so often, trying to master the guitar licks, that his father destroyed the record.
Alligator Records in Chicago approached Mr. Mack to record an album, “Strike Like Lightning,” which was released in 1985 and led to a tour that became a kind of victory lap, with the rock eminences Keith Richards, Ron Wood and Ry Cooder joining him onstage. It culminated in a guitar super-summit at Carnegie Hall, billed as “American Guitar Heroes,” in which Mr. Mack joined with Albert Collins and Roy Buchanan in a performance that was released as a video documentary, “Further on Down the Road.”
He recorded two more albums for Alligator, “Second Sight” (1986) and “Lonnie Mack Live! Attack of the Killer V” (1990). He was inducted into the Guitar Hall of Fame in 2001 and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in 2005.
PLEASE NOTE: IF YOU DO NOT WISH TO BE ON THIS MAILING LIST PLEASE RESPOND WITH ‘REMOVE’ IN THE SUBJECT LINE. IF YOU ARE RECEIVING DUPLICATE EMAILS OUR APOLOGIES, JAZZ PROMO SERVICES ANNOUNCEMENT LIST IS GROWING LARGER EVERY DAY…..PLEASE LET US KNOW AND WE WILL FIX IT IMMEDIATELY!
Thanks so much for your help in getting the word out about Tuesday’s presentation with Nate Chinen and Steve Smith. We had 115 attendees, which is the most ever! We ended up moving the event to the sanctuary. They did a great job.