With the 2011 Omaha Black Music and Community Hall of Fame Awards coming up July 29 at the Slowdown, as part of Native Omaha Days, I am posting articles of mine from the last decade that celebrate various African-American figures from the area. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is about Lois “LadyMac” McMorris, one of many black musical artists who have come out of Omaha to forge successful careers in the music biz. I did a phone interview with her on the eve of her induction in the Hall of Fame, which returns this year after a few years absence. My blog is full of stories about high black achievers from Omaha.
Enchantress “LadyMac” Gets Down
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Casual music fans may not know Lois “LadyMac” McMorris, but this blues-jazz-rock guitarist from Omaha is paid homages by legends like B.B. King — “The girl is super bad.” After a hot solo Prince saw her play in Kansas City, where she lives, LadyMac said, “He came up to me and asked, ‘May I touch your guitar?’ I felt so honored. For my peers to recognize me is an amazing thing. That’s like a validation.”
More validation comes at the August 3 Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame ceremony. The 2005 inductee is the Jewel Award recipient for her lifetime achievements.
She grew up on the north side making art and music. Today she’s a gallery showing sculptor, painter and drawer and a still active headliner-sidewoman.
Inspired by guitar riffs on radio-television she taught herself to play as a young girl. “It touched me so deeply,” she said. She loved working on her chords and “learned lick for lick” famous solos. She first played publicly at 17, when she joined Joe Leslie and the Impacts. She had to prove to the cats she had the chops to play with them. Her baptism of fire came at Paul Allen’s Showcase on North 24th Street.
“Allen’s Showcase had been the premiere club since my parents’ time,” she said. “There were so many stellar African-American entertainers that would come through from Chicago, Des Moines, Kansas City…there was a kernel core of musicians…and the famous jam sessions and the things that ensued are just something to be written about.
“If you didn’t make it in that jam session either you were going to go home and woodshed and come back or you were going to stop, because it was intense.”
It was even hotter for her as the guys scrutinized her every move with skeptical eyes and sexist remarks. It was the same everywhere she went.
“The gender bigotry was just amazing,” she said. “Denigrated. Put down. Unappreciated. I ran into and still have to fight so much discrimination. It’s gotten a bit better, just as racism has eased a bit. It would go from things that are subtle to overt. Like I’d be told, ‘You can’t do that.’ I mean, over and over again. Please, let’s get real. It just made me more determined to express myself and to play and not be held back by that sort of thing. I cannot abide injustice.”
She made the mark at the Showcase, blowing the house away with her virtuosity and energy.
“For myself, when I finally performed there, it was the pinnacle…” said McMorris. She took those cats by surprise, having honed her gift off by herself, at home, where she’d incessantly listen and practice. “I did not develop my music around them. It was on my own. I just immersed myself in chords. What I hear I can play and I can play it fairly quickly, and then I can write it down as well. I can read, I can write charts. I do arrangements. It’s just in me. ”
What sets her apart, besides her sizzling solos, sultry fly looks and spiritual- inspirational vibe is her ability to both “dig in and just play” and to “express a showtime sensibility” in the way she moves, dresses and strokes.
Besides the Impacts, she played locally with the Persuaders, Seventh House and Poverty Movement and artists Andre Lewis and Preston Love, Sr.. Hanging with top musicians convinced her “larger vistas” awaited. Love advised her to seek new ops. “He told me, ‘You won’t grow your playing here. If you’re going to do something with it, leave.’” She lit out for L.A., where she soon landed a recording session gig with Love’s friend, blues guitarist Johnny Otis and his big band. Another break came when Lewis asked her to join Mandre, “a hitting group with Motown.”
LadyMac was on her way, her dynamic musicianship-showmanship: sharing the stage with Tower of Power, Earl Klugh, Linda Hopkins; Cooilio, opening for Al Jarreau and Howard Hewitt and headlining the Playboy Jazz Festival. From L.A., she traveled the nation and the world to perform, only recently moving to K.C. to be near family. She’s fronted her own band, LadyMac Attack, and recorded. Her new CD is 500.
Her career mirrors that of many black musicians from Omaha — high caliber players with great creds, but few props outside the industry. She agrees with OBMHOF founder/director Vaughn Chatman that Omaha’s black music legacy is a great untold story, one, she said, people “should know about.”
“A lot of genius players came from Omaha’s near northside,” she said. “It’s a group of multi-talented musicians who can play many instruments, and that’s what’s so rare. Another thing — we’re cross-genre. We’re not just in one pocket. The straight-ahead cats can get busy and play the funk. They can play all those things. Also this sensibility of playing and coming with a show. It’s almost as if everyone incarnated around a certain time” to create “an Omaha sound…this flavor…”
Acknowledgement of groundbreaking black Omaha musicians has been slow to come, making the peer-based Hall award all the sweeter.
“Very often the people that are the vanguard are not always recognized while they’re doing it and that’s a hurtful thing,” she said. “But it’s not too late.”
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