Saturday, April 23, 2016

Lonnie Mack - Dead at age 74 - Rock's First Guitar Heroes

Lonnie Mack
Lonnie McIntosh known to all as Lonnie Mack died yesterday at the age of 74 of natural causes. He was one of the first “guitar heroes” and an influence on countless players including me.

The Wham of that Memphis Man
As a kid I’d put his LP, The Wham of that Memphis Man, on the record player and turn the speed down to 16 2/3’s to slow down his licks so I could copy them on the guitar.

Lonnie remained active in the music business, mostly playing clubs and touring with band members that had remained with him for year until 2004 when he retired.

In 1963 he went into a recording studio in Cincinnati, Ohio called Fraternity Records. After a session had finished, Lonnie and some other players stuck around and laid down a few tracks which included his own instrumental version of Chuck Berry’s Memphis and another instrumental song called he called Wham. What emerged was one of the greatest instrumental guitar albums of all time.

Lonnie with his unmodified Vee
Lonnie's biting guitar style, use of a Bigsby vibrato and trademark sound became legend and were copied by musicians worldwide including Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jeff Beck, Duane Allman, Mike Bloomfield, Ted Nugent and so many others.

In the mid 1950’s Lonnie started playing in clubs all over the Midwestern United States; mostly in Ohio, Kentucky and his home state of Indiana. That first LP that I have mentioned went on to be rated one of the 100 Best Rock n’ Roll records of all time.

Mack released his final LP in 1990; Lonnie Mack Live - The Attack of the Killer V.

Throughout his career Lonnie played his 1958 Gibson Flying Vee. The serial number on it was 007 as it was one of the first made by the company.

1957 Flying V prototype
Gibson had  manufactured prototypes of the Flying V in 1957, under the direction of Gibson president Ted McCarty. This was during an era when America was entering the race for outer space. Cars had fins. There were TV shows about rocket ships and even Walt Disney had hired scientist Wernher von Braun to pique America's interest in space exploration. Gibson decided to get in on this action with some modernistic guitar designs that had an almost aerodynamic look by offering 3 futuristic guitar designs. Lonnie Mack played the Flying Vee.

1958 Flying Vee
The original 1957 prototype had a rounded bottom. It was made of mahogany and was a very heavy instrument. McCarty ordered that a large wedge be cut be made in the bottom end of the guitar’s body to alleviate some of the weight. This cut gave the guitar it’s Flying V appearance and it’s name.

Because blond colored furniture (and blond women) were all the rage during this era, light colored Korina wood was used instead of mahogany.

The guitar was introduced in 1958 along with the Moderne and the Futura (aka The Explorer). It was a dismal failure. The design was too much for the guitarists that wanted their guitars to look…well,like guitars. Due to slow sales, only 98 guitars, production only continued until 1959. Some left over units were sold up through 1963.

Lonnie with his unmodified V
Lonnie McIntosh was a country boy who grew up in Harrison, Indiana which was only 20 miles west of Cincinnati. At 13 years of age he had a quarrel with a teacher and was promptly dismissed from school. All Lonnie wanted to do was play guitar. He hung out at a store in Norwood, Ohio, called Hughes Music. Norwood is mid-sized blue-collar town just outside of Cincinnati and used to be home to a GM plant.

Lonnie Mack in the mid 1960's
The owner Glen Hughes would talk to Lonnie and discovered that Lonnie was interested bow and arrow hunting. Mr. Hughes pulled out the latest Gibson catalog that he had received and showed Lonnie the arrow shaped guitar. Lonnie was in awe. He had to have that guitar.

Hughes put in an order to Gibson and he drove from Cincinnati to Kalamazoo, Michican to pick it up. Lonnie got one with the serial numbers 007.

The story goes on that Lonnie wanted a vibrato put on his V, but due to the guitars design there was no place to mount the unit. The best vibrato unit in those days were the ones made by Bigsby.

Glen Hughes had a stainless steel bar cut and bent so part of the unit was mounted on the guitars body and the end of the unit was attached to the crossbar that ran between the sides of the V.

Most everyone named McIntosh is knick-named Mack and Lonnie McIntosh soon became Lonnie Mack.

On March 12, 1963, Mack had played guitar on a recording session for a girls group called The Charmaines at Fraternity’s recording studio. The allotted studio rental time had twenty minutes remaining, the group invited Mack to take advantage.

Lonnie and the other session players put down two songs on tape that evening and one was a rocking, uptempo guitar version of the Chuck Berry song called Memphis Tennessee.

At that time Mack's job was performing behind another Fraternity artist named Troy Seals. Seal went on to become a well known Nashville song writer.

Mack had forgotten about the session, however someone at Fraternity did not. They liked it well enough to issue it as a single. Seals had just heard from a friend that Lonnie’s song was climbing the charts. By the summer of 1963 Memphis charted in at number 4.

Lonnie Mack
Mack released a follow up called Wham, that became one of his signature tunes. Wham reached number 24 on the Billboard charts. In an interview Mack states he put it together from two songs he had been writing. Lonnie followed up with an LP called The Wham of that Memphis Man.

The album cover shows Lonnie leaning on the bottom of his upside down Flying V. This was before the Bigsby unit was installed.

Magnatone 260
Mack also was fond of his Magnatone amplifier. Just about everyone else was using Fender amplifiers, but Mack loved the True Vibrato effect of the Magnatone. This was engineered using circuitry similar to what was found on electronic organs that caused the pitch to continuously alter. Fender’s vibrato was actually tremolo since it caused the sound to be turned off and on.

Mack said that he was going after the Hammond organ sound that was prevalent in Gospel and Blues.

When Lonnie Mack was playing at clubs in the mid 1960's. He originally used a Magnatone 260 to get his signature sound. This amp had the true FM vibrato, but no reverb.

Gene Lawson
Lonnie later ran his Flying V into an old blonde Fender Reverb Unit then into the Magnatone amplifier. For the road this was a Magnatone M-9 that was modified by a fellow named Gene Lawson.

Lawson removed the amplifiers speaker and put in a step down preamp. The signal from the Magnatone was then sent to a blonde Fender Bandmaster head which powered two blonde Fender Bandmaster 2 x 12” cabinets. I am told that all of the Fender equipment had the “wheat grill cloth on them.”

And that is how Lonnie got his unique sound back in the day.

Later on as Lonnie began to play larger venues he used a Boss chorus pedal through a large amplifier,

Eventually Lonnie settled on a using a Roland JC 120 amplifier that he placed on top of two matching speaker enclosures.

2003 Concert
Lonnie Mack attempted to paint his Flying Vee red, which wound up with a pink hue after it dried out. He eventually got the red colour on the guitar.

Lonnie playing #007
Lonnie loved that guitar and once said he dropped it out of the rear end of his van while driving and the guitar remained in tune.

One time after a bad show, Lonnie told the story the he got mad and threw the Vee in a trash can. A fan fished it out and returned it to him five minutes later.

That guitar is now worth at least six figures, not just due to the fact it is an original 1958 Gibson Flying Vee, but the fact it is Lonnie Mack's Flying Vee.

Mack said that he has played the heck out his Flying V; the back of the neck is scarred up. The guitar has been re-fretted and new pickups were installed back in the late 1960’s.

The back side of the Wham LP

There are couple of interesting facts that have resulted from Mack’s career in the mid 1960’s.

First of all Memphis was the highest rated guitar song. Much of its popularity is due to the popularity of the electric guitar at that time.

Throughout his career Lonnie had recorded with The Doors, as a bass player and played on concert bills with them.

He also recorded with James Brown (who also record most of his hit records in Cincinnati, Ohio at another company), Ronnie Hawkins and Doby Gray.

Lonnie with Keith and Ron

He played concerts with Roy Buchanan, Albert Collins, Ron Wood, Keith Richards and Stevie Ray Vaughn.

This is a recent video featuring Gene Lawson, Mack's original drummer


Joe McDokes said...

Thanks Marc for another very informative and generous piece.
It is sad to hear the news about Lonnie Mack's death.
I was fortunate to see Lonnie Mack twice in the 1980s and 1990s. He was a brilliant guitarist, singer and showman.

marcus ohara said...

Thanks for stopping by Joe. I've seen Lonnie a few times and I agree with you. In my opinion, he changed the way the guitar was played.


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Bartenational said...

I grew up and got my drivers license in 1986 so I discovered the Hughes Music Store. There was an ad in the Trading Post that read OVER 200 USED GUITARS. So I drove out to see this, cause I love guitars. There were 200 cases lined up on both sides of the store. Guitars hanging on both walls 2 stories high. Gretschs like I had never seen before. It was amazing. The old man in the store was wearing two pairs of readers and there was a guy in the back fixing guitars.

I didn’t have any money and there was a barrel full of guitar necks. So I asked about the cost of the necks and said I was building a guitar. He said these are $20 but they need to have the frets leveled. So he showed me how to do it with a bastard file. I kept driving there to hang out and just absorb as much of that as I could. It was like a guitar nirvana. Eventually I went there and he was no longer there. His daughter took over the store but wanted too much money for everything and I had none.

I don’t know what happened to all that stuff. I have the money now but can’t go back in time.