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Mark Sallings, R.I.P.

Posted Monday, March 2, 2009, at 10:52 AM

"No Frail Jokes, No Regrets."

That blurb appeared in bold print on the back of The Famous Unknowns' 1993 debut CD, Upclose and Personal.

While it no doubt was stretched across the band of the smokin' blues band's initial compact disc to draw attention to the product inside, it very well could also have served as front man Mark Sallings' credo.

"No Frail Jokes, No Regrets."

Sallings died in an automobile accident Feb. 25 in Crawfordsville, on the road to Tunica to do what he did best - play the blues for another set of eager fans.

And though he has left this earth, Sallings surely left no regrets behind.

Throughout the history of the blues, travel-weary musicians have told countless tales of endless nights on the road, traveling from one low-paying gig to another - night, after night, after night.

They do this not for the adoration, or to get rich.

Heck, most of the time they're lucky if they even scrape together enough money after a gig to just cover gas expenses.

They do this because they truly love what they do.

Playing the blues.

That was most certainly the case for Mark Sallings.

That was why the Searcy-born Sallings, after over three decades of living life out of a suitcase, still took to the road countless nights throughout the year.

To help spread the gospel of the blues, whether in front of 100,000 fans at the King Biscuit Blues Festival, or in front of 10 or 15 people inside a cramped, weathered juke joint.

Wherever he went, Sallings carried with him the true spirit of the Delta blues.

Sallings and The Famous Unknowns were so well loved in Tunica, that a few years ago, they played 35 nights in a span of 42 days.

The 57-year-old Sallings' calling card was the ability to get a crowd up off its feet and get the dance floor movin' and groovin.' He switched between harp, sax, keyboards and flute, injecting the Unknowns' gritty blues with a blast of cool, Chicago-style swing.

His vocals were expressive and fluid, but it was for his harmonica work that Sallings was known up and down both coasts for.

Just take a quick listen to "Marks Harpo" off Upclose and Personal, or "Blues Acres" from Let it be Known for an introduction to the warm, rich sound of Sallings on harp.

Sallings, born on April 11, 1952, grew up in McCrory and was smitten at an early age with the music of blues legends like Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Reed and Lightnin' Hopkins, artists who would all have a major impact on his choice of a career.

As a teenager, Sallings played the same hallowed ground that icons like Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash had played - the famed Silver Moon Club in Newport.

Soon after graduating from high school, Sallings hit the road to Memphis and joined the Coon Elder Band.

Playing mostly an offshoot of country music with Coon Elder Band, Sallings changed gears in the early 1980s and played straight-ahead hard rock with Rick Christian and the WhiteBoys, a group that toured with Rush and The Police, among other heavyweights.

Then in 1988, The Famous Unknowns were born.

Touring the world as a member of country superstar David Lynn Jones' backing band, Sallings along with guitar player Gerry Moss and bass player Jerry Bone, started playing together as a group apart from Jones, on nights that Jones had no shows scheduled to perform.

It didn't take these talented musicians long at all to decide they had something special going and they embarked on their own path, playing blues, soul, funk and anything else that they took a mind to play.

And the reason for the name, The Famous Unknowns?

According to Sallings, it was partly "because of the time spent backing up legends or performing with them."

It didn't take the Unknowns very long to become legends in their own right.

Just three short years after forming, the Famous Unknowns became the first house band at B.B. King Blues Club in Memphis.

But like all bands eventually seem to do, the original lineup of The Famous Unknowns went their separate way after releasing Upclose and Personal.

Moss left to form Gerry Moss and the Drive. He was replaced on guitar by Tony Spinner.

Bone stayed on for awhile and with Sallings, Spinner, drummer Victor Lukenbaugh and Ray Reach on Hammond B-3, released Let it be Known on Vent records in 1995.

After that lineup split in various directions, Sallings embarked on a solo career.

But it wasn't long after that Sallings was traveling the road with another edition of Famous Unknowns, featuring Bob Horn on guitar, Don Garrett on bass and Craig Keys on drums.

Sallings was endorsed by Hohner Harmonicas and Peavey Electronics and played with some legendary names, including Albert King, Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Steve Cropper, Rufus Thomas and a host of others.

Sallings leaves behind a wife and five children.

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Since my own high school sports career fizzled out before it really reached its zenith, I have managed to live vicariously through the student/athletes of the 16 high schools I've covered for Areawide Media since 2001. I've witnessed the highest of highs in the form of state championships. I have also seen first-hand the sting of disappointment when the ultimate prize was within reach, but still eluded the grasp of its pursuer. But through all the ups and downs associated with high school sports, my respect for the young competitors that suit up each night, along with the men and women who guide them, remains unwavering. Blog mission: With my passion for music, especially live music, running second only to my passion for sports, I'll try to devote this space to both. Especially when it concerns our region and what's happening around it. Look for commentary and features on area sports figures and musicians, along with things to get out and do in the beautiful Spring River/Ozarks area. But I'll not totally ignore the outside - I'll also hit on some national happenings in the wide worlds of sports and music.
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