BLUES COMEBACK OF THE YEAR:
by Michael Buffalo Smith
South Carolina bluesman Mac Arnold knows the blues. The one time bass player for Muddy Waters, Arnold has played and sung the blues his entire life, recording and touring with A.C. Reed, Otis Spann and playing in the Soul Train house band. After many years out of the spotlight, Mac is back with a great new CD, and is performing all over the South East. We caught up with Mac just before his homecoming show at The Handlebar in Greenville, SC for a little one on one.
Where were you born, Mac?
I was born in Greenville county, at Ware Place actually.
Did you end up in Macon?
No, Macon is where James Brown came from. He used to come to Greenville every weekend to play with The Shamrocks, this guy from Atlanta Georgia, Jay Floyd had a group called Jay Floyd and The Shamrocks. This guy would drive up here from Macon, or Augusta, he had a place in both cities, and we would play on Spring Street and Broad Street.
That’s cool. Did you grow up in Greenville?
Yeah, I did.
Did you ever know of Esquerita?
Yes, he was a bad keyboard player. He was the first guy I ever saw who could play a keyboard in front of him and one behind him at the same time.
He was a tall guy, right?
Yeah, he was a big guy, I tell ya.
Little Richard credits him a lot for his style. I wanted to ask you about working with James Brown, did he play the piano?
Yeah, he could and he fooled around with all the instruments. He was a pretty smart guy. (laughs)
You left and moved to Chicago in 1965 right? To play with A.C. Reed right? How did that come about?
I had a friend that would come around when we played in all the clubs in Greenville, and she decided to go into the service. She got based in Chicago. So I said that I had been trying to find a way to get to Chicago and I got a telephone number and address and got on the Greyhound bus and went up there and stayed with her and her husband for a couple of weeks. I liked it up there, so I came back to Greenville, bought myself a car and drove up there and started to play with everyone. That is how I came to meet A.C. Reed. I went up there and played with him.
It was about one year later you did the Muddy Waters gig?
Yeah, that is true. Muddy had scouts out all the time looking for good musicians and I was someone new in town with a new style of playing bass. They thought it would be a good idea to introduce me to Muddy. So they introduced me to Muddy and they liked me and took me on the road.
Was Willie "Big Eyes" Smith with him at that time?
No, Willie came before and after me. There was a young man playing drums before Willie and then he decided he would do something different. Then Willie played. Then Francis Clay was playing drums when I was playing with him.
Did you get a chance to play with Eric Clapton?
Oh, yeah, I played with Eric. Muddy likes to introduce new people. I am that way, and I love showcasing new people and showing there are other musicians around other than me. I like the idea of being someone that people like hearing, but I also like to recognize other musicians too. I am not the guy that wants everything, all the eyes on me, I like to share it all.
During some of the times with Muddy what are some of the high spots for you, or outstanding memories for you at that time?
Traveling with Muddy at that time was real exciting. He liked to make sure that all his musicians were taken care of and wanted the disposition of the musicians to be presentable and represent who he is. That is the way he was and I always remember that. If we were in the dressing room and someone was sitting there and not saying too much, he would be sure to speak to that person and make sure everything was alright with this guy. Sometimes we would be on the road for several weeks at a time, guys would get lonely and this and that. So it could be hard work.
What was the man Muddy Waters like as a human being in your eyes?
It’s very hard to find someone that was understandable like him. He didn’t have to be the way he was, because at his level he was very highly regarded as a musician in the musical world. This man was incredible, and so was his personal life. His interaction with musicians was very personal. It meant a great deal to me to know him and have been involved. It allowed me to do things that I would ordinarily not have been able to do. I enjoyed it. I was able to recognize musicians and people as a whole, the appreciation part really makes the world.
As a friend of Muddy’s did you ever got to play with Johnny Winter?
No, I never did get on the stage with him ...he would come to the shows when we played.
Just had to ask about him...
Yeah, he is a fantastic guy and musician.
How did you get to play on John Lee Hooker’s album, Live at the Cafe A Go Go?
Yeah, well John Lee and Muddy and several of the other artists were all on the same label. This promotion came through and we did the album, with Muddy, Big Mama Thornton, T -Bone Walker, John Lee Hooker, Otis Spann, and several others -Big Joe Williams -were all there and we did a live CD with John Lee.
I wanted to ask about the Otis Spann Blues Is Where It’s At- how did you end up on that classic album?
Well, Spann liked my bass playing style and he felt it was appropriate for me to play on it. It was great.Otis is a very quiet guy, very easygoing but he got noisy on the keyboard...(laughs).
How did you do this group called The Soul Invaders?
That came about when I met a guitar player, from Chicago and played for Gloria Lynn and Wilson Pickett and all those guys. He decided that we would put a group together and we did called The Soul Invaders. We backed up a lot of Chicago acts.
Who were some of the ones that you backed up for?
Tyrone Davis, Junior Wills, occasionally A.C. Reead and lots of musicians. The Tempations, and The Spinners, Roberta Flack, just to name a few. It was fun.
So then you went on to play for Soul Train?
I had a group in California, but I was the associated producer of Soul Train from 1971- 75 with Don Cornelius. That was another thing that happened in Chicago with The Soul Invaders. Don was a disc jockey for WDON radio station in Chicago and they would put on some acts in the clubs in Chicago, and he would come out and spin records and have live music. Sometimes we would be the band doing the live music. So when he got ready to come to Los Angeles, I had moved there in 1969, and he came out in 1970 seeking a place to shoot the show. So he contaced me when he came out and we got together and decided that if he started the show in L.A. he would contact me and I would get a part in the show. So I immediately went to college to learn the fundamentals of television. By the time he was back to L.A. I had done my college work and had worked myself up to doing the show and got hired as the associate producer of the show. In 1976, I got to go on the presidential campaign with the Ford campaign. Jimmy Carter beat us out though, (laughs).
All the Spartanburg guys were backing Carter, like the Marshall Tucker guys.
That was one more incredible person, Jimmy Carter, he won my heart when he went to Tijuana and built all the houses in 110 days. I think, because in Tijuana everytime it rained hard in San Diego all that water would end up there and it was nothing but ditches and canyons and those people were living in cardboard walls and dirt floor houses. They would get washed away from time to time. He went down there and bulldozed it out put in new roads and 100 houses in 110 days. That was his Habitat For Humanity.
You came back to South Carolina in the 80’s?
Yeah, in 1979 we came back and I wanted to see how it felt here and we came home and stayed for six months at that time my Mom was in bad health and my brother was in Winston Salem and we have some property in Winston Salem that needed attention.
I went back to L.A. and stayed the rest of 1989 and 1990 and came home and started working for Belk, driving a truck, and met Max Hightower my harmonica player and he was hounding me to play. He is a diesel mechanic for UPS. Belk leased a truck from them and he worked at that truck lease division. We met there and he was playing some Muddy Waters and he asked me if I knew him, and I told him that I used to play bass for him. He researched it and then found out I played with him. He asked me into consider playing. I told him that if he would get the group together I would come in and fine tune from there. Max thought it would be easy to get a group together that could play well together and get along and it took him about 2 and a half years to pull four guys together. But it is magic. It is magic.
I saw your video clip on the computer and that was happening! Tell me some about this new album,Nothing To Prove...
I think it was incredible that we put it together in a short time, and as you know in the entertainment world if you are new and getting out there you can’t be loose. That is why the CD is so tight and there is no looseness. That is what you have to do. We have to leave the vocals out front and leave the music small, so that is how we ended up with it and I am happy how it turned out because on the radio charts we are number 24 now. We are out there with the big boys.
I see you recorded at my friend, Buddy Strong’s studio, he is a nice guy and also Rudy Blueshoes Wyatt is on the record... he plays the piano...?
Rudy was my guitar player in 1963-64.
I knew him as a piano player and then he came in the office one day with a slide in his pocket and started playing this guitar and I had no idea he could do that. (laughs) I wanted to ask you about the gas can guitar and how that came about?
In 1947, my brother decided he wanted to play guitar. We listened to Grand Ole Opry and Grandpa Jones was playing this guitar. We had piped in music and there was a store called James Robert Channels Market. He had a PA system in there and he ran one strand of wire all around the neighborhood like 3-4 miles in the neighborhood. He put a speaker on a rheostat and the only thing you could do is turn it up or turn it down. He ran the station from the supermarket and he had a microphone on there and could make announcements about what was on sale and all of that. My brother started listening to the Opry and he decided to make a guitar because we couldn’t affort one. He took on of my father’s gasoline cans and cut holes in it and put a neck on it and used string wire from the doors or windows or whereever he could get them from without my father realizing it. Then he made a guitar. About two years ago when we started playing I was sitting down with one of my older brothers, my brother by the way who started this was Leroy. Well, my brother and James and I were sitting down talking and he said hey, you remember that gasoline guitar that Leroy made, you should see if you can find it or get him to make one again. So what I did was put out word to everyone and find a can, one gallon can, and I found some at the Anderson Jockey Lot and I made one and put a pick up in it and we were running people out of town with that. That is how the gasoline can guitar came about!
What is coming up next for you?
They are filming tonight for PBS documentary on the life of Mac Arnold. Next week we are filming in Memphis, at the Handy Awards. Then we are going to Clarkesdale, Mississippi to Ground Zero and film there and then we are coming back to Memphis and fly to Charlotte, and then Charlotte to Charleston, drive from Charleston to Kiawah Island, play one hour in Kiawah and then drive back to Blackwood, South Carolina. That’s 1800 miles in one day.
Have you played at Ground Zero before?
Yeah, it’s great.
Have you met the owner, Morgan Freeman?
Not yet, but would love to have him narrate the documentary.
Did you see the blues documentary he did?
Yes, I do want him involved in narration and look forward to meeting him.
It would be perfect. Thanks Mac.
Thank you Michael. You need to come out to a gig and jam with us sometime.
It'll be an honor. Thanks buddy.
All photos taken at The Handlebar, Greenville, SC, by Michael Buffalo Smith