Local boy makes good at Blues Bash
CHARLESTON Post and Courier
Charleston South Carolina, February 12, 2004
By Jack Mccray
Of the Post and Courier Staff
Bluesman Wes Mackey was sent into the world by his father about 40 years ago. His first stop was Charleston. Now that he's gone as far east as Malaysia, as far north as Iceland as far west as British Columbia in Canada, he's heading back to Charleston. Mackey is one of the headliners at this year's 14th Annual Budweiser Lowcountry Blues Bash.He has a three-day run in the festival, starting today at 5 p.m. at the Mills House Hotel. But he's here to do more than perform.
Born and raised in Big State 61 years ago, Mackey has been, by his own description, up and down and all around and is ready to start the cycle over again. "Big State is a little area that goes under (the name of) Yemassee," Mackey said in a telephone interview from his home in Vancouver, British Columbia, last week. He grew up around the Combahee River. During the summers, he helped his preacher father, who was caretaker and guide at a fishing camp in Augusta.
Mackey took on the camp work full time after graduating from high school. "Then my father said, 'Son I don't want to see you go through what I went through. I put you through high school, but I can't send you to college, so go out into the world and seek your fortune. Get away from here.' "
On the way out of Augusta, Mackey came to Charleston to see his sister, Katie Mackey, who passed away about 20 years ago. His return for the funeral was the last time the bluesman was in South Carolina. It was in Augusta that Mackey became attracted to the blues. "I saw this guy playing the guitar, and I wanted to play it like this guy. He really played it. That's what I wanted to do, so I went out and got a guitar from a store in Augusta. I got the guitar on time (credit), a dollar a week. I kept it until 1984, when somebody stole it. "My first gig was in Augusta. It was a little juke joint, and I had a band called Guitar Wes and the Houserockers. We got 50 cents and a chicken sandwich."
Mackey learned the craft of being a professional musician in Augusta. "I started hanging out with a bunch of the old musicians in Augusta who used to play in bands. They took me under their wing. They were all retired from the old big bands. There was this Club Desoto on Ninth Street where they played a lot. These guys used to carry their horns wherever they went -- they could be going to the grocery store. It was a traditional thing. You never knew when a gig was going to pop up. Every afternoon at the Desoto there would be jam sessions. "They would tell me things like, 'No young blood, this is how it goes.' They taught me not only about music but about things I'm going to come across if I'm going to be a professional musician, stories about their life on the road. Those things have guided me,and they've kept me going."
Mackey caught on and gained road credentials before leaving Augusta. "I joined a bigger band in Augusta, the Rock and Roll Kings. I played a lot of clubs around Georgia, a lot at the University of Georgia. There, I had the opportunity to be in the company of some of the greats, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, some of those old singing groups." His music over the years has become polished but stayed down to earth, and he has become eclectic in his approach. "I play all kinds," he said. "You have to make the music fit the venue. I've played country, R&B, and some jazz, but it all comes out sounding like the blues."
Mackey had an epiphany while in Charleston the first time. "I wanted to go north to New York, but on the way, I stopped in Charleston to spend some time with my sister. I ended up staying there two or three months, so I started playing the blues in Charleston. There was a guy who played Hammond organ, King Payne, I played with. "Then I met this family, Jackson I believe their name was, who owned a flower shop on Spring Street. They had a daughter named Obie, I think, who wasn't well. She was 14 and had no inspiration in life. I taught her music and that seemed to give her the power to do things in life. She started playing really well, going to school, things like that. It was just like she woke up.
"This is something that has kept me going through the dark periods. I was used as an instrument." He thought it was spiritual. "My father was a preacher, and I grew up in the church." Mackey got out of the music business a few years ago but returned. He had become disenchanted. The grind of the lifestyle caught up to him. "I just got tired of performing on stage," he said.
"I'm planning my next album, and I had to come back home and touch base before I could put out a real album. When I'm done in Charleston, I'm going down there (Big State) on the riverbank. Mackey sought out the Charleston gig. "I have a buddy, he was down there one time, he played the festival. He said you should check that out ... so I called Gary."
Gary is festival producer Gary Erwin, who said in an interview later last week that the buddy Mackey was talking about is Kenny "Blues Boss" Wayne, who played at the festival in 1999 and 2000. Erwin gave this account of how he came to hire Mackey.
"My wife and I were in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on vacation, just traveling around. I looked in the English language weekly newspaper and found out about a club called Mississippi Slim's. There was a guy playing the club named Wes Mackey. I keep journals when I travel, ticket stubs, things like that. I found the press clipping from 1999. I've got a memory for names, so I stored it in my memory. "When Wes and I hooked up early last fall, I was fascinated by his story. Then I said, 'That's the guy I heard in Malaysia.' ... He had also played a jazz club in Hong Kong I visited, and he's played the Maxwell Cafe in Paris, the same club my band (Shrimp City Slim) works in Paris." Today's show marks Mackey's coming full circle in terms of his art and his life.