Going for gold!
November 6, 1977, Berliner Jazz Tage: ”First on the scene was Melvin ’Harmonica’ Hinds and guitarist William ’Bom-Bay’ Carter. The duo shared vocals in two fine songs. A promising start of the concert. What followed would prove to be the highlight of the concert. Hinds / Carter were joined by William ’Dead Eye’ Norris, guitar, Lurrie Bell, rhythm guitar, Joe Harrington, bass, and Larry Taylor, drums. Hinds started with a SWINGING Little Walter song, Crazy Mixed Up World. Then followed a series of wonderful slow blues, Bom-Bay started with a B. B. King-influenced thing, which he performed with great authority. Dead Eye followed doing As the years go passing by, The thrill is gone / I’ll Play the Blues for You (medley) and Somebody Loan Me A Dime, relaxed and without fuss but with superb vocals and guitar. He won the audience’s heart completely and stole the show from the other…. ”(quotation from Jefferson No. 39)
Autumn 2011: Ecko Records in Memphis released their first CD with Sonny Mack. All songswritten by William Norris. I asked Ecko to check if this really could be our man from Berlin. Yes, Sonny Mack = William Norris!
The time in between (1977-2011): N-O-T-H-I-N-G. At any rate, nothing I noticed or heard about. But now he is in Memphis, so when Holger Hallbäck and I was in Memphis in January 2012 William Norris, aka Sonny Mack came to Ecko studio for an interview. It was a properly dressed, but – well, how do you put it – a weather-beaten man who appeared. It soon became clear that this was one that had had many bumps in life. But who had the power each time to rise again.
William Norris was born in Jackson, Mississippi, October 12, 1951, but already in 1954 the family moved to Chicago.
“When I got to Chicago, I got into some guys, and after awhile they started calling me ´Dead Eye´, because at that time I had what they called a ´lazy eye´. And the landlord started to call me ´Dead Eye´, and that name stuck for years and years and years. Matter of fact, in Chicago they still call me Dead Eye”
William was born into a musical family, where most – parents, cousins and uncles – played. In the early teenage years, he was involved in the church choir and he got his first guitar 14 years old. An uncle knew the Koko Taylor guitarist Leo, and bought a Fender Jazzmaster from him, which William practiced on. In high school Williams learned notes and he played trumpet in the school band. In addition, he learned tenor sax, bass, drums, organ and piano.
”I always loved the blues, my mother she loved the blues. She sang a song by Brook Benton called Kiddio”
Sonny, as we call him from now on, burst into song:
a-won’tcha say yes?, don’tcha say no. Make me feel good, kiddio ”. My mother loved it so much, we called her ’kiddie’. My dad’s name, it’s Roosevelt, we called him ’Shorty’. He’s a harmonica player. So, you know, the blues is in my blood. I just love the blues. That’s who I am. I’m a blues man.
When Sonny was seventeen, life began to mess and he ended up in jail for three years.
“I’ve got my guitar playing together. Had nothing but time!”
In Cook County Jail, he met ”the mellow blues genius”, West Coast-influenced, Fenton Robinson, who was arrested for (unintentionally) involuntary manslaughter in a car accident. Sonny was transferred to the prison in Pontiac where he met Emmett ”Maestro” Sanders, another Koko Taylor guitarist, who taught him some of his licks. In December 1971, Sonny had served his sentence and started playing in the singer Jesse Anderson’s band. Through Anderson, he met Bobby Rush.
“Bobby saw me, and he came to my mother, told her he wanted me to play gigs with him. So she gave him permission, ’Take care of my son.’ So we went to Wisconsin two nights after that. And I played with him again”
But it was always a short-term commitment, and say the Chicago Musician Sonny not worked with; Junior Wells, Buddy and Phil Guy, Arelean Brown, Lee Shot Williams, McKinley Mitchell, drummer Robert Covington, just to name a few.
”I played guitar with McKinley Mitchell. Magical stuff. ”And bursts out in ‘We’re running to the end of a rainbow”
Photo: Hans Ekestang
Harmonica player Little Mack Simmons came to be as a father and mentor to Sonny and it was their friendship that indirectly brought Sonny to Berlin as a member of the project The New Generation of Chicago Blues in 1977.
“Willie Dixon (and Jim and Amy O’Neal) picked me from my association with Little Mack Simmons. Because during that time I was with Mack Simmons, we were like father and son, So when he (Dixon) had the idea of ”The Sons of the Blues,” I was chosen as Mack Simmons’ son. Of course everybody knew Mack was not my dad. But I called him Pop and he called me son.”
Other sons in this package included Lurrie Bell, Larry Taylor (son of Eddie Taylor), Garland Whitside (son of Clifton James).
So what happened after his return from Europe? Not much apparently – although Sonny claims he had a lot of gigs, ”It was like a springboard for a lot of us.” But no recordings or major events to tell. However, what is clear is that it was a drug-related time that followed.
”Oh, I look at the pictures in (äldre nummer av) Living Blues of them old times. I´m so glad, I´ve survived. I´ve been through all the things a musician go through. With the drugs, with the womens, the nightlife, the life of a musician. I went through all this stuff. I survived! It´s not (by) me. It´s (through) people that loves music, that cared about me. They helped me to survive.”
In the mid-1980s, Sonny worked with Little Johnny Christian, the excellent singer and former The Chicago Playboys, who died a premature death. Christian played at the SBA’s annual meeting in Örebro 1990th
“I did some things with Johnny Christian. As a matter of fact, Johnny Christian and I were like brothers-in-law. He introduced me to his wife´s sister, and we got a child together. Sings “If you got to love somebody, baby, please let it be me”. He and I did that (song) together in his house. Me, Johnny Christian, and Avery Brady (the band´s bass player). I´m probably on some of his stuff (recordings). Probably so. Because he had Chico Banks playing with him. You see, this was during the time, when I was caught in this drug stuff. So I was working with Johnny, and away (from him), and then (back) with Johnny. But before he did his first record, I was with him, Johnny Christian & The Chicago Playboys”
The song Luv ’Somebody was released on a Leric single and is now available on a Delmark cd: Jimmy Dawkins: The Leric story. Different discographies agree that Luv ’Somebody was produced in 1985 by Dawkins / Fred Watkins / William Norris, but disagree about guitarists, a discography has Michael Coleman and Norris; while the Delmark record says Vance Kelly as the sole guitarist.
Around 1989 Sonny spent a few years in Champaign, Illinois. Now it was time to leave ”Dead Eye” behind him (a ”lazy eye” he was not anymore) and he took the name Sonny Mack after an aunt, Roberta McPhearson. Together with Rico McFarland, guitarist with Little Milton and others, they started a band wittily enough called The Mack II Band. Rico is out of the picture long ago and Memphis is the home now, but The Mack II Band consists.
“I moved to Memphis from Chicago in October 1991. When I got here, all that I brought with me was a bag of a few pieces of clothes and my guitar. I had a Gibson 3-45. That’s all I had. By December of 1991 I had the top band in Memphis, the top blues band”
Sonny makes no secrets of his many long ”trips” of prison. For 15 years he played very little. He will return to how happy he is that he left it behind.
I´ve been blessed, that I have come out of that. Like I said, I´ve had people that cared about me. I did a lot of things back then, that I´m not proud of. The people that I hurt were the people (most) close to me. They´ve forgiven me for it, you know. Welcomed me with open arms. Yeah, I play in my church, True Faith Baptist Church, Southern & Rozelle, right on the corner.
In 2000, Sonny was hit by a heavy blow. He had converted his parents two cars garage into a music studio and one night when he went to the studio after a gig to rest, he woke up and the studio was in flames. An electrical element had fallen over and ignited a carpet.
“Everything´s on fire. And, you know, that´s when I returned to drugs, because I lost everything I had, drums, guitars, amplifiers, my clothes. Everything burned up in that fire. My dad had an insurance for the construction. The fire department ruled it was an accidental fire, and they gave my dad 5000 dollars. But I had way more than that in there. Like I said, I started to feeling depressed and next thing I know, I had to find someone to get me some drugs”
It took five years to recover from the blow. Then Sonny started The Mack II Band again, still with John ”Mo Blues” Moore, the cousin of the Hill Country bluesman Junior Kimbrough, on base from the very first time in Memphis.
How come when Sonny ended up on Ecko Records? Yes, partly by Lee Shot Williams, who was on Ecko, and Sonny wrote some songs to. And through an acquaintance, William Eaton, who had contacts with Ecko and who had a son with a recording studio. John Ward, Ecko, said, ”All right, record a demo, and let’s see” Said and done, and John was happy with the result. Sadly the relation between Sonny and Eaton stranded and Sonny had to record everything again with his own equipment in a home studio. The new recordings were then used as the basis for various adds and remixes of the Ecko studio, and the result was the CD Going For Gold with 14 original songs by Sonny.
”Ecko is a great company. People don´t understand that… I´ve been in the business a long, long, long, long time, and I don´t know all of it, but I know enough of it, to know that you got to put something into it, to get something out (of it). The record company has to recoup the money they put into recording you, recording time, musicians, background, all that kind of stuff. So I told John, I ain´t asking for no money. I don´t want nothing from you. John got the publishing (rights), and that was our agreement. He owns the masters. And he get my music played. He do that. He and Larry (Chambers; Eckos promotionman) do a great job. They get my music played everywhere. On the southern soul radio, yeah, and the blues stations. It turned out great for me.”
Photo: Tommy Löfgren
Going For Gold has received good reviews. It’s a varied album, with most songs in southern soul-style, but also a couple of blues shuffles, a mandatory line dance song, and even a song that could have been taken from the dance floor of one ferries between Sweden and Finland. We ask how he gets ideas for his songs.
“Oh, from personal experiences. For instance, I was at a store the other day buying some outfit, shoes and stuff. The lady I was talking with, I said, have you ever heard my music? She said: ’What’s your name?’. My name is Sonny Mack. Have you ever heard a song I Only Get Paid, When I Get Laid? She said: ”Yeah, that’s right.” My wife was with me. Is not that right? I only get laid, when I get paid. And the lady behind the counter, she said: ”Yeah, that’s right. If you is not get nothing, do not ask for nothing. So I’m writing a song about that. (If you is not …) ’Cause a lot of the music, the southern soul Music that they are doing now is about six. Sex sell. I’m doing some straight blues, some really good straight blues music too, blues, soul, That I’m doing. And John wants to go live with my real band. Most of the southern soul stuff are done on the keyboard. We gonna do my blues music live. ”—” The blues nowadays is not like the blues back then. Blues is like being pushed in the back by the rap industry. Jimmy Dawkins, Eddie King, they were all my friends in Chicago. I’ll tell you about someone else who was different; Fenton Robinson. He played blues, but it was jazzy. He starts singing again: Somebody loan me dime, I’ve got to call my used to be”.
Sonny project right now is to play this blues recordc with the Mack II Band. And to do charity gigs for retirees. I got some things I´m workin´ on, that I (will) give back to the community some free things, like I´m gonna do for retirement homes, recovery homes, and stuff like that. For older people. Go play for them. They can´t get out. A lot of them would like to have some live entertainment. My wife, her name is Robbie, and she´s the director of nursing at a place called Southaven Community Center. She said, I could bring my piano player down there. There´ll be no peace in my home if I don´t do it, ha-ha. I said, I´m gonna do it.
Text: Tommy Löfgren. Photo Black&White: Hans Ekestang, Other photos: Ecko Records or Tommy Löfgren