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"Mustang Sally" at 45 (Interview) – Sir Mack Rice and Spooner Oldham Tell The Story
Bruce Springsteen surprised fans in 2010 when he joined local band Timepiece at a Farmingdale, New Jersey club for a rousing rendition of Wilson Pickett’s Mustang Sally.
Not that Bruce covering that song should be any great surprise: In the history of music has there been another song played more often by more bands (at least in bars) than “that Mustang Sally song?” Probably not.
2012 marks the 45th anniversary of the release of The Wicked Pickett’s classic, so Rock Cellar Magazine tracked down a couple of the musicians who helped make Mustang Sally a classic – Sir Mack Rice and Spooner Oldham – to get them to talk about its roots and its lasting legacy.
Though Mustang Sally is closely identified with Pickett, who died in 2006, the iconic tune about the Ford pony car was written and first recorded in 1965 by singer-songwriter Rice – a Detroit-based R&B stylist who also wrote Johnnie Taylor’s Cheaper to Keep Her and the Staple Singers’ Respect Yourself. And he had a little help from a certain Aretha Franklin.
Pickett recorded Mustang Sally at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals in ’67, with producer Rick Hall and engineer Tom Dowd at the controls. He was backed by Memphis guitarist Chips Moman and FAME regulars Roger Hawkins on drums, guitarist Jimmy Johnson, bassist Tommy Cogbill, and keyboardist Dewey “Spooner” Oldham. FAME’s studio musicians became known as “The Swampers,” immortalized by their name-check in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama.
Rice and Oldham talked about how this scorching track – which began as a nursery rhyme and was formerly titled Mustang Mama – became one of Pickett’s signature tunes. The story begins during the doo-wop era, when Rice sang baritone as a member of the Falcons, which featured lead singer Joe Stubbs, bass man Willie Schofield and tenor Eddie Floyd, who later wrote and recorded Knock on Wood.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Tell us about working with Wilson Pickett in the Falcons.
Sir Mack Rice: He was discovered by one of my guys, Willie Schofield – on the East Side of Detroit. Schofield heard this guy singin’ on the second floor as Scho was walkin’ down the alleyway, back-porch singin’ and Scho said, “Man, I got the right man.” “What do you mean?” He said, “I got a singer for us, man, a lead singer that you’re gonna love.” I’m from Mississippi myself and I loved that kind of singing.
So we brought Pickett down to our studio to audition him and after he sung a song I looked at Schofield and Schofield looked at me and said, “That’s him, that’s the one.”
[Rice said that the idea for what was originally titled “Mustang Mama” came about while visiting singer Della Reese and her drummer/musical director Calvin “Eagle Eye” Shields. Rice had been tipped off that Reese planned to buy Shields a new Lincoln for his birthday. During a drive with Shields, Rice let the information slip.]
RCM: How did you first get the idea to write about a Ford Mustang?
MR: One day we were riding, smokin’ some weed – me and her old man – and he was always talking about the Mustang car. “What is the Mustang?” I’ve never heard of it. Ford had just come out with it – maybe about a month.
He looked over at this poster and said, “Hey, that’s the Mustang!” I said, “Where?” He said, “Look up there, man, on that poster there.” I said, “Oh shit, man, that car there? No no no, it’s too little for me!” You know, we’re used to driving big cars in Detroit – we drive Cadillacs and Lincolns and shit. Benzs and shit. But I said, “Man, that little shit? What are you gonna do with it – you’re gonna ride in it by yourself?” (Laughs)
He just talked on and on about the Mustang, every time he turned around it was about the Mustang: “Jeez, I love it man” he said.
Back in Detroit, Rice decided to write a song about Ford’s new compact. Curiously, the tale of a fast car and love gone wrong was based on a nursery rhyme Rice had heard as a child growing up in Mississippi: “Little Sally Walker.”
Little Sally Walker/Sittin’ in a saucer
Weepin’ and a-cryin’/For a cool drink of water
Rise Sally rise/Wipe your weepin’ eyes
MR: Ted White, a friend of mine in Detroit, he was married to Aretha [Franklin]. I played it for him – just a demo, me and the guitar. He said, “Man, why don’t you go over to Aretha’s and let her put a little music on that for you – she’ll think of something.” I said, “Cool.” And I went over to Aretha’s and I started singin.’ I get to the part that says, “Rise Sally rise, Rise Sally rise.” She was saying, “You know Mack, that little part in there you do, you should change that up.” I said, “What’s wrong?”
Aretha said, “Mack, what were you saying, ‘Rise Sally rise?” I said, “Yeah, ‘Rise Sally rise, Wipe your weepin’ eyes.’” She said, “Why don’t you put on the thing, ‘Ride Sally ride,’ R-I-D-E.” I said, “Cool.” You know, I wasn’t that knocked out on that myself. I said, “Cool, cool.” So when Aretha put that little piano thing on it, it all started coming together.
[And Aretha had one last suggestion: Change the title from “Mustang Mama” to “Mustang Sally.” It stuck.]
MR: We got a good friend of mine named Andre Williams – he was a big deal around here – to produce it for me. Andre was the one that named me “Sir” Mack Rice.
RCM: Why did he give you that name?
MR: I guess ‘cause I kinda had a little more spirit. I don’t know where Andre got that from but it worked. It made your record jump! (Laughs.) I went to do a show for Martha Jean [Detroit DJ Martha Jean “The Queen” Steinberg], and she said, “Oh, here come ol’ Mack Rice. Uh-huh. He used be that plain ol’ Mack Rice, now he’s Sir Mack Rice.”
RCM: You’ve written a number of songs that have become hits. Do you have a process for writing?
MR: I might start in the car. I might start in the shower or the bathroom. I might start out of nowhere. Then I linger with it a little bit in my mind. We may be driving down the street or something, I say, “Well, let me stop and put this down, I think this might be one here.”
RCM: Was Mustang Sally started that same way and then finished in the studio?
MR: Yeah, it started the same way but then when you get the band to cut it, it elevates. The way I had it was probably amateurish, and then once you get that band in there, and all those good musicians get together, the bass player, the guitar players, start adding their little bit on, it starts to elevate it to a real, live record. If you’re blessed, if you’re lucky, it blows up to a live record.
RCM: Tell us about Wilson Pickett – about how he first heard the song.
MR: A promotion man from New York at the Apollo Theater called me and asked me if I would do a show for them. Clyde McPhatter was supposed to be the headliner. Clyde – something happened – he got sick or high, drunk, whatever. So they told me that they needed me, if I could come to New York and take over that spot for Clyde ’cause he wasn’t able to make it. I said, “OK, I’ll come up there, man. But I got a buddy up there now named Wilson Pickett – he would be the one to headline that show, I know where he’s stayin’.” So I went and told Pickett about it, he liked the idea, so we went in there and Pickett took Clyde’s place. And the show came off.
[By watching Rice perform at the Apollo, Pickett learned “Mustang Sally.” Pickett told Rice that he wanted to record the song, though the songwriter didn’t believe him. But In 1966, Pickett went to FAME Studios to record “Mustang Sally.” Spooner Oldham says that Rice’s version was played as a guide for the Swampers at FAME.]
Spooner Oldham: I heard the song for the first time and I remember I didn’t hear any keyboards on the recording. So I’m sittin’ there with the organ, on the stool, and I’m thinking, “I really want to play today, and I’ll have to create a part if I want to play.” So I’m thinking, well, “I wonder what it would sound like if I pretended I was a Harley Davidson motorcycle riding through the studio?” That’s sort of what I went after and what happened.
RCM: How did you guys typically like to work?
SO: What usually worked for me is you hear a song, you write a chord chart if you need to, or don’t want to memorize it, and then you start playin’. Singin’ and playin’. We don’t do any warm-ups, we don’t do any talkin.’ Just start playin’ music.
RCM: So Pickett is in the studio with you when you’re doing that?
SO: Yes, he was singin’ live with the band. He was highly energetic, doing his thing really well. He was exciting. Never a dull moment.
RCM: You remember anything specific about the Mustang Sally session?
SO: There’s one thing that happened sort of extraordinary on that recording. Usually the band, when they hear a good take, they know it, and everybody knows it, and in this case, we knew we had a good take. And everybody just sort of stood up and started to the control room where the better speakers were, to hear it back. We all followed upstairs and we got just a roomful of people in there.
So Tom Dowd, I think, was sitting at the tape machine and was gonna play it. And when it started rewinding, the metal capstan that holds the tape in place just flew off – and little splinters of tape went flying across the room! So we just automatically bent over and started pickin’ up little pieces of tape, and Wilson Pickett is sort of cursing, “We ruined my master!” and so forth…
Well, Tom Dowd, we put him all of these 30 or 40 pieces of tape – half inch, quarter inch – just little pieces, on the console. And he said, “OK, you all take a break, maybe 30 minutes.” So we did, and when we came back he had spliced it all together and played it back for us. It was really bizarre – here were pieces all over the floor! It was salvaged in time, but that was a spooky moment.
RCM: How many different takes did you play before you said, “OK, we got it now?”
SO: I’m not sure, but not over three.
RCM: Why do you believe Mustang Sally has lasted so long?
SO: For those who like a dance beat – it’s got that, it’s got that excitement. It’s got cars in it. It’s got the teen element and the grown-up element. Luckily I played on so many records that have become durable. And that was my goal in the first place – to try to be a part of some timeless recordings. Great songs come along seldom. But they’re the ones that make the timeless recordings.
RCM: Sir Mack – you’ve said you attribute the success to the singer – Wilson Pickett – and not the song, right? That he gave it that magic?
MR: He just come up from Mississippi, come out the country. All the music you hear down there is blues or gospel, one of the two – wasn’t no fancy singin’. It was just low-down, get-down, dragged music. That Ray Charles sound, you know what I’m sayin’? Just get down and just drag the blues all over the highway!
RCM: What did you think of the Wilson Pickett version when you first heard it?
MR: Loved it, man, loved it! I threw mine out the window! I loved Pickett. Pickett did what I wanted to do, but I didn’t have the voice like Pickett to do that. But that’s what I wanted to do to the song. Pickett’s version, he came in there, got down. That’s what made Mustang Sally what it is.
Sir Mack Rice performing Mustang Sally:
Sir Mack Rice continues to perform and thrill audiences around the world. To book this prolific R&B legend, visit Black Kettle Productions by clicking HERE.