A screen capture from a video of Dennis O’Neal playing with Lonnie Mack at Carnegie Hall in 1986 is shown. You can watch the video on YouTube by searching “Lonnie Mack Satisfy Susie.”
A screen capture from a video of Dennis O’Neal playing with Lonnie Mack at Carnegie Hall in 1986 is shown. You can watch the video on YouTube by searching “Lonnie Mack Satisfy Susie.”
Last week this column focused on Dennis O’Neal’s Madison roots and the many local bands he was part of over the years. This week, as promised, we’re going to delve into the Lonnie Mack Years and how Dennis was swept along to the pinnacle of the music business.

“I’d gone to college for a year, come back home,” relates Dennis, “so I must have been about 20 years old. Back in those days they were staging a lot of concerts over in Friendship, Indiana, so a bunch of us rode over. Lonnie Mack was playing.

“Lonnie was from the Aurora area just up the river, so he was kind of a local legend and a rising star. As it happens I knew his brother Billy Mack, who was also in the band. I went to school with him.

“So the band takes a set break but when they come back for a second set they couldn’t find the drummer. He’d disappeared somewhere. Lonnie kind of struggled for a few songs without a drummer, playing some slow stuff. But the crowd was getting restless. Billy looks out in the audience, sees me and says to Lonnie, ‘Hey, that guy plays drums, let’s bring him up!’

“So I played the rest of the day, and it went great. They invited me back a few times, and within a few months I was Lonnie Mack’s regular touring drummer. That was in the late ’70s, and I was basically on the road with the band for the next decade.

“Now at the time, Lonnie was recording with Capital Records down in Nashville, and he was living down there in a cabin. I went down to join the band and started living in Lonnie’s tour bus, which was parked out back.

“As luck would have it, Neil Young was recording across the street at another studio. There was a lot of hanging out and many of the same studio musicians were working on both projects. I was basically the gofer for both bands during that time. It was amazing.

“The thing you need to understand about Lonnie is he was a guitarist’s guitarist. He was doing things on the guitar that would make even the best players just freak out. Wherever we’d play, some major musician would be in the audience to watch Lonnie. People like Clapton, Jeff Beck, Ron Wood, Keith Richards and many more.

“Fast forward a few years and Lonnie is an A&R man for Arista records, which is basically a talent scout. He went down to Austin to try to sign this new hot kid named Stevie Ray Vaughn. That started the whole Austin chapter for us.

“The entire band moved to Austin to be closer to that blues rock scene that was blowing up down there. We were there five years, recorded there, and we even played the Broken Spoke bar every Thursday. We ended up touring with Stevie Ray for three years as his opening band.

“It was quite a ride for a young Madison kid, I can tell you that. We played the Houston Astrodome. We played in front of 22,000 in Dallas once, and I’ll never forget the wall of sound the crowd made, like waves crashing. We played the Roxy and both Fillmores! We toured in Australia, England, the Netherlands and Canada.

“But the most memorable show was when we were invited to play Carnegie Hall in New York City. It was the first time an electrified blues band had ever played there, so everybody showed up. Hall and Oates. Mick and Jerry, Paul Simon, Dickey Betts and Rick Derringer.

“After the show Paul Shaffer hosted a big party at some Manhattan ballroom, and everybody took turns sitting in with his band. I’ll never forget it.

“Things slowed down about 1993, except for a few short tours. It was a long hard run and Lonnie wanted to be more selective. Which gave me more time for my other music career in sound engineering and recording.

“It all started way back in Nashville when we were recording at Capitol. We’d record late into the evening, and eventually the sound engineers would get tired and go home. They’d shut it down and leave. But I was watching closely. I could see how the tape machines worked and how to set the levels.

“After they’d leave I slip into the recording booth and turn everything back on. We’d keep recording until 4 or 5 in the morning. I just kind of figured it out and got better at it.

“Not long after that Lonnie started asking me to set up the sound when we’d play in clubs, because the house sound guys were usually terrible. So I was doing sound for the band, too. That was my intro into sound work.

“Over the years I’ve recorded and helped produce a bunch of albums for lots of area artists. I was the engineer on the “Madison Bands Together” album that came out about 20 years ago. And I’ve done the sound on countless live shows and festivals over the years. These days I’m doing most of the shows at the Red Bike Hall.”

Charlie Rohlfing is a retired advertising man and partner in The Red Bicycle Hall music venue. Look for his distinctive fedora bobbing above the crowd anywhere live music is happening or reach him at crohlfing@madisoncourier.com.