Lonnie Mack, the blues-rock pioneer who influenced an entire generation of guitarists like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Duane Allman, Eric Clapton and Keith Richards, died Thursday at a medical facility near his home in Smithville, Tennessee. Mack was 74. Alligator Records confirmed the guitar great’s death, adding that Mack had died of natural causes.
In Mack’s bio, he claims he started learning guitar at the age of five and, after dropping out of school in the 7th grade, pursued a professional music career as a young teenager. He played bars around the Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky stateliness before signing with Cincinnati’s Fraternity Records. Mack also served as a session guitarist for artists like James Brown, Hank Ballard and Freddie King.
Mack’s 1963 LP The Wham of That Memphis Man!, recorded for the Cincinnati-based Fraternity Records, boasted Mack’s instrumental rendition of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis,” which became a surprise Billboard Top Five hit. Mack soon became known for his “blue-eyed soul” style of singing and his virtuosic guitar abilities that straddled genres like country, blues and R&B and, as Rolling Stone noted in a 1968 review, “a pioneer in rock guitar soloing.”
The Wham of That Memphis Man!‘s single “Wham!” also found the guitarist making groundbreaking use of a Bigsby tremolo bar that he appended to his trademark Flying V guitar; because of his work on the album, the Bigsby tremolo bar was unofficially dubbed the “Whammy bar” by a generation of guitarists. “Nobody can play with a whammy-bar like Lonnie. He holds it while he plays and the sound sends chills up your spine,” Stevie Ray Vaughan, an acolyte of Mack’s, would later say.
Mack was also well known for his 1958 Gibson Flying V guitar, an instrument the teenaged Mack specifically ordered from a Cincinnati music shop because it resembled an arrow. Upon receiving the instrument from Gibson’s Kalamazoo, Michigan factory, Mack realized the guitar had the serial number of #007; that guitar remained Mack’s main instrument for the remainder of his career that stretched across six decades.
Following the shuttering of Fraternity Records, which put many of Mack’s early records out of print, the guitarist maintained grueling touring schedule for years until a glowing November 1968 Rolling Stone review of The Wham led to a resurgence in Mack’s work, including high profile gigs at the Fillmore East and West and an Elektra Records deal; the following year, Mack contributed bass guitar to the Doors’ Morrison Hotel songs “Roadhouse Blues” and “Maggie M’Gill.”
During the Seventies, Mack largely receded from the music industry until longtime fan Vaughan convinced Mack to move from Indiana to Austin, Texas in the early Eighties, a collaboration that resulted in Mack’s standout 1985 LP Strike Like Lightning.
While largely unknown to mainstream audiences, Mack’s influence on an entire generation of guitarists is vital: The Allman Brothers’ Duane Allman and Dickie Betts both admired Mack; “Lonnie is one of the greatest players I know of. He’s always been a great influence on me,” Betts once said.
Many of the blues-minded guitarists that formed the backbone of the British Invasion and modern rock n’ roll – Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Ronnie Wood, John Mayall and more – also frequently cited Mack as a founding influence; Richards, Wood and Ry Cooder would make onstage appearances during Mack’s Strike Like Lightning tour.
Parliament-Funkadelic’s Bootsy Collins called Mack his musical idol. “The songs that he did were just so incredible to me. I would try to mimic all the notes he would play on his guitar,” Collins said. “His records, I knew everyone of them. I couldn’t wait for them to come out… When certain guitar players like Lonnie Mack would come out, the guitar players of that day would see who could play it the best.”
Mack was an inductee of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and the International Guitar Hall of Fame.