Some people make a huge contribution to our music and are rightly immortalised with awards, statues and Hall of Fame accolades. However some, like Lonnie Mack, remain little known, despite the great groundbreaking work they did in those formative days, five decades ago. With a guitar style that owes as much to Bluegrass as the Blues, and a Gospel phrasing any R&B singer would cherish, Lonnie’s delightful early ‘roadhouse’ style and ‘blue-eyed Soul’ voice showed the way forward to a generation of future stars. And if you ever wondered why that lever on a guitar is called a ‘Whammy bar’, then Lonnie had something to do with that too!
‘Wham!’ from 1963;
In the early 60s, Lonnie often worked as a session guitarist in Cincinatti for King Records, backing Freddie King and Hank Ballard, and for the small Fraternity label. At the end of one Fraternity session, the producer asked Lonnie and the band to play something for the remaining few minutes of the booking, so he launched into an instrumental re-working of Chuck Berry‘s ‘Memphis Tennessee’. He was surprised when Fraternity released it as ‘Memphis’, and he was astounded when it shot to No.5 on the Billboard Hot 100. He followed up with ‘Wham!’ another instrumental based on a Gospel tune, using a Bigsby vibrato tailpiece, which may have led to it being called a ‘whammy bar’. Further instrumental versions of ‘Suzy Q’ and Lonnie’s own song ‘Chicken Pickin’ were issued as singles and collected on the 1963 album ‘The Wham of that Memphis Man’, which was hugely influential on Blues Rockers like Duane Allman, Jeff Beck and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Sadly for Lonnie, his music was swamped by the ‘Invasion’ of cute young British bands. The powerful ‘blue-eyed Soul’ ballads which also featured on that album, and which had been getting good airplay on Southern R&B radio stations, were suddenly dropped when it was discovered they came from a chunky white farm boy!
Lonnie and Stevie Ray go head-to-head!
Several more albums followed in the next few years, including the spectacular live ‘Attack of the Killer V’s ‘ in 1990. He would play the occasional guest spot, like Hall of Fame Inductions, including his own Rockabilly Hall Induction in 2005, and random sit-ins at obscure Kentucky roadhouses until his death of natural causes on April 21st 2016 in home town of Smithville Tennessee.