It’s not every day that a composer pens a hit song that is recognized for half a century, let alone a song that stands among the most requested bar band numbers of all time. Nonetheless, that’s precisely how things worked out for Bonny “Mack” Rice.
Born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1933, Mack Rice grew up with great affection for the “race music” of the 1940s and ’50s. According to a 2007 interview with Memphis’ The Commercial Appeal, Rice evinced no early interest in becoming an entertainer himself, but enjoyed listening to Charles Brown, T-Bone Walker, and Amos Milburn. Rice told interviewers that before his family moved to Detroit, a Clarksdale childhood friend by the name of Ike Turner tried unsuccessfully to teach him to play piano.
When Mack Rice was 17 years old, the family moved north to Detroit where Rice quickly changed his mind about music as an avocation. He started singing in a group called The Five Scalders and won several local talent contests. Rice was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Germany shortly after graduating from high school. After serving several years in the armed forces, Mack Rice returned to the family home in Detroit in 1955. It was then and there that Rice’s mother saw a classified ad looking for musicians in the local newspaper. Rice auditioned for and won a part in the band, The Falcons. Eddie Floyd and Wilson Pickett were bandmates until Pickett decided to go solo in 1963. As Rice told The Commercial Appeal, he’d written “a few things” with the Falcons and “had a few ideas” about songs. One of those songs wound up being a huge hit for former Falcons singer Wilson Pickett.
In 1966, former Falcons bandmate Eddie Floyd was touring with Stax session musician Steve Cropper in support of their new hit record, “Knock On Wood.” Cropper convinced Rice to write songs for singers on the Stax label, says Michigan’s WZZM 13. Although Mack Rice remained a Detroit resident for the rest of his life, he made the commute back and forth to Memphis from 1967 until Stax records closed their doors in the early 1980s. Today, the Museum of American Soul Music occupies the site where Stax Records once stood as “Soulsville.”
While working at Stax, Rice penned numerous hits, including “The Funky Penguin, Pt. 1” for Rufus Thomas, “Cadillac Assembly Line” for Albert King, “Respect Yourself” for the Staple Singers, and “Cheaper to Keep Her” for Johnny Taylor.
According to the Detroit News, the original title of the song that Rice is best known for was “Mustang Mama.” Ford’s sportiest sports car was turning heads when Rice’s friend Aretha Franklin told him she thought the song would work better with a woman’s name in lieu of “mama.” He changed the name to “Mustang Sally” and soul music history was born. Rice recorded his own version of the song on the Mercury/Blue Rock label, but it went nowhere.
“Mustang Sally” has been recorded by numerous artists, including the Young Rascals who included the song as the B side of their mega-hit, “Good Lovin’.”
Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time ranked Wilson Pickett’s cover of”Mustang Sally” at #441 in 2010, noting that the song nearly wound up on the floor of Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. In fact, the reel containing the freshly recorded number somehow flew off the machine and shattered. According to legend, studio recording engineer Tom Dowd was able to retrieve the tape and Pickett’s hit song was spared.
Scott Bomar of the Memphis-based R&B band the Bo-Keys remembered Mack Rice.
“I was completely in awe of him. He was like this mythical songwriting giant — he’d written ‘Mustang Sally’ and ‘Respect Yourself’ and all these songs that were lesser known but just as amazing like ‘Money Talks’ and ‘Tina the Go-Go Queen.’
“He was a real spiritual person. He had a real kind spirit, a very kind man and thoughtful human being. And that came through in his songs. When he saw human suffering or injustice it affected him and his way of working through it was to write a song about it. He was writing songs in an era when a song actually had the ability to change people’s hearts and minds.”
Rice family friend Pat Lewis made the announcement that the songwriter died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease at his home in Detroit on Monday night. Bonny “Mack” Rice was 82.
[Photo by Adrian Sainz/AP Images]