Ladies and gentlemen, Lonnie Mack!
The death of Lonnie Mack is going to get lost amidst the rightful sadness over Prince’s demise, but I want to share a few words urging you to replay Mack’s The Wham! of That Memphis Man in between “Kiss” and “When Doves Cry” today.
The first of the guitar-hero records (this is from 1964) is also one of the best. And for perhaps the last time, the singing on such a disc is worthy of the guitar histrionics. Lonnie Mack bent, stroked, and modified the sound of six strings in ways that baffled his contemporaries and served as a guide to future players. Eric Clapton’s later take on Bobby Bland’s “Farther on Down the Road” outright swipes the version of the standard which Clapton first heard on this album.
But Mack is more than just an axe murderer. His singing is sure, full of knowing nuance, and soulful—his screams transform “Why” from an above-par breakup ballad into a run of psychic terror—and his brash arrangements insure that Wham! remains a showcase for songs, not a platform for showing off. Although Mack is a fine writer, the accent here is on songs written by others. Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” (Mack’s first single and an instrumental chart smash) and Dale Hawkins’s “Suzie Q” aren’t radically reworked, but Mack imprints both numbers with enough spiraling, sputtering guitar to distinguish them from their original incarnations.
Mack envelops himself in the ballads; “Where There’s a Will There’s a Way” and the climactic “Why” demonstrate his measured, thoughtful vocal eruptions to best effect. Still, it is Mack’s guitar playing that made his career and remains his most enduring legacy. He played fast and he played lots of notes, yet on Wham! he never went on too long or ground his gears by squeezing too much into a break. Mack, who produced this album, has never been given credit for the dignified understatement he brought to his workouts. In the mid-eighties he was rediscovered, thanks to Stevie Ray Vaughan and the good folks at Alligator Records, and thanks to reissue specialists The Wham! of That Memphis Man started to get some of the attention it deserved. Give it some today.