The First Lady of Bass: Nellie “Mack” McInnis

For a successful 40 year music career and for shattering gender stereotypes for jazz, funk, and blues bass players, Nellie “Mack” McInnis will receive the 2021 Governor’s Award for Excellence in Music.

Known to her fans as Nellie Mack, McInnis grew up in Jackson with a love for music. Though she was steered toward the piano, Nellie Mack instead chose to pursue the bass guitar at a time when it was almost unheard of for a woman to play the instrument.

McInnis’ brother Walter taught her to play bass, and the first time he took her to play in a club, she was nervous.

“When I got up there the people were laughing, and I put the big bass on and literally if you had seen me at that time, the bass looked bigger than I,” recalls McInnis. “My brother was looking at me with a certain eye, like ‘just do what I told you to do, you’ll be alright.’ So once we kicked it off, I was on. They was laughing and hitting each other like this was some kind of side show but the more we played the quieter they got. By the time we finished, you could have dropped a feather to the floor and heard it.”

While studying music at Jackson State University, she formed the group Past, Present and Future with Rhonda Richmond and future GRAMMY winner and Governor’s Arts Award recipient Cassandra Wilson.

McInnis formed the band after entering a talent show at JSU. In recruiting members for the show performance, she approached Cassandra Wilson, Rhonda Richmond, and Niecy Evers, all of whom were hesitant at first.

“I asked her if she could sing just a little bit,” said McInnis of Wilson. “And I said, ‘You can sing more if it will help.’”

After the group won the talent competition, McInnis said of the group, “We’ve been friends ever since.”

McInnis’ skill on the electric bass was quickly noticed, and she took her high-energy performing style to audiences across the state, the nation and as far as Finland, Belgium and Norway. She has shared the stage with some of the greatest musicians of the modern era including jazz legend Ellis Marsalis, R&B hitmakers The Bar Kays, Billy “Soul” Bonds, Governor’s Arts Award recipient Dorothy Moore, Clark Terry, and even the late Jazz giant Dizzy Gillespie.

In talking about some of the musicians she has played with, McInnis said, “They would talk to me kind of like in third person, and they would say ‘Tell that bass player that whatever she did in this last rehearsal, we need her to do just that on the show. By the way, she’s good.’”

In recent years, McInnis has settled back in her hometown of Jackson to be close to family. She formed her popular live band The Nellie Mack Project and plays regularly at her church.

McInnis remains a highly sought-after live performer but is also committed to music education. She received a Master of Music Education from JSU and dedicates time to teaching young people about music as a member of MAC’s Artist Roster.

“I feel like the younger the student is, the better you can get to them and the better they’ll do,” said McInnis.

Before COVID-19 brought live performances to a near stand-still, Nellie Mack played regularly at festivals and concerts around the region. Her hope, and that of her fans, is that Nellie Mack will be bringing her stellar musicianship and show-stopping performances back to audiences in the very near future.

“You have to be who you are and know that this is what you want to do,” said Nellie McInnis. “For me, it’s about feel, and it comes through my body. It’s about feel, and it’s a God given thing.”

Hear a podcast of MAC’s Mississippi Arts Hour interview with Nellie McInnis.

Find details about the 2021 Governor’s Arts Awards.

Photos courtesy of Nellie McInnis.