My friend Axel called from Germany the other day. When I told him I was going to be interviewing Mack Banks later in the week, he threw out a quote from one of Mack’s X-rated songs and asked me if I still had the album he gave me years ago. Axel and I met in Crawford in the early 80s, where country bluesman Big Joe Williams had come to spend his last years and where Mack ran a notorious roadside tavern called Mack’s Western Supper Club.
Axel loved the blues and had come to Mississippi to hang out with Joe.
Born in Crawford in 1903, Joe had taken to the road in his teens, eventually landing in St. Louis where he signed with Bluebird Records and in the 30s recorded two of his signature hits, “Baby, Please Don’t Go” and “Crawlin’ King Snake.” In the wake of the folk revival in the 60s, Joe played blues festivals, basement nightclubs in Europe and house parties in the Prairie.
Mack spent his formative years in Artesia, about eight miles up the road from Crawford. The youngest of 10 children, his mother played the pump organ in church and one of his sisters played Jimmy Davis songs on the guitar.
By the time he was in high school (Artesia High, Class of ’53) Mack had a Saturday morning radio show on WCBI radio, then located in the Gilmer Hotel in Columbus. Most days, he had to hitch-hike to work.
“We got all kinds of mail (requesting songs),” Mack said. “Folks wrote letters back then.”
On some of those Saturdays, station manager Jimmy Etherton would drive his young charge in his Packard to car dealerships where he would perform. The $5 Etherton would pay him was a lot of money in those days for a high school kid, says Mack.
It’s Friday afternoon and Mack Banks and I are kicked back in matching recliners. He’s telling stories and I’m writing as fast as I can. Mack lives and works out of a metal building with a brick façade at the end of a short street that is also home to an auto repair shop, a mini-warehouse, a chain-saw dealer and a church. We’re in a large room piled high with amps, speakers, racks of CDs and cassettes and kids’ toys. (Mack and his wife of 56 years, Anita, are raising two of their great grandchildren.)
In the 50s Mack achieved regional celebrity with several Rock-A-Billy hits, including “Be-Boppin’ Daddy,” “You’re So Dumb” and “Hound Dog” (no relation to the Big Mama Thornton/Elvis version). He toured the area with different country-music bands; his was The Drifting Troubadours. They played store grand openings on Saturdays (often with a hay wagon as a stage) and school fund raisers, many of which were organized by WCPC Radio, a 50,000 watt country music powerhouse in Houston, Mississippi.
During that time Mack played shows with Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. He remembers Cash agreeing to do a show for $50 in Cumberland. Cash got $25 and each of his two band members $12.50.
“Johnny had a ’52 Plymouth and the door on the driver’s side was beat up,” says Mack. “They all had to get out on the rider’s side.”
Later, after another mishap, both front doors were bashed in the Plymouth and the future Man in Black and his band mates had to climb into the back seat to exit the vehicle. By 1956 when they met at the Jimmie Rogers Festival, Cash was driving a ’54 Cadillac on which all the doors worked and getting $800 a show.
Banks remembers playing a barn dance in Montpelier for a man named Red. “We got all the door,” Banks remembers. “Men paid a dollar to get in; women got in free.”
Red made his money selling corn whiskey stored in a freezer.
Banks regrets never having played on the same bill with Elvis — the money wasn’t right the one time he had the opportunity to do so.
Elvis did one thing “that helped everybody who ever took a guitar out of a case,” says Banks. “He made guitar playing respectable.
“We used to be ashamed to walk down the street with a guitar,” said Banks. “Elvis made heroes out of hobos.”
In 1967 Mack took ownership of the Western Supper Club, a cinder-block building on Highway 45 Alternate at Crawford. Safe to say the place was at times raucous — the stage was protected by a chicken-wire fence. “Mack’s Place” was a favorite late-night destination for Mississippi State students who still wax nostalgic about it online.
During that period Mack produced a series of X-rated cassettes and CDs notable for their originality and, shall we say, rough-hewn lyrics. The most commercially successful of these — The DOT Sux — was a truck-stop sensation, earning its originator $150,000. Full disclosure: I took the cover shot for the CD, a smiling Mack in sunglasses and cowboy hat standing in front of a tractor-trailer on the lot of Waters Truck and Tractor. (I think I received a handful of CDs as my fee.)
The Supper Club burned down in 1994.
These days the church is a big part of Mack’s life. He regularly attends First Presbyterian in West Point.
“I always believed,” he says, “I just didn’t act like it.
“I feel like I need the Lord’s help in my daily walk,” he says.
That daily walk still includes music. Banks plays two Fridays a month at the Sparta Opry and still markets blues and rhythm and blues CDs to convenience stores. He’s considering an invitation to play a festival in New Orleans later this year.
“Mack before I go, would you mind signing this album?” I ask.
Mack’s picture, slightly askew, is on the cover. He looks to be about 30. He sits on a stool, balancing an acoustic guitar on his right knee. He’s wearing a white sports coat, a thin black tie with a tie clip, a black cowboy hat and dark cowboy boots. He’s looking at the camera, wearing a big smile — a be-boppin’ daddy.