In memoriam

Blues artist Mike Lorenz, 1951-2001

They were still in shock at Blind Willie's last week. The crowded little bar — packed with local blues fans for a benefit for harmonica ace Chicago Bob Nelson — was gloomy despite the racket. Sad, puzzled looks and quiet tears marked too many faces.

Mike Lorenz was dead, his body found by Atlanta firefighters early Tuesday morning in the flaming husk of his prized convertible behind his North Highland Avenue apartment. The police found no signs of violence; the medical examiner ruled that he died of smoke inhalation.

"It seems like he just went to sleep with the engine running," said half-brother Alfred Lorenz, who drove down from New York. "Just an accident." A brother and sister, who live out of state, are his only other survivors.

At Willie's, club owner Eric King sat dejectedly on a stool beneath a photo of Lorenz. "My God, what next?" he asks. "This just isn't right."

The blues circuit is full of hard-living hellraisers, but Lorenz was not one of them. He seldom touched whiskey, preferring beer; never smoked — anything; nor dabbled with harder party favors.

With his ever-present smile, effortless vocals and razor-sharp playing, the guitarist for house band The Shadows was a staple of Atlanta's blues scene.

A versatile songwriter and performer with a passion for vintage guitars — be they classic collectors' items or "the real cheese," as he'd say as he proudly hefted some garish pawnshop treasure — Lorenz' easy composure often provided an island of calm when the hour was late and things were getting wild.

"Mike was the eternal teenager," recalls Shadows bandleader and bassist Roger Gregory. "The guy loved his guitar, he loved his convertible, and he loved pretty girls. He was the most good-natured, laid-back guy I ever met — never had a hard word for anybody."

A fixture in Atlanta music since the '70s, Lorenz originally was from Brooklyn, N.Y., but you never would have known it from talking to him; years of playing with blues and gospel acts had left him with an easy Southern drawl. He started out young, touring behind gospel star Wendy Bagwell and even doing a stint in the house band for James Brown's TV variety show in the mid-'70s. In Atlanta, he played with several bands, including blues-rockers Jump Street, twisted party band Cruise-O-Matic, power-pop act Right as Rain and The Excellos.

"I played the best music of my life with Mike," says bassist Roger Dukes, who played alongside Lorenz in Jump Street, The Excellos and countless impromptu ensembles. "I'm sure gonna miss him."

Personally, I knew Mike years before crossing CL's threshold, and my own memories of him are vivid: pealing out the first nine notes of the "Wedding March" before dropping into "Walking the Dog" at my wedding; smiling angelically as he recounted some filthy joke he'd snagged off the Internet; snoozing in an armchair while the mayhem of an all-night bash crashed around his ears. Always with that lazy, Hoti smile.

Bit by bit, the Willie's crowd pieced together the events of his last night: Finishing up at the club, then hitting some more blues spots — Fuzzy's, Northside Tavern — where he jammed with the bands before heading home in the pre-dawn hours.

His friends drew some comfort from that last night of music. Some.

"Well, at least he died doing what he loved," said Karyl Kennedy, her eyes swollen with tears. "Dammit."??