Lonnie Mack, blues-rock pioneer, dead at 74

Guitar virtuoso influenced Stevie Ray Vaughan and others

By David Sands
April 26, 2016

Lonnie Mack, a guitar trailblazer whose early instrumental work inspired blues-rock greats like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, Keith Richards and Jimmy Page, has died.

The revered singer, songwriter and guitarist passed away of natural causes on April 21st Centennial Medical Center near his home in Smithville, TN. He was 74.

Mack, whose birth name was Lonnie McIntosh, was known for his blisteringly fast playing, use of the “whammy bar” and virtuoso guitar solos. Blending influences as varied as rhythm & blues, country, rockabilly and gospel, he created a distinctive musical style all his own.

During a recording career that stretched from 1963 to 1990, Mack recorded numerous singles and a whopping 11 albums for labels like Fraternity, Elektra, Alligator, Epic and Capitol. Of these, he’s perhaps most known for his 1960s instrumentals “Wham!” and “Memphis,” the latter being a rockabilly/blues interpretation of a Chuck Berry tune that Goldmine‘s Scott Parker and Hank Davis credit for pushing “a new generation of white kid guitarists in the unaccustomed direction of soul music.”

Born in the rural Indiana town of Harrison on July 18, 1941, Mack developed a deep appreciation for music at an early age. His love of country music and gospel grew out of family sing-alongs and church experiences, while his appreciation for rhythm and blues was kindled listening to late night R&B radio programming.

After learning a few guitar chords from his mother, Mack eventually created his own distinctive style out of the various musical traditions he heard around him. Quitting school in sixth grade, he stuck to the musical life. By his teenage years, he’d become a professional musician, playing clubs and roadhouses in Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio.

The guitarist purchased his signature axe, a Gibson Flying V, serial number 7, in 1958. His addition of a Bigsby tremolo bar gave the instrument its own unique sound and would eventually be known as a whammy bar, thanks to the success of “Wham!” in 1963. A version of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” recorded by him that same year would hit number 5 on the Billboard pop charts and propel him into fame on a national level.

Mack rode this success for several years, eventually signing with Elektra Records and working in their A&R department. When Elektra merged with Warner Bros., he grew disenchanted with the label, however, and returned to Indiana to play low-profile country bars.

His career received a powerful resurgence in the 1980s, when at Stevie Ray Vaughan’s insistence he relocated to Texas. The two of them jammed and collaborated, the fruits of their labor being Mack’s 1985 Allligator Records album Strike Like Lightning, which Vaughan played on and co-produced.

That was followed by a tour that saw Keith Richards, Ron Wood, Ry Cooder and Stevie Ray Vaughan joining him on stage. He played Carnegie Hall later that year, a performance documented on the DVD, Further On Down The Road.

Subsequent years had Mack cut two more records for Alligator and the album Roadhouses and Dance Halls for Epic Records. His touring performances continued into the 2000s.

Mack was inducted into the International Guitar Hall of Fame in 2001 and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in 2005.