The Guitar Player's Guitar Player
Gritz Speaks with Guitar Hero Lonnie Mack
by Michael Buffalo Smith
Lonnie Mack is a roadhouse blues-rock legend - modern rock's first true guitar hero. His playing has influenced the course of rock and roll and had an impact on many of modern rock's current guitar heroes, including Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Jimmy Page and especially Stevie Ray Vaughan. His early music bridged the gap between '50s rockabilly and the psychedelic blues-rock of the following decade, and, like the best rock and roll, his work continues to embody a mixture of white and black roots music. Rock, blues, soul and country -- Lonnie brings them all together for a sound that has been all his own for nearly thirty years.
Gritz spoke to Lonnie from his middle-Tennessee home about his music, his friend Stevie Ray Vaughan, and his new record company.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Harrison, Indiana. Now I'm living in Tennessee.
When did you first become interested in music?
Oh, for as long as I can remember. Mom said I was trying to make chords on the guitar when I was about 4.
Was your family musical?
Yeah. They sure were.
There are so many people that name you as an influence. I was just talking to Dickey Betts who names you as an inspiration, as have Keith Richards and so many others. Who were your musical influences?
Originally it started out as family. We were so poor. Like Bill Cosby said, we weren't just poor, we were broke. (laughs) My influence came from by Uncles, brother, my mom. All that bunch, all the different parts of the family. And when we started listening to radio it was country mostly, there wasn't no rock and roll. I liked the singers. I always liked Hank Williams. I listened to some old Jimmy Rodgers, which leans more toward the blues side. Then I found a bunch of black stations and started listening to people on up the line like T-Bone Walker and Jimmy Reed. I liked a lot of church music, and I loved organs. That's why I ended up with the sound I got.
Playing through a Leslie cabinet?
Well, I never used a Leslie. It was Magna Tone amps. It wasn't a Leslie though. I did put a fan behind the amps to get that whirling sound.
You're credited as a pioneer in so many fields, including rockabilly. Do you like rockabilly music, and if so, who are some of your favorite artists?
I liked all of it. Carl Perkins and Elvis, of course. Pretty much those two are the ones that stand out the most.
When was the first time you went out on the road and how old were you at the time?
I went out with Troy Seals and Joanne Campbell. They were dating at the time. They're married now, they've been married forever. She had a song out, and Troy ended up playing for me in the Memphis band. The road band that is- some of them also played on the records. Then I cut "Memphis" in 1962, an went on the road with Troy as a guitar player with him. We did some touring for, I don't know, a few months, and then we found out "Memphis" had become a hit, so we just took the band and turned it around and Troy became the guitar player with me.
How did recording Chuck Berry's "Memphis" change your life?
Wow. We were playing pretty much the same stuff, just playing the big package shows. We were playing all the clubs in the tri-state area- Cincinatti, Ohio, Kentucky and Ohio. We were playing a lot of big venues. Had a pretty hot band. We just played bigger places.
Of all the sessions you played on as a guitarist apart from your own albums, what are some of the more memorable ones?
Well, everybody knows about my playing with The Doors ("Morrison Hotel"). And I played on records by different people like James Brown, and my band backed up Freddie King on an album. I did a whole lot of session work in Tennessee. Me and Tim Drummond. Mostly for Monument Records. John R was tied in with them. We played with Joe Simon, numerous people that weren't real big but they were popular on the numerous r&b stations.
I was interested in the "Morrison Hotel" album. How did you end up playing on that one?
I was working at the A&R department at Elektra, and those guys were on the label. I never really knew Morrison and them until I did that session.
Was Morrison as complex as the legends make him out to be?
He was definitely out there. What can I say. I don't think he was a genius or anything. I think he was just ripped out of his tree.
Tell us a little about the band called South and your friend Ed Labunski.
I met Ed when I was still with Fraternity Records in Cincinatti. He was from Cincinatti, and he came in with a crazy country album he had been cutting down in Tennessee. He knew all the big hot-shot players because he had done all of these jingles with them, you know. He wanted to be a country singer. He was funny, he has a humorous album out called "Country and Eastern." He came into Cincinatti and Fraternity records and played it for the owner and I was there. Harry Carlson, the owner, passed on the record but I really liked it and I liked him, I got a lot of chuckles out of it, so I told him if he got a deal to be sure to send me one, and he did. I never spoke to him again until 1978, when he showed up in Indiana. I was in the process of getting a divorce, and I was working a little club called the Railroad Inn. He said he was putting a band together and wanted me to come in and be a partner with him. I was looking to get out of town anyway, so I went with him. Of course, he got killed in a car accident just as we were getting ready to get the whole thing rolling.
What did you do, career wise, right after that?
Stan Szelest was playing with me. He was one of the original keyboard players with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. I'd known Ronnie since right after I cut "Memphis." Stan went back to work for him, and he called me up and wanted me to do a TV show he was doing in Buffalo called Honky Tonk. I went up there and did some shows with him until I decided I was going to get out of there and do something else.
How did you end up going to Austin and working with Stevie Ray Vaughan?
I went and got my kids, with my present wife I'm with now. We weren't married then. We came back to Indiana and got a house. I hadn't really been playing that much, just sort of cruising around and writing. Having a big time. But I decided I needed to go back to work, so I started doing a solo thing, and the next thing I knew, everybody I knew was coming in to jam with me. We ended up putting a band back together with my brother. It's the same band that's on that "Live at Koko's" album. We started working the same old joints we worked back before I did "Memphis." Bruce Iglauer's from Cincinatti and he was in visiting his mother, and he knew of me, so he came and checked us out and we made a record deal. So, I had met Stevie while we were doing The South Band, in Austin. I was actually planning on moving to Austin when I picked up my kids, and they wanted to go back to Indiana and be with all of their friends that they knew, so we did that. After a while I decided that I was going to back to Austin, which I did, and I got in touch with Stevie. When we decided to do the record- it was a while between the time we made the deal and the time we did the record. I got sick down there in Texas, is one of the reasons. They never did know the reason. I think it was just all the road coming out of me.
Yeah. Road poisoning.(Laughs) Anyway. Stevie decided he wanted to work on the record with me. He said I know your music as well as anyone. So I said, come on in and be a producer with me. And it worked out.
Can you give us a little insight into Stevie Ray, both as a man and as a musician?
Stevie was a great guy, and a great musician as everyone knows. He had a big heart. A good heart. I always considered him my little brother. He did a lot of things to help me out when I was sick down there. Him and his brother Jimmie both. They threw a big concert down there and gave me all the money because I wasn't doing too well. He came out personally and installed an air conditioner for me. Didn't even know what he was doing. Him and Tommy Shannon. We were good friends. I went out and opened some shows for him. Every time we got a chance to jam together, we did. We had good times.
Have you put out a album lately?
No, the last thing I put out was that live live thing for Alligator. ("Live!--Attack Of The Killer V "- 1990) I've been back here trying to get all my publishing together and writing songs. I've got a ton of songs. But I've got to get all of my publishing organized. I've started a record label, Flying V Records. That's why I started my website, and I've been trying to get all of the old masters from things that were never on CD and get them out there, because people ask about them all the time.
Lonnie jams with Wayne Perkins.
Tell us a about your famous guitar.
It's a Gibson Flying-V. I bought it in 1958. I ordered it in 1957 after seeing a picture of it. A friend of mine had just gotten back from Gibson, and he had drawings of what was to come. I told them I had to have that arrow guitar. So that's what I ended up with. Serial number 7. They called me up from Guitar Player magazine one time and said they wanted to do a big spread on me, but what they ended up doing was a big spread on the guitar. They made it a centerfold. (laughs) That figures. It was prettier than me anyway.
What would you say has been the high point of career thus far?
I hope it hasn't happened yet. (Laughs)
Did you ever have musicians that you admired that you ended up playing with?
Oh, there have been a lot of those. Chuck Berry for one. What I heard was that when "Memphis" came out, Chuck was in jail, and royalties as songwriter from my record helped get him out of jail. Then it seemed like a good thing to have both people involved in Memphis playing together, so we started backing him up on shows.
We do a little bit of touring, but not much right now. I mostly do stuff not too far from home. I haven't been making the long runs. A lot of people have been wanting me to tour the East Coast. I hate to go up East, it's just so crowded. Now that I've got back out here in the country, it gets harder and harder for me to leave. We played some dates, some club dates and played some around Cincinatti. I've been writing a lot, and I've been considering going in and doing a new album. I don't know if I'll do it with a label or just do it myself. I'm writing a book too that should be out soon. I'm just sort of taking it a day at a time.
What advice would you offer an aspiring young guitar player.
You'd better love the guitar better than the women. (Laughs) Don't get me wrong, I've had my share of women, but my first love was always that guitar. If you love it that much, you'll spend a lot of time with it. If you spend a lot of time with it, you'll get what you want. A guitar is a lot like a woman, they both have their different moods.
Visit The Lonnie Mack Website