Not only a groundbreaking and influential guitarist, but also a great blue-eyed soul vocalist. Here’s the proof on a new vinyl-only compilation of his classic mid-60s Fraternity recordings.
When Lonnie Mack’s instrumental treatment of Chuck Berry’s ‘Memphis’ broke into the US Hot 100 on 8 June 1963 and peaked at #5 during its 13-week stay, he was initially pigeonholed as an instrumental artist. This perception was heightened by ‘Down In The Dumps’ on the flip, and furthered by his double-sided instrumental follow-up whose topside, ‘Wham!’, reached #28. Six months later the other side of Lonnie was revealed with his first vocal 45, and it was a revelation. The topside was a dynamic re-vamp of Jimmy Reed’s ‘Baby, What’s Wrong’, backed with a version of the gospel classic ‘Where There’s A Will’. Here you could hear him emoting in a way white singers never did – hollering, pleading and screaming in the very finest gospel tradition. The track was even picked up by some black radio stations in the south, but was quietly dropped once it was realised that Lonnie was white.
Born on 18 July 1941, Lonnie McIntosh was of mixed native Indian and Scottish heritage. He was the fourth of five children, the family living on a series of small subsistence farms in South Indiana where they scratched out a living. They may have been poor but they were rich in music, often singing and harmonising together on bluegrass and old country-style songs with ma Sarah on guitar and pa Robert picking on banjo while Lonnie with brother Alvin and sisters Berlis and Audrey sang along.
While he was still at school the family moved to Aurora, a railway town to the west of Cincinnati. It was not long before he traded in his bike to get a guitar and began earning a few coins by playing to workers on the nearby railway. He discovered a blind guitarist and gospel singer named Ralph Trotto living locally who provided guidance, while his uncle Harry Dawes showed him how to fingerpick like Merle Travis and Chet Atkins. Soon he began to listen to WCIN, Cincinnati’s black radio station, where he heard the sophisticated guitar work of T-Bone Walker, the boogies of Jimmy Reed and the soulful voice of Bobby “Blue” Bland. He was soaking up influences from far and wide.
One of his first regular gigs was at the Railway Inn in Aurora which entailed him lugging his guitar and amp a couple of miles down the track – and then back again afterwards. As he grew older he would play honky-tonks and clubs all around the Tri-State area. He picked up his shortened moniker while playing at the Twilight Inn in McGonigle, near to Hamilton on the northern fringes of Cincinnati, the club owner dubbing the band Lonnie Mack & The Twilighters.
By this time he was toting his Gibson Flying V, which he bought as soon as it appeared on the market in 1958 its futuristic design instantly catching his eye. He made plentiful use of the instrument’s whammy bar and the V soon became his trademark. Around 1960, he heard Robert Ward playing guitar with local band the Ohio Untouchables and was immediately struck by the sweetness and depth of tone Ward’s amplifier produced. It was a Magnatone, which not only had a warm and distinctive sound but the advantage of a built-in vibrato, and Lonnie soon discovered that he could create an organ-like tone when used with his Flying V. He had discovered his signature sound; all that was needed now was get it down on tape.
‘Memphis’ was recorded by fortuitous chance at King Records Studio in Cincinnati on 12 March 1963. Carl Edmondson had been booked to produce a split session for Fraternity Records artists Max Falcon, Kenny Smith and the Charmaines, but Edmondson’s band had recently broken up, so Lonnie and his crew were drafted in. With some time left at the end of the session, Lonnie was asked if he had anything he might like to record. ‘Memphis’ was the result. Edmondson thought the track had potential and suggested to Fraternity boss, Harry Carlson, that he should put it out. By June it was climbing the charts, launching Lonnie’s long career.
Further releases on Elektra, Capitol, Epic and Alligator were to follow down the years as Lonnie cemented his reputation as the man who brought gospel, soul, blues, country and rock’n’roll together. He was one of the creators of blue-eyed soul, the inspiration for southern rock and roadhouse bar blues, as well as the leading light for the legion of blues-based rock guitarists who plied their trade from the 60s onwards. It has to be said, though, that the bedrock of his legend rests on his Fraternity recordings, which highlighted both sides of Lonnie Mack – the vocalist and the guitarist. “Sa-Ba-Hoola! Two Sides Of Lonnie Mack” cherry-picks 14 of his best Fraternity track – seven instrumental and seven vocal – and presents them on high-grade vinyl.
DAVE BURKE & ALAN TAYLOR