All or Nothing

Rock & roll's MVP keyboardist, Ian McLagan, was first and foremost an Austinite for the last 20 years of his life

Face to Face: Ian McLagan (center) and Ronnie Lane (right) with Bucks Burnett onstage at Fitzgerald's in Houston, Feb. 28, 1985
Face to Face: Ian McLagan (center) and Ronnie Lane (right) with Bucks Burnett onstage at Fitzgerald's in Houston, Feb. 28, 1985 (Photo by Theresa Di Menno)

"He did something I never saw anybody do before he went onstage," says Billy Bragg. "He brushed his teeth."

The British punk troubadour is on the phone from the UK, reminiscing about the 10 years he spent with Austin's transplanted Britrock institution, Ian McLagan, who played keyboards in his band.

"We're playing these little clubs, these old theatres," continues Bragg in his thick Cockney accent. "Mac would always brush his teeth before he went on. I used to laugh at it and think, 'That's so old school.'

"Y'know wot? I find myself doing it now. I realized, 'This is a pro who knows he's not just walking out there. He's going to a special place. He's doing something really important, and he wants to look his best.'

"And by God, he was always immaculately turned out. One of my guitar players used to take photographs of his shoes underneath the Hammond – just his shoes. They looked so great, poking out from underneath the organ.

"Whether he was in a big auditorium or a tiny little club, or a backstreet boozer in England, he brushed his teeth, he put his best shoes on, polished them, and went out there and played his heart out."


There Are But Four Small Faces

Ian Patrick McLagan, born May 12, 1945, in Hounslow, West London, insisted he be called "Mac" until his death 69 years later at Brackenridge medical center in Austin on Dec. 3, 2014.

"He could be all these people," attests Bragg. "If you caught him in the right conversation, he could be the Mod from the Small Faces. He could be the art school student who had his life changed by Muddy Waters at Newport and seeing the Rolling Stones as a local blues band at the Crawdaddy Club in Richmond. He could be the guy in the Faces.

"You could have all those conversations with him. He hadn't gotten to that stage where he was bored with the Legend of Ian McLagan. He was still engaged."

"[Muddy Waters accompanist] Otis Spann was his guy, on piano," recalls "Scrappy" Jud Newcomb, guitarist in McLagan's long running local combo, the Bump Band. "And Booker T. on organ. Also [pianist] Johnnie Johnson, from the Chuck Berry records."

"Mac was fortunate, in [his second band] the Muleskinners, to actually back Little Walter, back Howlin' Wolf," reflects Bump Band bassist Jon Notarthomas of McLagan's mid-Sixties blues apprenticeship. "He was proud of that. He found out later that Wolf really dug his playing and said he wanted to take him back to Chicago with him."

Which would've sucked for the Small Faces. Spotting his photo in a magazine, the London Mod squad asked their manager Don Arden to replace outgoing keyboardist Jimmy Winston with McLagan. He fit perfectly, in ways far beyond being the same height.

"Mac brought the missing link," recalls their drummer, Kenney Jones. "The three of us – myself, [singer/guitarist] Steve Marriott, and [bassist] Ronnie Lane – we all made a great sound together. But there was that missing ingredient we were looking for. When we met Mac, and listened to him the first time he played piano or organ with us, it added a whole new dimension to our sound. We were ecstatic!

"He naturally complemented what we were doing already. He picked up on our telepathy, which was one of the secret ingredients of the Small Faces. We didn't tell each other what to do or play, we just did it. Mac definitely fit in with that."

Beginning on McLagan's first two singles with the Small Faces, 1965's "I've Got Mine" and '66's "Sha-La-La-La-Lee," that musical extrasensory perception hardened the quartet's Booker T. & the MG's blueprint. Before jumping to Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham's Immediate Records and recording psych-soul masterpieces like "Tin Soldier" and Ogdens' Nut Gone Flake LP, the group's chemistry reached its apex in 1966 on "All or Nothing." A Marriott/Lane power ballad, it shifts between pleading verses and bashing choruses, featuring a superlative Marriott vocal.

Underpinning the works is McLagan's Hammond B-3 warmth, which Bragg claims became so influential that Eighties UK keyboardists frequently had two organ presets on their synthesizers: "Booker T." and "Mac."


And Five Faces

For all their success, the Small Faces were plagued by rip-off managers. "They're still doing it," laughs Jones. Marriott had his fill in 1968, leaving to form Humble Pie with guitarist Peter Frampton.

"I rang up Ronnie Lane after Steve left," recalls Ron Wood, then the Jeff Beck Group's bassist. "I said, 'What are you gonna do?' He said, 'I don't know. Will you come and help us?' So, I jammed with him, Mac, and Kenney. They loved the loose way we were doing it. For a keyboard player, Mac was always throwing in riffs and ideas. It was another guitar, really.

"We were definitely taking a leaf out of the Meters, Booker T. & the MG's," continues the Rolling Stones guitarist in his nicotine-stained rasp. "And getting the rhythm section sorted out through that before thinking about the vocals, before Rod Stewart came in later on."

The singer Kenney Jones recalls as "very shy and in the background" with the Jeff Beck Group was now strutting, throwing a mic stand around, fitting into outrageous suits few others could pull off.

"It was the feathered boas I didn't like," smirks Jones.

"The Faces were everything a rock & roll band should be," declares lifelong fan Alejandro Escovedo. "Their shows were always an event. They weren't just rock & roll shows. They'd have can-can girls and trapeze artists – a bartender onstage. They looked beautiful. You knew if you went to a Faces concert, that was where all the pretty girls would be."

"I can remember them on Top of the Pops doing [Stewart's first big solo hit] 'Maggie May' and kicking a football around," recalls Billy Bragg. "And [British DJ] John Peel pretending to play the mandolin. They weren't gonna take anything seriously. When rock got awfully po-faced and serious, it was great to see some guys goofing around like that."

"And Mac, Rod, and Ronnie created that spiky rocker hairstyle that everybody wore in the Eighties," adds another teenage Faces fan, Bonnie Raitt.

For all the Faces' hijinx, boozy swagger, and crushing rock & roll à la "Stay With Me," there's also a touching, sensitive songwriting strain courtesy of bassist Ronnie Lane. He chased through those English folkisms evident on tunes like "Debris" when he went solo in 1973, partly in reaction to Stewart's concurrent solo career eclipsing the band from "Maggie May" onward. Ironically, Stewart's success owed as much to Wood's and McLagan's contributions. They inadvertently helped undo the band they loved.

Stewart wasn't the only one blossoming in the Faces. McLagan's driving left hand became part of the rhythm section, particularly with Lane's bass growing more melodic. He'd also developed a keyboard signature: The dirty electric piano driving "Stay With Me" as much as Wood's raunchy guitar. The warm Hammond organ that had been such a key Small Faces ingredient was also crucial to Stewart's solo career. Imagine "Maggie May" without it.

"He was on my first album," Stewart told Rolling Stone Senior Writer David Fricke in an unpublished interview from December. "And maybe three or four after that. Just the fact I used him, when I probably could have got Billy Preston? I didn't. I used Mac. That speaks volumes."


Mac and Alejandro Escovedo backstage at the All ATX HAAM Concert, Sept. 22, 2014
Mac and Alejandro Escovedo backstage at the All ATX HAAM Concert, Sept. 22, 2014 (Photo by Theresa Di Menno)

Find Myself A Rock & Roll Band That Needs A Helpin' Hand

"He got on well with Ian Stewart, the sixth member of the Stones," recalls Ron Wood. "There was a lot of respect between them, and Mac would play the organ while Stu played piano."

As Wood shifted from the Faces to the Rolling Stones following the former's 1975 breakup, McLagan brought the distorted electric piano of "Stay With Me" to "Miss You," then co-keyboarded with Stu across two world tours. The 1963 teenager inspired for life by glimpsing the embryonic Stones in Richmond had joined their auxiliary unit. Now a journeyman musician, McLagan quickly became one of rock's most valuable players.

"Mac had this joke," recalls Bragg. "What do you call a musician without a gig? Dead!"

Thus, as Notarthomas laughs, "Mac got to back some of the greatest singers, and Bob Dylan!"

Lucinda Williams, who featured McLagan on last year's double-album masterwork Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, told Fricke in another unpublished interview that people hired his history as much as anything: "His work with the Faces and the Stones – that's what people always connect with him. And it's hard to find people who can play in that vein. When people called for him, it was because they wanted him to be around. The other thing was, too, he was such a joy to work with."

Needing that Faces-esque flourish, Bonnie Raitt hired McLagan and the original Los Angeles incarnation of his Bump Band for 1982's Green Light. A version of the Bumps then became her road band.

"He brought me to a level of rockin' I hadn't had before," she says. "I owe him a lot. It was so organic."

"He got better over the years," reckons Wood. "His piano playing got more mature and wiser."

Once McLagan and his wife Kim followed up a Rod Stewart tour by settling on 15 acres just outside of Austin suburb Manor, his first order of business was assembling a new Bump Band.

"I was playing with [drummer] Don Harvey in a couple of bands," recalls Newcomb. "Don was the only guy in town that Mac really knew, because they'd done the Ronnie Lane Japanese tour together. When Mac and Kim had had enough of L.A., they found a place, moved here, and probably the next call after the electric company to turn on the lights was to Don: 'Okay, I need to put a new band together.' It was what he did anywhere he went."

Harvey suggested Newcomb and bassist Sarah Brown. Soon, if McLagan wasn't on the road with Bragg or someone else, the Bump Band manned Thursday happy hours at the Saxon Pub, before moving to the Lucky Lounge for 10 years. Newcomb's Steve Cropper-drenched guitar became the Bump Band's steadiest element, besides McLagan.

"He loved his Bump Band," laughs Wood. "He swore by them, to the point where he'd say, 'No, I can't play a Faces tour. I'm playing with the Bump Band that weekend.' We'd say, 'But, Mac! Surely, you can make an exception this time?!'"

"All these guys Mac played with, like Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards, were playing stadiums," says the Bump Band's Notarthomas, also McLagan's aide-de-camp. "But they were all enamored of roots American music, including Mac. He was the one that got to play the honky-tonks and juke joints they'd romanticized. He was there, being the blues journeyman."

That music and tradition sustained him. After a stint in Austin, Ronnie Lane died in Colorado in 1997 following a battle with multiple sclerosis. McLagan had partly relocated here to be near him, then later hired his former bandmate's assistant, Jo Rae Di Menno, as a publicist beginning with 2006 Lane tribute Spiritual Boy. Mac's beloved Kim, whom he rescued from Keith Moon, perished in a car accident later that same year. He dealt with the devastation as he best knew how: opening for the Rolling Stones two months later at Zilker Park.

Di Menno notes Kim gave her husband a riding mower for his 60th birthday, and he'd spend most days atop it, followed by a dip in his pool and a Guinness. The latter might have been consumed in the two-table pub he had built inside his house. Every Wednesday, he'd take Di Menno to La Mancha for Tex-Mex.

"He had this saying," smiles Di Menno. "'You know wot I love? Everything!' It was true. He had such an enthusiasm for life."


I'm Not Like Everybody Else

2014 was a year of milestones for Ian McLagan: 20 in Austin, 10 at the Lucky Lounge. Signing with prestigious indie label Yep Roc yielded United States, his most mature songwriting and playing yet. He'd recently collaborated for the first time with Alejandro Escovedo on a moving duet of the Kinks' "I'm Not Like Anybody Else" for the annual ALL ATX charity LP, with plans for further work together.

Bigger still, after years of sometimes acrimonious wrangling, Stewart, Wood, Jones, and McLagan were finally reuniting for a Faces tour this year. On Dec. 1, he was to fly to Chicago to rehearse for a Nick Lowe trek he was typically excited about. His flight was delayed.

"I can just hear him now," says Notar­thomas, affecting McLagan's buoyant Cockney accent: "'Great! I'll 'ave a bath!'"

"Something told me I should check on the house," notes Di Menno. "Then I thought, 'No, that's silly. I was just there the day before.'"

"What I heard," Lucinda Williams told Fricke, "was when he didn't show up for rehearsal, they said, 'This isn't like Mac. Someone needs to check on him.' That's how they found him."

Tuesday, Dec. 2, Di Menno and Notar­thomas rushed to Manor, notifying a neighbor to check the house. McLagan was discovered in the tub. They arrived as first responders employed life-saving measures. He was airlifted to Brackenridge Hospital. Doctors determined McLagan had suffered a massive stroke in the bath.

"When I got down there, he was on life support," says local radio personality and longtime friend Jody Denberg. "The doctors had already told them that, even if he were to live, he would not be a functional person. They asked if he'd expressed his wishes if this were to come to pass. He'd had a minor heart attack a year or two beforehand and had a stent put in. That question came up, and he said, 'Don't keep me alive on machines, if that ever happens!'"

Doctors kept McLagan alive while Newcomb rushed from his home in Marfa. With the patient's only son Lee in England, "Scrappy" Jud was the closest thing McLagan had to immediate family here in town. Among the last to pay their respects were Denberg and Escovedo.

"Jody and I went to his room the day he passed, and I put on that album, Ooh-La-La," says the latter. "I was just blasting it on my iPhone, and his leg started to kick a little bit. It was pretty amazing."

Almost 24 hours after another ancillary Rolling Stone died, saxophonist Bobby Keys, Ian McLagan passed away.

"I'm so proud and so honored that life introduced me to Steve Marriott, Ronnie Lane, and Ian McLagan," says Kenney Jones. "They've been a major part of my life – over half of it – and I miss all three of them. It's lonely, being here on my own.

"Rod, Woody, and me are still going to do the Faces this year. It's more important now than ever," adds the drummer. "When we do, we'll have the bartender onstage again. And a coffee machine for Woody."

"There's got to be a heavy dose of humor in everything we do," reflects Ron Wood. "Mac epitomized the funny side of things, even in the most dire conditions."

"I'll never play with anyone like him again," sighs Newcomb.


The Austin Music Awards pay tribute to Ian McLagan, Wed., March 18, at the Austin Convention Center's Austin Ballroom. Show begins 7:55pm sharp, with the Mac crowning the evening at approximately 11:15pm.

Keep up with all our SXSW coverage at austinchronicle.com/sxsw. Sign up for our South By-specific newsletter at austinchronicle.com/newsletters for news, reviews, and previews delivered to your inbox every day of the Fest. And for the latest tweets, follow @ChronSXSW.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
Tanya Tagaq Owns Fusebox Music
Tanya Tagaq Owns Fusebox Music
Inuit throat singer reanimates Nanook of the North

Raoul Hernandez, April 3, 2015

Playback: Upholding the Code
Playback: Upholding the Code
Keeping SXSW safe selectively?

Kevin Curtin, April 3, 2015

More by Tim Stegall
Texas Platters
Thunderosa
Ride the Snake (Record Review)

April 19, 2019

Texas Platters
Dogs & Diamonds
Last Free Exit (Record Review)

April 19, 2019

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Ian McLagan, SXSW Music 2015, Austin Music Awards, Small Faces, Faces, Bump Band, Billy Bragg, Bonnie Raitt, Ron Wood, Rod Stewart, Kenney Jones, Ronnie Lane, Scrappy Jud Newcomb, Alejandro Escovedo

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle