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COMMENTARY : FATS’ DEATH IS BIG LOSS FOR MUSIC

Times Staff Writer

The wire service obituaries on guitarist Mike (Hollywood Fats) Mann, who died Monday of a heart attack, gave only a brief history on the 32-year-old musician.

Reports listed him as a member of the Blasters--he joined the group earlier this year to replace Dave Alvin--who cut his musical teeth playing with such blues greats as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Albert King.

But it was Fats’ years with Orange County’s James Harman Band that introduced most Southern California club-goers to the man revered by his peers as one of the world’s finest blues guitarists.

The nickname, coined by fellow guitarist Buddy Guy, referred to the veteran musician’s 250-pound girth and prodigious appetite. In the numerous times I interviewed the band in the last five years, it seemed that Fats was either on his way to or from some nearby eatery. He also had a reputation for the most inspired malapropisms this side of Norm Crosby.

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Fats’ final performance was Saturday at the Music Machine in West Los Angeles, where he reconvened the Hollywood Fats Band, a group he formed in the late ‘70s before joining up with Harman.

I last heard Fats perform in October, when the Blasters played the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano. There was never any doubt that Fats had the talent to step into Dave Alvin’s shoes when it came to playing guitar. As the group’s lead singer Phil Alvin said about the change, “I feel like I’ve lost the world’s best songwriter and gained the world’s best guitarist.”

But seeing Fats’ guitar work squeezed into the Blasters’ short roots rock songs was like watching a Rolls-Royce being used to make beer runs to the corner 7-Eleven.

It was only with the Harman band that the magnitude of Fats’ talent was realized.

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In dozens upon dozens of times seeing the band perform, I was most impressed with his seemingly bottomless pit of musical ideas. Many guitarists develop a few safe hooks that they repeat endlessly, but Fats could deliver one extended solo after another, all of them fresh, inventive and completely original.

Yet my fondest memory of Fats stems not from one of the Harman band’s many fiery Southland shows. It was a show on a deadly quiet Monday night in Cedar Rapids, Iowa--one that the other members of the band have probably tried to forget.

The stop in Iowa was part of the group’s 1985 tour of the Midwest, which I covered for five days when the band made its first major trek outside Southern California. After receiving a rip-roaring reception over the weekend in Lincoln, Neb., the band had traveled in its cramped van to Cedar Rapids.

It was early spring, but temperatures were still in the 30s, although that didn’t stop a hotel clerk from asking straight-faced as the band members checked in: “Would you like a room pool-side?”

Advance publicity about the band’s performance had been less than thorough, and the club--more of a banquet room, really--held only a couple dozen people when the Harman Band arrived. The band members, however, had been expecting a packed house for a live FM radio broadcast of the evening’s performance.

The five-man group had already been on tour for two weeks, and nerves and enthusiasm were beginning to fray. Although the other shows I’d seen on the tour were typically energetic, this placid Monday in Cedar Rapids shaped up as the first lackluster performance I’d witnessed.

As the set began, the group played raggedly, betraying a surprising “who cares?” attitude. That’s when Fats took over.

Generally, Fats left the performance histrionics to Harman and bassist Willie J. Campbell, although he would occasionally throw in a few fancy, funny dance steps during a long solo.

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But this night, Fats suddenly began striking hilarious rock star poses and reeling off blistering solo riffs and fills. His face contorted in comically mock “genius is pain” expressions, Fats quickly ignited the rest of the band with a rare display of his quiet leadership. It was as if he were saying, “Even if no one else here is having a good time, let’s not let it prevent us from enjoying ourselves.”

Having dropped out of school after eighth grade to play the blues, Fats struggled with a desire to return to school some day, so that he wouldn’t end up just another burned-out 50-year-old musician. Like many other musicians, he also battled with drugs, and a spokesman for the Los Angeles County coroner’s office confirmed Wednesday that his heart attack was narcotics-induced.

That added bit of senselessness notwithstanding, music has lost a big, big talent. You’ll be missed, Fats. But for nights like that one in Cedar Rapids and all the rest, you won’t be forgotten.


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