Mack Rice, who earned his place among music immortals for writing “Mustang Sally” and “Cheaper to Keep Her,” and co-writing “Respect Yourself,” died at his Detroit home Monday evening, according to his wife, Laura Rice. He was 82 and had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for several years.
“Mack was some kind of guy, he was a kind spirit, and a gentleman,” said his wife Laura. “We were married for three years and together for 31 years. Mack used to say, ‘Pray more and worry less.’ That became his motto for everything. ‘Pray more and worry less.’ He is saying that to me now.”
Rice wrote “Mustang Sally” back when Ford’s new pony car was causing a buzz. When he was still working on the song, then called “Mustang Mama,” his friend, Aretha Franklin, suggested that it would be better with a girl’s name, as “Mustang Sally.”
While Rice and the Young Rascals both recorded the song, it was the 1966 version by Wilson Pickett, his former colleague in The Falcons (“You’re So Fine”), with its effortlessly funky Muscle Shoals-recorded backing track, that made the song a legend.
It was salty Detroit disc jockey Martha Jean “The Queen” Steinberg who started calling him “Sir” Mack Rice in 1965, because his recording of “Mustang Sally” was a local hit and she said he deserved to be knighted.
“I’m not a singer like Little Willie John or Levi (Stubbs),” Rice said in 2009. “I’m a writer. But if I get a hit with my style … like Chubby Checker, hey! I love style, you can’t beat it. If you’re a stylist, you’re gonna make the money, you’ve got something to talk about.”
As a writer, Rice scored again with the heartfelt “Respect Yourself,” co-written with Luther Ingram and a hit in 1971 for the Staple Singers. He also wrote the mischievous, jazzy ”Cheaper to Keep Her,” which was a career highlight in 1973 for Johnnie Taylor.
He was born Nov. 10, 1933, in Clarksdale, Mississippi, as Bonny Rice.
“When he was a boy in Mississippi, Ray Charles or Sonny Boy Williamson would be playing in juke joints, and he would go and stand and peep into those places,” Laura said. “Ike Turner tried to teach him how to play the piano, but he just couldn’t get it.”
Rice’s family moved to Detroit in 1950. He liked to recount how, as a teenager, he would borrow his father’s car and go down to Hastings Street, where he would offer rides to people for money. Often the people who needed rides were up to no good, but Rice was tall and he usually got paid. And he always retained a gentle spirit, despite the wild antics he witnessed.
He attended Detroit’s Northern High School, where he credited a music teacher with helping to hone his skills. Rice also sang with his first group, the Five Scalders, at Northern.
After a stint in the Army, Rice became a member of the fabled Falcons, which also included Joe Stubbs (brother of The Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs) and Eddie Floyd. Rice also acted as road manager for the Falcons, who often found themselves in dangerous circumstances while touring in the South.
Rice said it was Falcons’ bass singer Willie Schofield who discovered Wilson Pickett singing and playing guitar on his father’s back porch, overlooking Hastings Street. Pickett was invited to join the group in 1959. The Falcons’ biggest hits were “You’re So Fine” and “I Found A Love,” several years before Motown took flight.
It would irritate Rice, who rarely showed ire, that people thought only of Motown when talking about Detroit rhythm and blues. So much important Detroit music came before Motown, he insisted.
“We were the first group out of Detroit to do the Dick Clark show,” Rice said.
And despite his many years in Detroit, Rice was most closely associated with Memphis’ Stax Records, not Motown. He would commute down to the Tennessee city, but always returned to Detroit.
“I love Detroit,” Rice told The Detroit News. “That’s why I write about what our city’s famous for. I covered all three car companies! ‘Mustang Sally,’ then ‘Cadillac Assembly Line’ (recorded by Albert King), and then I wrote ‘K Car For Sale’ later on. Lee Iacocca used it for his first commercial.”
In Detroit, Rice was also a businessman; he owned Rice Asphalt and employed 10 workers, putting down driveways all over town.
His wife, Laura, laughs, recalling how her pastor was surprised to learn about her husband from the internet.
“He said, ‘Laura, I thought the man did asphalt. I looked on the internet, and this man was a real star!’ I laughed. He was my husband to me. If you didn’t know who Mack was, Mack would never tell you. I liked that.”
Besides Laura, Rice is survived by two sisters, as well as three sons: Rodney Rice of Detroit, Dwayne Rice of Chicago and Bonny Rice Jr., who lives in California.
Visitation will be July 6, and services will follow July 7, both at New Bethel Baptist Church, 8430 Linwood (now C.L. Franklin Boulevard), in Detroit. Exact times are being worked out and will be announced soon.
Susan Whitall is a longtime music writer, author and contributor to the Detroit News