Remembering Ian McLagan, the Small Face With a Big Heart

David Fricke pays tribute to the gifted keyboardist for two of the U.K.'s greatest bands

Ian McLagan died of a sudden, massive stroke at age 69 on December 3rd, 2014. Credit: Mark Sullivan/WireImage

The first time I spoke to Ian McLagan – the keyboard player for two of Britain's greatest bands, the Small Faces and the Faces, who died of a sudden, massive stroke at 69 on December 3rd in Austin, Texas – was in June 1997. It was just after another passing: that of McLagan's dear friend and bandmate in both groups, bassist-songwriter Ronnie Lane, who had lost a valiant struggle with multiple sclerosis at the age of 51.

"All through the disease, he never complained once," McLagan said in an interview for my tribute to Lane in Rolling Stone. "When I'd see him, I'd say, 'How ya doin', Ron?' And he'd shrug his shoulders and go, 'I'm all right. How you doin'?'"

McLagan also said this of his fellow Face: "He left a lot of friends. That's the amazing, lovely thing. We all start talking about Ronnie, and it always ends up with us laughing."

Now it's my turn to say the same thing about "Mac," as McLagan was known to his own legion of friends, including the other Faces, Small and otherwise; the many artists he served in Britain and the U.S. as one of rock's most gifted and sympathetic session musicians; and the loyal audiences in Austin, where McLagan settled in 1994 and kept everyone in stitches and smiles at clubs such as the Saxon Pub and the Lucky Lounge with cheeky banter, his old bands' classic tunes and songs from his occasional but earthy and moving solo albums.

Glad and Sorry

I feel like I'm in that crowd somewhere. A few years ago, McLagan – whom I interviewed often, most extensively for my liner notes to the 2004 Faces box set, Five Guys Walk Into a Bar . . . – inscribed my copy of his 2006 release, Ian McLagan and the Bump Band Live (Maniac), like this: "All the best always, Mac." He did much the same for the fans that always gathered around him after gigs like the ones I caught in Austin and New York, clutching vintage Small Faces and Faces vinyl, hoping for an autograph.

My last images of McLagan are a treasure now: just six months old, from a June 17th show at New York's Iridium with the latest edition of his Bump Band, including longtime guitarist Scrappy Jud Newcomb. McLagan was promoting a fine, new album, United States (Yep Roc), a soulful reflection on love, need and committment drawn from another close loss – the death in 2006 of his wife Kim, the former Mrs. Keith Moon – and sung with compelling, weathered dignity. But McLagan also joked about the gear setup – which forced him to play piano and Hammond organ facing away from the audience – and told fondly comic stories about Lane and the late Small Faces singer Steve Marriott on the way to delightful readings of the former's "Glad and Sorry," a country-pathos jewel from the Faces' 1973 LP, Ooh La La, and the Small Faces' '67 cracker "Get Yourself Together."

Then McLagan spent more than an hour offstage with the faithful, shaking hands, posing for selfies and expressing warm thanks for the years of support. At five feet, five inches – well within regulation elfin height when McLagan joined the Small Faces in November, 1965 – he and his still-full snow-white hair barely came up to my shoulders. Yet he carried and shared, at all times, enormous heart. McLagan had been as close as you can get to the top of the pops, twice: rivalling the Beatles and the Who on the Small Faces' magical run of U.K. hit singles in the late Sixties; scoring again with the Faces, especially in America with the 1972 Top 20 single, "Stay With Me."    

But the Faces were also famous for arena shows that blurred the lines between stage, dressing room and hotel lounge, in a jubilant rain of booze, laughter and turbo-charged rock & roll fundamentals. I saw one of those affairs, in Philadelphia in 1972, and I can vouch for this: McLagan kept that spirit going long after the Faces' circus ended. There was no VIP area in any room where I saw McLagan perform over the last two decades. The bar – along with his songs and the stories that came with them – was open to all.

All or Nothing

McLagan was born in Hounslow, in west London, on May 12th, 1945. An early band, the Muleskinners, was good enough to play behind visiting U.S. bluesmen such as Sonny Boy Williamson and Howlin' Wolf. But when McLagan replaced the Small Faces' first keyboard player, Jimmy Winston, he brought a wider dynamic in style and influences: a deep love of and schooling in the Hammond jazz icon Jimmy Smith and Stax organ master Booker T. Jones; a modernist swing on piano, at once melodic and feisty, as if Chuck Berry's sidekick Johnnie Johnson had grown up brash, mod and British.

McLagan made his first appearance on a Small Faces record in early '66, on their third single and first U.K. hit, "Sha-La-La-La-Lee." "To put it mildly, he was a breath of fresh air," drummer Kenney Jones recalled in a phone call two days after McLagan's death. "It was the first time we'd added a new dimension to our sound. We all had the same influences" – American blues, Motown and Stax records – "but Mac had his own style. He fit like a hand in a glove."

Marriott and Lane were the Small Faces' dominant writers, but McLagan's touch on Hammond and piano was incisive and transformative: his grand sweep and tidal punctuation in the booming, electric soul of "Tin Soldier" and the title instrumental on 1968's Ogdens' Nut Gone Flake; the paisley spice and dancing gait of his organ flourishes in the group's only U.S. hit, 1967's "Itchycoo Park"; the jolly music-hall temper of his electric piano as McLagan kicked off the hippie house party in "Lazy Sunday," a '68 British smash from Ogdens'.

McLagan slowly emerged as a writer in the last two years of the Small Faces. "I knew that," Jones says, "the minute I heard 'Up the Wooden Hills to Bedforshire'" – an acid-tinged McLagan treat included on the '67 U.S. LP, There are But Four Small Faces, and named after a phrase that Lane's father used when the bassist was a child, to tell him it was time to go upstairs to bed.

Marriott quit the Small Faces in late '68, forcing the other three to regroup as the Faces with two refugees from the Jeff Beck Group, singer Rod Stewart and guitarist Ron Wood. McLagan quickly became a vital, collaborative bridge between that band's main writing engines, earning co-credits with Lane – the sweet-and-saucy plea "You're So Rude" from 1971's A Nod Is as Good as a Wink . . . – and Stewart and Wood, often in thundering larks such as the '73 single "Cindy Incidentally" and Ooh La La's "Borstal Boys."

"The shape of 'Cindy' is a piano thing – I played it, Rod said, 'What's that?' and started writing the words," McLagan remembered when we spoke for my liner notes to the 2012 collection, Stay With Me, issued after the Small Faces and the Faces were inducted together into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. "Same with 'Bad 'N' Ruin," McLagan said, referring to a song he also wrote with Stewart for 1970's Long Player. "I had the riff. I was always playing these riffs – you can't get rid of 'em," he cracked, laughing. "It's something you have."

The Faces broke up in late '75, undone by Stewart's ascension as a solo artist and Wood's departure for the Rolling Stones. But McLagan never got over Lane's earlier exit in 1973, to write and sing outside of Stewart's shadow. As late as that 2012 interview, McLagan was recalling in still-disappointed detail the night Lane told his friend he was splitting: "He said, 'Why don't you leave with me and we'll form a group together?' I said, 'This is the band I want to be in with you.'"

In 1999, two years after Lane's death, McLagan dedicated his solo album, Best of British, to the bassist. The record also included a message to Lane, in the manner of the Faces – the jaunty "Hello Old Friend," sung with a vocal assist from Ron Wood. "We had something very special in the Faces," McLagan insisted, proudly, in 2012. "We were blessed to have the fun we had." He paused.

"But Ronnie shouldn't have left."

Had Me a Real Good Time

In 2000, McLagan got a jump on the rock-star-memoir craze, publishing a fat, funny and emotionallty revealing autobiography, All the Rage: A Riotous Romp Through Rock & Roll History. He also had a long, rich life on records made long after the Faces dissolved, as a session musician and touring sideman. The incisive support he brought to the Small Faces and Faces soon went to the Stones – that is McLagan riding shotgun on electric piano with Mick Jagger's vocal in "Miss You" on 1978's Some Girls – and guitarist Keith Richards' outside band of pirates, the New Barbarians. McLagan also worked with Bob Dylan on the road in the early Eighties – generally playing better shows than those featured on 1984's Real Live – and contributed to albums by Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen and the Replacements' Paul Westerberg.

"Mac's unique style is why people looked to him," says Jones, who also did sessions with McLagen, particularly in the Sixties when the Small Faces were essentially a house band at Immediate Records. "They wanted Mac on the records, not his instrument." In the Nineties, McLagan turned a session job with English singer-songwriter Billy Bragg into a real-band gig, joining Bragg's group the Blokes. This year, McLagan showed the range of his giving on what proved to be two of his last sessions: Lucinda Williams' recent double album, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, and the debut release by the Empty Hearts, a Sixties-driven supercombo with members of the Cars, Blondie and the Romantics.

Even after he got busy and comfortable in Austin, McLagan stayed outspoken about the financial horrors visited upon the Small Faces, long after their lifetime, and the complications of mounting a Faces reunion. In recent years, Wood, Jones and McLagan got an honorable and entertaining version of that band going without Stewart – Simply Red singer Mick Hucknall did yeoman service. But "Mac always had a bit of a temper," Jones admitted. "He spoke his mind."

I got a flash of that at the Iridium show in June – when McLagan discovered, after coming off stage, that there were no copies of United States, out that day, for him to sign and sell. They had not arrived at the club on time – a sharp blow to a working musician who relied on a night's take at the merch table for part of his income.

Jones pointed out that "despite Mac and Rod's disagreements here and there" over a true Faces reunion, the two "loved each other" and McLagan was "excited" about the prospect of a tour, with Stewart on board, finally happening in 2015. Jones also said he expects to meet with Stewart and Wood soon to discuss the possibility of going forward together "in Mac's memory." It would be a fitting gesture, in the way McLagan kept the music and spirits of Lane and Marriott alive at his own shows. The last song I saw McLagan perform, for his encore at Iridium, was a hearty cover of Lane's cheery 1979 solo single "Kuschty Rye," complete with a Faces-era breakout on the Hammond organ.

"Someone asked me for a quite straight away," Jones said, reflecting on the moment he heard of McLagan's passing. "The first thing that came out of my mouth" was a reference to Happiness Stan, the child-seeker in the psychedelic fairy-tale suite on Side Two of Ogdens' Nut Gone Flake. "I just said, 'Mac's gone to look for the other half of the moon' – just like Happiness Stan. I like the idea of Mac going off on a journey," Jones added. "I'm just sad I'm not with him."

I'm sorry my trip with Ian McLagan ended so abruptly, too soon. But to paraphrase Stewart's lyrics in one of my favorite Faces songs: While Mac was here, I had me a real good time. Every time.