Featured Interview – Mac Arnold

The laundry list of why he had given up playing the blues and was instead working a ‘straight job’ was a long one, but the A, B, C’s of it went something like this:

A. Musicians don’t want to rehearse;

B. If they do manage to show for rehearsals, they’re always late;

C. When they finally do show up for rehearsals or a gig, they bring whatever problems they are having at the time with them.

Add all that up and that’s the lion’s share of the reason that Dr. Mac Arnold – after having played with cats like Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, A.C. Reed and Little Milton Campbell – had turned his back on playing the blues and was driving a truck for a living in the 1990s.

But as the story ends up, that ‘self-retirement’ from the blues was just temporary.

The ever-persistent Max Hightower made sure of that.

“I was driving for Belk (Trucking) and Max Hightower was working for a company that Belk was leasing their trucks from. I would go there to fuel up and one day I was in the fuel line and had my stereo playing a James Cotton song. The guy on the fuel line said, ‘Hey, Mac. I like that blues, do you like the blues?’ I said, ‘Yeah, man, I used to play the blues.’ He said, ‘There’s a guy inside there (the shop) that likes the blues, too, and he blows a little harmonica. I’m sure he’d like to meet you,'” Arnold recently said. “Well, I didn’t have time that day, but a few days later I went back to fuel up again and I went inside. Max had an old boom box and was playing some Muddy Waters. As I was walking through the shop, I was singing along with the song on the boom box. When I got back to where Max was, he said, Hey, man, do you know who that guy (Muddy) is?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I used to play bass with him.’ He said, ‘Ahhh, man.’ It was like he didn’t believe me.”

That may have been the case at first.

However …

“A few weeks later, he called me up and said, ‘Man, I’ve been reading up on you and found out about you playing with Muddy and a bunch of different guys. You don’t need to be driving no truck; you need to be playing the blues.’ I told him all the reasons (listed above) why I had retired from music,” said Arnold. “Well, 10 years went on and every week or so, Max would call me up and get after me to play. I kept telling me I was done with music, but then one day he finally talked me into coming out and playing some music with him … after about 10 years.”

Thusly, after years out of the bright spotlights, Mac Arnold & Plate Full O’ Blues was born in 2006. Arnold plays bass, rhythm gas can guitar, slide gas can guitar (explained later) and sings. Hightower blows harp, plays keyboards, bass, guitar and sings. Austin Brashier plays guitar and sings. He was discovered by Arnold and Hightower one day when they were rehearsing in a storage facility and heard Brashier wringing some tasty blues licks out of his guitar a couple of units down the row.

“Yeah, that was the beginning of Mac Arnold & Plate Full O’ Blues. I always cooked every weekend and we would rehearse, most of the time on Sundays,” he said. “I’d cook, we’d eat, we’d tell stories and we’d play music. We had a Hell of a time around the house. This went on for a couple of years and then we finally decided that we were good enough to go out and play.”

Scotty Hawkins has been drumming with the group ever since their original drummer went on vacation (with a slew of gigs already on the books) and basically never came back.

“Scotty is one of the top drummers that I’ve ever known,” is how Arnold describes Hawkins.

The group recently returned from headlining the 10th edition of their annual Cornbread & Collard Greens Blues Festival in Key Largo, Florida.

“Folks came from all over the United States and some parts of Europe for the festival. I have a foundation called I Can Do Anything Foundation that’s for the preservation of music and arts in public schools. The Cornbread & Collard Greens Blues Festival is a fundraiser for the foundation,” explained Arnold. “We also do Blues in the Schools throughout the US and Europe. We create funds for the schools, instead of the school having to try and find money to hire us. First, I go to the school and do a 45-minute show for the students. Then I try and set up a concert for the school with the full band. We charge the public for a seat at the concert we do in the schools. Then in return, we donate the net profits back to the schools. I also collect instruments for the foundation and donate them to the school that needs an instrument for a specific student. Then the school donates that instrument to the student.”

It may have taken awhile, but when he was finally lured out of retirement, Arnold came all the way back. He easily could have been content to just play the back catalog of any of the numerous artists that he played with in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.

Instead, he has issued five albums – full of new, original material – under the Mac Arnold & Plate Full O’ Blues banner over the course of the past decade or so.

“Well, first of all, I want to influence children to not only play music, but to write their own material. That’s one reason why I still write my own songs. The record industry has become an independent business at this point in time,” he said. “Children and younger musicians need to know how this is done … how to write, arrange, compose and then play this music. It’s very important for me to be able to create new music – within the same vein that the traditional blues has always been in. I want to keep the essence of the blues in my new music.”

The 73-year-old Arnold – who was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Music from the University of South Carolina in 2014 – has never been one to spend a whole heck of a lot of time listening to people tell him what to do. He’s pretty much known where each path he takes will lead him and he’s never been shy about walking in the opposite direction from the rest of the pack when he felt like it. That goes a long way in helping to explain why Arnold has been giving away his latest album (ironically enough, titled Give It Away) as a free download through his Web site (www.macarnold.com).

“We figured that the more music we get out there in the street amongst the people, the more we’ll get noticed,” he said. “So, we decided to do the CD and then go out there and give it away for a while and see what happens. So far, it’s been a successful download.”

In today’s climate of uncertain retail sales of any given compact disc (in any genre of music), Arnold’s approach to his latest work is a brilliant stroke. With so many working blues bands dependent on club bookings to eke out a living, if the patrons of those clubs can get ahold of a disc for a limited amount of money (in this case, free), they may get exposed to an artist they might otherwise miss out on. Then, they start clamoring for that artist to play their town and a savvy club owner pays attention to the request and books the band. All-in-all, Arnold’s decision to give away Give It Away as a free download seems to be a win-win-win situation.

“I think that’s just what it is … a winning situation for everybody,” he said.

Another thing that helps to separate Arnold from a lot of other bluesmen – other than his ever-present cowboy hat – is his weapon of choice up on the bandstand. Sure, he doesn’t knock slinging a Fender or Gibson around his neck, but generally, Arnold prefers an ax that in some ways harkens back to his truck-driving days, and definitely goes back to his childhood – a guitar made out of a gas can.

He explains the origins of his gas can guitars.

“In 1946, one of my older brothers, named Leroy – unfortunately he passed away last June, 25 – made the first one. He was going to school and the teacher wanted him to bring in a toy or an instrument for show-and-tell. He decided he wanted to bring a guitar. Well, my father – I’m one of 13 siblings – was a cotton farmer and he really didn’t have the money to buy a guitar. Besides, he was a very highly-recognized deacon in the church and back in those days, they didn’t want any guitars in the house. They thought that was the devil’s instrument,” Arnold said. “In the fall of the year in 1946, my father came to Tampa, Florida to pick oranges. While he was gone, my brother took one of his gasoline cans and made a guitar. That thing stayed with the family for many, many years. About 15 or so years ago, one of my other brothers was talking about that guitar that we used to play, so I started looking for a gas can (to make another one). It took me a couple of years to find the kind of can I wanted … I had people looking all over South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee for one. About a year later, I was in a friend’s garage and there sat the kind of can I had been looking for. I started begging and then threatening him to get that can. He said, ‘No, man! That’s the can I keep the gas for my Lawnboy in.’ Well, finally, he decided to give it to me and I took it and made a guitar out of it. It took me several months to get it set-up so I could play it with the group. Right now, that guitar is in the McKissick Museum (on the campus of the University of South Carolina in Columbia). Meanwhile, I built a gas can slide guitar, also. I wanted something I could play slide on, so I took some hoe handles and a gas can and built a slide guitar. At this moment, my slide guitar is in the Upcountry History Museum in Greenville, South Carolina (at Furman University). When the Smithsonian (Institution) opens this summer, it will be on display there in Washington, D.C. But, that’s how the gas can guitars came about.”

Bass is the instrument that Arnold originally started out on and folks might be a bit taken back by just how short a time he’s been playing the six-string … or in this case, the three-string.

“Yeah, I started out playing bass and then moved over to guitar,” he said. “This year will mark my 64th year of playing bass. I’ve been playing guitar for about 15 years now.”

Ware Place, South Carolina is where Arnold was born and spent a good deal of his childhood years. He left the confines of his smallish town in the south for the bright lights of Chicago in the mid-1960s. A large part of the reason for that move was due to a very influential radio station broadcasting out of Nashville, Tennessee at that time.

“Back in the ’50s and ’60s, we used to listen to WLAC out of Nashville. Back then, it (WLAC) was basically a blues station. They played all the blues tunes and I found out that a large part of the musicians that I was listening to, lived in, or someplace around, Chicago,” he said. “So I decided to move to Chicago when I was 23 years old. Well, actually, I moved there when I was 22, but I didn’t feel comfortable there and I moved back home to South Carolina. Then, at 23, I moved back to Chicago.”

Feeling more ‘comfortable’ during his second stint in the Windy City, Arnold hopped on stage with everybody he could and eventually ended up with in the employ of the one-and-only Muddy Waters.

“The most important thing I learned from playing with Muddy was the way that he treated his musicians. He really cared about his musicians and he made sure they had everything they needed,” Arnold said. “He really treated his guys like family. He taught me how to respect other musicians on the stage. He taught me that if there are other musicians around where I’m playing and they want to get up on stage, to let them get up on stage … and that’s what I do.”

Arnold’s first real gig in Chicago was with A.C. Reed and it was through his work in the great saxophonist’s band that he came onto Muddy’s radar screen.

“I was running around to different clubs, watching them play, and A.C. needed a bass player. So I started playing bass with him. Then, Muddy always had all these guys out looking for musicians to travel with him and one of his guys asked me if I would like to come and rehearse with them. The following week, I went to Muddy’s house and was rehearsing with the guys in the basement, when Muddy came downstairs. He said, ‘Who are you, young man?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m Mac Arnold.’ He said, ‘Where you came from?’ I said, ‘Greenville, South Carolina.’ He said, ‘Oh, yeah … I think you might be able to play a little.’ I said, ‘I think so.’ Then he said, ‘After you finish rehearsing, I want to talk to you about traveling with us, because I like the way you play.’ So that led me to traveling all up and down the east coast and up and down the west coast with them. And my first actual gig with them was playing in London, England. I ended up playing a couple of years with those guys.”

Arnold can be heard playing bass with the band on Muddy Waters Authorized Bootleg: Live at the Fillmore Auditorium, recorded over the course of three nights in early November, 1966.

Those that may not be familiar with Mac Arnold’s work have still probably heard a snippet of the man’s bass playing without ever knowing who it was.

The bass line on “The Streetbeater” – off Quincy Jones’ 1973 album, You’ve Got It Bad Girl – better known as the theme song for Sanford and Son, is courtesy of Mac Arnold’s fingers.

“Yeah, I did video tape editing and audio tape editing for Quincy Jones and I played bass on that song. I enjoyed working with Quincy Jones. He’s a genius and a very-kind person,” Arnold said. “That came about by me being employed by the ABC Television Network in Los Angeles at the time. I was also doing Soul Train (from 1971-75) at the same time. Don Cornelius (host and producer of Soul Train) was kind of a stand-offish kind of guy. He didn’t mix and mingle too much. Back in Chicago in the late ’60s, I had a group called the Soul Invaders. We would back-up entertainers that Don would bring to town for fund-raisers for WVON radio station. I worked with Don quite a bit in Chicago. He did the pilot for Soul Train in about 1967 and once it was developed and got out there, it did well. He wanted to take it to Los Angeles. I asked him one day if he took the show out there to LA if I had an opportunity to be a part of the show. He said he didn’t see why not, so in 1969, I moved to Los Angeles and in 1971 he brought the show out there.”

If Arnold’s resume looks like it’s missing something, you’d better take a closer look, because it’s not.

Playing with the likes of Muddy, John Lee, Big Mama Thornton, Tyrone Davis, Little Milton, Albert King, Quincy Jones and B.B. King would be more than enough to cement a musician’s legacy. Working on larger-than-life television programs like Soul Train and Sanford & Son is the icing on the cake. And having an honorary doctorate in music … well, that’s a whole level unto itself.

But then there’s the little matter of the band that Arnold played with around his time in high school – J. Floyd & The Shamrocks. While that name may not garner much attention, the group’s one-time piano player should.

A young man by the name of James Brown.

“I had no idea (that he would turn out to be an iconic figure). All I knew was, this guy was wild and every chance he got, he would ride the Greyhound bus to Greenville and hang out with us the whole weekend and then go back home to Georgia late Sunday night or early Monday morning. This was in 1954 and 1955. In 1956, James did “Please, Please, Please” and I didn’t see him for 40 years after that,” laughed Arnold. “He forgot all about us … he was a mess!”

Visit Mac’s website at: www.macarnold.com

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