Mack Vickery left the building almost a decade ago, passing away from a heart attack in December of 2004. While his name isn’t widely known among music fans, the list of artists that recorded his material would make any writer proud. George Jones, Johnny Cash, George Strait, Willie Nelson, Lefty Frizzell, Jerry Lee Lewis, Waylon Jennings, and John Anderson all sang Vickery compositions. He is also responsible for one of the kitschiest albums in pop music history.
Vickery’s mother passed away before he started grade school and his father moved the family often. From the brief biographical information available, one can conclude that the family was poor and that Vickery was drawn to music at an early age. When he was 19, he found himself in the legendary Sun Studio in Memphis, recording three rockabilly numbers. Sam Phillips correctly did not find them suitable for release. (A teenage Vickery didn’t sound like a poor man’s Elvis; he sounded like a bankrupt Elvis). Subsequent recordings for small labels in the ‘60s found no greater success. During the ‘60s, he started performing with another failed singer, Hollis Champion, who developed a new act under the name Elmer Fudpucker. Fudpucker performed obscene material with truck driving themes and the two men spent a decade performing in small clubs and military basis and honky tonks. (Mr. Champion maintains a website and is still available for performances as Elmer Fudpucker. There are 17 members in his official fan club. The world is a stranger place than we ever imagine it to be.)
In 1968, Vickery found his first success on the country charts. He co-wrote “She Went a Little Bit Farther” with Merle Kilgore and Faron Young’s version went to #14 on the country charts. (A young Hank Williams, Jr., who just happened to be managed by Merle Kilgore, would later cover it). However, Vickery’s nascent songwriting success did not squelch his desire to perform. In 1970, he found himself having a few drinks with the female warden at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Alabama. (Most stories about Vickery involve a few drinks). Charming the warden lead to the album Mack Vickery Live! at the Alabama Women’s Prison, which should have gone double platinum solely based on the album cover. Vickery stood in front of a jail cell with a guitar slung over his shoulder like a rockabilly stud, while four female prisoners looked suitably attentive in prison dresses. If bad taste is timeless, this album is eternal.
The ‘70s would bring more songwriting success. A young Tanya Tucker cut “Jamestown Ferry,” and Jerry Lee Lewis covered his ridiculously lewd “Meat Man,” a ribald celebration of sexual conquests. Besides bragging about having a “Maytag tongue,” Jerry Lee claimed, “I been down to Macon, Georgia/I ate the furs off a Georgia peach/Plucked me a chicken in Memphis/Mama, I still got feathers in my teeth.” Lewis would later state that “Meat Man” was the only song in his catalogue that could follow “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On.” Other ‘70s hits included “Cedartown, Georgia” for Waylon Jennings – an ominous tale about intent to murder with an “Ode to Billy Joe” vibe that went to #14 in 1971; “I’m the Only Hell (Mama Ever Raised)” for Johnny Paycheck (a top ten hit in 1978), and “Rockin’ My Life Away” for Jerry Lee Lewis. He had his own minor hit with “Ishabilly” in 1977, a novelty number reminiscent of Roger Miller that went to #49 on the country charts.
During the ‘80s, Vickery frequently appeared on Ralph Emery’s country music television program, displaying more confidence than ability as a singer. He lacked nothing in the swagger department. A weekend in jail after hitting the bottle too hard served as inspiration for the John Anderson hit “Let Somebody Else Drive.” He also wrote the humorous Anderson hit about international romance, “Tokyo, Oklahoma.” Even with this continued success, failed marriages and the lack of dependable income took a toll. He described in the ‘80s what a Nashville songwriter needed to get by in the business, “A songwriter`s survival kit contains a sleeping bag, some potted meat and crackers, directions to the blood bank and a suicide hot line number.” In 1985, George Strait took the Vickery song “The Fireman” to #5 on the country charts, providing another opportunity to purchase potted meat. In 1988, the traditional tear jerker “I’ll Leave This World Loving You” went to #1 for Ricky Van Shelton.
The hits slowed down in the 1990s, but I imagine the man that wrote “Cheating Our Way to Heaven,” “Boston’s Busiest Peeping Tom,” and “Love Held the Gun, Hate Pulled the Trigger” continued to be the life of any party he attended. After he passed away, Merle Kilgore commented, ”I never met anybody in my whole career that wanted to be around the music 24 hours a day, but all Mack wanted to do was sing, be in clubs and be around music people. He just didn’t want to go to bed.”
Let’s wrap this up with my favorite Vickery couplet, “This is Tok-San Itchy-Ban, Soo-Ling-Foo/And your number one cowboy’s missing you.”
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Got to know him real well mid 70s. He slept on my sisters couch for about six weeks and performed for free at her and her husbands Club The Morris House.
He was the coolest dumbo he I ever knew or saw.