The Legend Of Lightning Mac|
(Soapbox Column #14)
Bass Player Magazine
Published April, 2002
It doesn't happen often, but when I sat down to write this month's column for Bass Player, I drew a total blank. Nothing came to mind - zero, nada, zip. So I called my friend and musical partner-in-crime Mike Keneally and asked him for suggestions. After all, Mike's a walking encyclopedia of music, and has probably forgotten about more records than I've ever heard of. His idea startled me.
"Why don't you write about Ansford McQuarters?"
Who, I asked?
"What," he said, stunned, "you don't know Ansford 'Lightning' McQuarters? The best bassist no one's ever heard of?"
"Uh, no...how did you hear about him?"
"I heard from the guys in Zappa's 1988 touring band that Frank auditioned him back in 1980. That he sightread 'The Black Page' in one pass-and that he was the one who added the melody to it. On the spot! Are you sure you never heard of him?"
"If he was so great," I asked, "how come he didn't get the gig?"
"He disappeared after the audition. They said he went back to Florida or something. You should look into him."
I thanked Mike and said I would. Ansford "Lightning" McQuarters? How come I'd never heard of this guy? I made it my mission to find out who he was.
Back to Florida. Maybe someone at The University of Miami would know about him. Jaco went there, and it was a heavy scene back then, right? I called around and eventually got someone on the phone, an older sounding man who recognized the name. "You talkin' about Lightning Mac? Man, he was the baddest cat around. Back in '73, he could play Charlie Parker heads on his bass with his eyes closed. He was the one who ripped those frets off of Jaco's bass, showed him all those harmonics before Mac took off for New York City in a hurry - wait a minute, who are you?"
"My name's Bryan Beller, I'm a columnist for Bass Player--"
The line went dead. This was getting interesting. Now I had to know more. I got on a plane and headed for the east coast, chasing a ghost named Ansford McQuarters.
* * * * *
It took a few days of networking the New York City scene, but I finally found someone who knew what I was talking about. A doorman at a famous jazz club took me aside and spoke in a hushed, reverent tone - on condition of anonymity.
"Ansford 'Lightning' McQuarters. They called him 'Hands of Lightning'. He could play faster than anybody alive, period-even the horn players. Word was he used to practice sixteenth note scales at 250 beats per minute. He had this instrument that no one had ever seen before, had six strings on it. This was back in the seventies, you know? He was slapping and popping on it, playing chords, comping jazz changes, playing the melodies on the heads, everything. But the cats didn't dig where he was coming from, and they chased him out of town. They just weren't ready for that sort of thing. I heard a rumor that he showed Anthony Jackson how to play a six-string...anyway, that's what I heard."
"Are there any recordings? Any pictures of him? Anything at all?" I pleaded. "I've got to hear this guy play! I don't even know what he looks like!"
"I think you're in for a tough ride, son. He was really strict about people not taping the shows, and especially about pictures. Kind of a weird guy, honestly. It was like he was afraid of being known. I can tell you that he had an odd look to him. Almost foreign, but not really."
"Where's he from? Someone has got to know more about him."
The doorman looked around, then whispered into my ear. "Detroit. That's what I heard. Hitsville. You know what I mean?"
* * * * *
Detroit was a big strikeout. I went to every club I could find, asked every bartender, gave my cell phone number to every doorman, booking agent and musician over the age of forty-no one had ever heard of Ansford "Lightning" McQuarters. I thought I saw a moment of recall on the faces of some of the folks I asked, but they quickly changed their attitudes and, to a man, said, "Never heard of him." I was about to give up and go home when my cell phone rang.
"You Bryan Beller? The guy who's lookin' for Lightnin' Mac?"
"Yes, yes! Who are you?"
A heavy breath. "That's not important. You just need to know two things. One, there ain't no tapes of him because he wouldn't record for nobody. And two, because of that, he met a guy named Jamerson, and passed along what he knew so people could hear it."
"This is ridiculous!" I shouted, exasperated. "You're telling me he taught James Jamerson how to play bass?"
"That's what I said. You got a hearin' problem?"
"No, but I've already heard that he showed Anthony Jackson how to play six-string, Jaco how to play fretless, that he wrote melodies for Zappa - and now he invented the Motown bass sound? What's next-he showed Leo Fender how to make a P-Bass? And why has no one ever heard of this guy? Where the hell is he from? What's with all the mystery?!"
"You go down to Pecks Mill, West Virginia," the man said quietly, "and you'll find out." Then he hung up.
* * * * *
Pecks Mill was a town of maybe 1,000 people, hidden away in the mountains of Appalachia. One road in, one road out, no stoplights, one general store. It didn't take long to find someone who pointed me in the right direction. There was a house, up an unpaved road, where an old lady named Annie lived. Annie McQuarters. She was well over sixty, wrapped in blankets and sitting outside on the porch, as if she was waiting for me.
"You're not from around here, are you?"
"No, ma'am. Are you Annie McQuarters?"
She smiled. "Yes, but you're not here to see me, are you? You're here to ask about my son, Ansford."
"Yes ma'am. It's the strangest thing. Some people around the country think he's the best bass player that ever lived, but no one wants to talk about him. I've never seen a picture of him or heard so much as a tape of him playing. Can you please help me?"
She took me inside and showed me the only picture she had of him. He was tall, gangly, with tremendous hands and feet. Short, scraggly hair, wild eyes. He was half-Irish, a quarter black and a quarter American Indian, she said. I couldn't take the picture with me - it was her only one. According to her, his uncle was the best banjo player in the state, but Ansford wouldn't take to it. Didn't have the talent.
"Then, one day, back around '66, he went out to meet someone, and came back with that bass in his hands." Her eyes lit up as she spoke. "And he could play the devil out of it. But he never was the same after that. He rushed out in a huff one day and never came home again. He did send me this."
It was an old cassette tape, labeled Ansford McQuarters, 4/1/84. "Have you ever listened to it, ma'am?"
"Once," she said, "and it was the most beautiful music I ever heard."
I thanked her and ran out to the car, my mind racing. No pictures. No recordings. Didn't have the talent. Went out to meet someone...came back...and could play the devil out of it.
My rental car didn't have a tape player, so I raced back to the nearest city and bought a cassette Walkman. I slammed the tape into the player...and it was blank.
* * * * *
I returned home, exhilarated and frustrated, but with a story in my head that I knew needed to be told. Now you know what I know. That tape must have come from somewhere. All those people couldn't talk because of...well, I'm not sure I even want to say it. The music - and the answer to the mystery - of Ansford "Lightning" McQuarters, original pioneer of the bass guitar, teacher to the masters of the instrument, is out there. Waiting to be discovered.
Maybe even by you.
Reprinted with permission from the April, 2002 issue of BASS PLAYER. For subscription information, please visit http://www.bassplayer.com.