Preview: Jerry Mack Keeping Blues Flame Alive
Very few local blues-based musicians have stayed in the area to ply their craft since the glory days of the late 1960’s Ann Arbor Blues Festivals, the then thriving club scene, and the alternative newspapers that promoted and supported them. Since white audiences adopted the blues as the roots of rock and roll, and Boogie Woogie Red presided every Blue Monday in the basement of the Blind Pig, venues have come and gone, while many authentic artists passed away or left town for greener pastures.
Veteran guitarist and vocalist Jerry Mack has seen all these changes, remaining in Ann Arbor to not only perform regularly with his band The Terraplanes, but to host the longstanding electric post-war blues radio show Nothin’ But The Blues on WCBN-FM, 88.3, every Saturday afternoon from 3-5 pm. He'd also added the acoustic vintage folk blues program Yazoo City Calling Monday nights on WCBN from 7-8 pm. Both presentations are highly regarded by local listeners still in search of the real thing. He also wrote a semi-monthly blues column for Current Magazine.
Formed in 1993 as the house band at the Blind Pig, The Terraplanes were named after the Essex Motor Company aerodynamic car in a song “Terraplane Blues,” written by the legendary Robert Johnson in 1936 about a pernicious female partner and her similar qualities to the quirks of the short-lived automobile line.
Even Jerry Mack acknowledges the blues has changed into a more commercially-driven entity, and readily admits to changing with the times. That does not mean he has abandoned the electric guitar-based Chicago style blues that inspired him in the first place. In fact, he’s more driven to assure the public keeps this music uppermost in mind as an influential African-American art form, still at the core of most music we hear.
There are other blues radio programs in the area, the most prominent being Joe Tiboni’s Big City Blues Cruise on WEMU Sunday late afternoons. Radio is a different animal in terms of listenability, as most people use it to complement other activities at home, or traveling in the car. Mack has been on WCBN since 1977 and in a recent interview he remembered, “I had friends who worked there, who said I had a good radio voice and was into music. Why not put those things together.”
The spin-off show Yazoo City Calling started in 1988. “I discovered this music was never played on the radio, except the King Biscuit Flower Hour in the late 1930s and early 1940s. All the race music, the artists were only noticed by word of mouth. So I took it upon myself as a mission to play the songs of the Leadbelly/Robert Johnson era. It was time to branch out because it still is relevant, and the University of Michigan later started an academic program covering the early blues artists some 15 years later after I established Yazoo City Calling.”
Mack and the Terraplanes released their independent CD Well Tuned in 2000. It was a turning point for the band. “Since then,” Mack commented, “we’ve had quite a few changes, not only in personnel but how we approach what is the blues and strongly blues-based music,” referring to rhythm & blues, rock, soul and funk. “In the club circuit that currently exists locally in Ann Arbor, you have very few people that go out to hear a pure blues band. You can do that but people want to be entertained differently.”
Since then Mack has realized the difference between live performance and any purist aesthetic the public wants in terms of entertainment and danceability. “My philosophy," he continued, “is to change the music to get people interested in the blues, to add the peripheral music which is old school, swing, and Motown that people know and dance to. Then we throw in 'Big Leg Woman' by Freddie King or 'Boom Boom Boom Boom' by John Lee Hooker. People like to dance to that - Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, and The Rolling Stones.”
Some prominent band members over the years have included well respected guitarist Rick Humesky, electric bass guitarist Gwenyth Hayes, lead electric guitarist Loren Hseih, harmonica and trumpet expert Dave Cavendar, the late keyboardist Martin Simmons and the late drummer Mike Adams. Current personnel includes electric bass guitarist Al Kalaf, keyboardist Jim Merte, and drummer George Eberhardt Jr.
Where Guy Hollerin’s, the Zal Gaz Grotto, and Mash Bar are local clubs that present blues, the Metro Detroit scene has fallen by the wayside. Some casualties include famed venues like The Soup Kitchen, Sully’s, and Tenny Street Roadhouse in Dearborn. Callahan’s in Auburn Hills and the Blue Goose in St. Clair Shores are active but a long way to drive. Ann Arbor’s Blind Pig is well past presenting any blues, Enzo’s is long gone, as are any major venues past The Michigan Theater, the Ann Arbor Summer Festival stages, and on a rare night the Necto, Live, or the Yellow Barn.
“I don’t know if it’s the fault of the media coverage, or something else in our lives coming up. The thing that I find unique these days is very few people who have made successful lives in rock have little interest in spreading the word like they used to. Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy deserve great credit, and even John Mayer does what he can, but I find there are good guitarists who lack a lot of soul.”
So at least we have people like Jerry Mack and other die-hard individuals who are doing all they can to keep this music alive and as well as can be expected.
Michael G. Nastos is known as a veteran radio broadcaster, local music journalist, and event promoter/producer. He is a former music director and current super sub on 88.3 WCBN-FM Ann Arbor, founding member of SEMJA, the Southeastern Michigan Jazz Association, Board of Directors member of the Michigan Jazz Festival, votes in the annual Detroit Music Awards and Down Beat Magazine, NPR Music and El Intruso Critics Polls, and writes monthly for Hot House Magazine in New York City.
Jerry Mack & The Terraplanes perform at the Mash Bar, 211 E. Washington St. at 10 pm Friday, September 23; and at Guy Hollerin’s at the Holiday Inn East, 3600 Plymouth Rd. at 8 pm. Saturday, September 24.