He's So Fine: The Ronnie Mack Story

by Carl Wiser

"He's So Fine" was one of the biggest hits of 1963, #1 for four weeks on both the Hot 100 and the R&B charts. There is just one name on the composer credit: Ronnie Mack. While the song was climbing the charts, Mack was battling cancer, and during that run at #1, he passed away.

Ronnie assembled the Chiffons in 1960, gathering three girls from a local high school to record his demos. Shopping his songs around New York City in 1962, he found a taker in The Tokens, whose 1961 hit "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" earned them a production deal with Capitol Records. The deal was for 10 records, and by the time Mack showed up, they had recorded 9 - all flopped. "He came up with a composition notebook with all these amazing songs in it," recalled Jay Siegel of The Tokens. "They had the most incredible lyrics; not intellectual lyrics, but just the things that people speak of in everyday language. Most people don't have the talent to write them down as music, but he did."

Ronnie added a fourth girl to The Chiffons, and they recorded the song with The Tokens, assisted by Carole King on piano.

Capitol passed on "He's So Fine," as did the other big record companies. Finally the Laurie label took it, and Mack had his hit.

Searching for Ronnie Mack in the musical archives typically brings up these two stories:

1) The song "Jimmy Mack," a 1966 hit for Martha and the Vandellas, was written after Lamont Dozier attended a music industry event where Ronnie was posthumously honored. The name stuck with Dozier and he used it for the song.

2) The lawsuit brought by Bright Tunes Music (the company controlled by The Tokens that owned the publishing rights to "He's So Fine") against George Harrison for plagiarizing Mack's song on "My Sweet Lord." The case played out like a bad episode of Law & Order, with Harrison's former manager Allen Klein consulting Bright Tunes and then buying the company. The judge ruled that the two songs were "virtually identical" musically, and ordered damages of about $1.6 million, which was later reduced to $587,000 - the amount Klein paid for Bright Tunes.

What gets lost is the real story of Ronnie Mack - the gifted songwriter (had he lived, "he would have sustained and would have been one of the most successful songwriters of the '60s," Siegel told us) and entrepreneurial manager who lifted his family out of poverty. Here is that story, told to us by his sister, Dotty (Mack) Sanders. All photos are courtesy of Ms. Sanders.
Ronald Agustus Mack was born to Augustus and Louise Mack on July 11, 1940.
Ronnie, as we called him, loved music from the time he was born.
I have a picture of him sitting at a piano at about 3 yrs old.
Ronnie taught his self to play music by ear, which means he was able to listen to a song and play it. He never took any music lessons. Playing music came to him naturally.

By the age of about 17 Ronnie was writing songs. He wrote a song called "Puppy Love" when he was 17 or 18 years old. He sold that song for about $25.00, it became a huge hit. There are many more songs he wrote that we may never know about.
Ronnie was a pretty big guy and my mother would have his suits custom made. Don't ask how my mother, who was a widow with four children, was able to do this, but she was a woman whose faith in God was so strong that there was nothing she couldn't do. She knew that with Christ Jesus she could do all things. Ronnie would sell his suits in order to get the money to publish his music. Of course this would upset my mother to the fullest extent, but Ronnie would tell her "don't worry Ma, I'm going to be rich one day and you won't have to worry about anything."
I can remember me and my brother and sisters looking out the window waiting to see our mother come home from cleaning someone's house. Sometimes her knees would be bleeding and that would hurt my brother so bad, because with my father being dead, he knew he was now the man of the family.
In 1963 my brother's dream came true. He created a group called The Chiffons and he wrote a song for them that became the number one record in the world: "He's So Fine."

Ronnie was able to do all the things he had promised my mother. I can remember one night he came home and woke me and my youngest sister Brenda up and told us to go get in bed with our mother, then he opened this big suitcase and poured money all over us.
What I need you to know is that this blessing didn't come easy for my brother. There were many times he was laughed at because of the clothes he wore and the way he looked, but he had a dream and he never gave up on it. 
We need to know that God has ordained our lives before we are even born. God's word tells us that He will withhold no good thing from us but we have a part in that also, we have to have a dream. Remember Joseph was a dreamer. We must work at our dream by gaining as much wisdom and knowledge of what it is we are attempting to do. God's word says "In all things get Wisdom." And we must pray about everything.

Ronnie Mack died at the age of 23. At the time of his death he had the number one record around the world. He never got the chance to see his Gold Record, although his production company, Bright Tunes Production, had done a rush job on getting it made, but unfortunately by that time cancer had taken over his body and mind.

May 26, 2012
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Comments: 13

  • Mike from NycI am blown away. It just goes to show you. My entire life, I have loved "He's So Fine". Moments ago, it popped into my head and I started thinking about how great it was....what made it great......the marriage of melody and fantastic lyrics that captures a feeling everyone has had........"If I were a queen...and he asked me to leave his throne.....I'd do anything that he asked..." Wow. With that melody (not to mention the incredible voices of The Chiffons).

    I am just heartbroken. What we all missed out on. A talent as special as that.....I don't even need to hear any of his other songs.....just "He's So Fine" alone tells me all I need to know about this guy's ear, for melody, and for words. I completely agree: had he lived, he would have been up there with the great songwriters of the 60s and 70s.....

    To know that he's the inspiration for "Jimmy Mack", another one of my all-time favorite songs, is just the clincher. I will NEVER hear that song the same way again. Before today? I didn't know who Jimmy Mack was, I just knew that I loved the melody, and I knew Martha and the Vandellas wanted him to come back! And that was good enough for me!

    But now....the sadness that's in that melody, that sadness I could never put my finger on......now I know who Jimmy Mack was....he's the guy who gave the world (and specifically me) one of the most deathless songs (and recordings) there is.

    Didn't know the Tokens had anything to do with the record!

    Thank you to everyone who shared such vivid remembrances, his family and his friends. Ronnie Mack. I'm so sad - and also angry - that he was taken away so soon.

    PS: In response to the comment above.....I love George, and I even love "My Sweet Lord" .... but it's a rip-off of "He's So Fine". It's not just the "He's So Fine/My Sweet Lord" part of the song, it's the B-section of the song...."I don't know how I'm going to do it but I'm going to make him mine/I really want to know you".....melodically it's the same. I'm a songwriter, and sometimes you unconsciously cop someone else's tune, I agree that Harrison probably didn't hear "He's So Fine" and conspire to steal the melody, he didn't need to, he certainly had written a string of highly distinctive and melodically/harmonically inventive songs. But both records have the same basic melody.....Ronnie Mack's melody. (both records are masterpieces of arrangement, record production and performance, though!)

    Anyways, thank you all so much for contributing to this page.....I learned alot, feel like I made a new friend....yet another piece of the jigsaw, yet another major contributor to the great mosaic of rock and roll, and indeed of the great 20th century Renaissance in music and all the arts! I mean.....it's frickin' "He's So Fine".....!!!!!!!! Thank you Ronnie. It's almost 60 years later.....and we're still listening to you. We always will. Thank you, maestro.
  • Don Rubin from Long Island New YokI would like to contact Ronnie Mack's sister or his estate 917-434-3501
  • Mark from Orlando FlI'm just an old 62 year old white guy and lifelong amateur songwriter/musician/singer and so glad I just learned the story of this gifted songwriter, but terribly sad to learn of his all too short life. No doubt in my mind he'd be much bigger legend had he lived a long life. Sometimes I feel very sad that someone was taken away at the beginning of their lives yet I'm still here and healthy after 6 decades. It's just not fair. He's So Fine has got to be one of the happiest fun songs ever that has brightened countless people's days all over the world. And I am so touched that he was able to bring his family out of poverty and what are the odds that a Beatle would help his family again almost 15 years later by winning the George Harrison lawsuit ? (Uh, I just realized, and God I hope I'm wrong, but I pray the lawyers and other costs of the lawsuit didn't eat up most of that settlement. ) In any case, pretty sure George certainly didn't miss it. Hope all of us meet together one day in that big rock n roll party in the sky.
  • Ms. Sabatie (harvey) Whittington from Bronx, New York.4/23/2017,
    Hi, Just came over this site. So glad. Thanks Dot Mack-Sanders, Carl Wiser.
    It makes me remember again my friend from back then, Ronnie Mack.
    I write this as a few interactions between two friends.

    Now, as I recall, I grew up knowing Ronnie Mack in Harlem (early to mid 1950's).
    He lived on 130th St (around the corner from our JHS 43), and I lived on LaSalle St. between Amsterdam & Broadway.
    We attended JHS 43 (7th to 9th grade), on 129th St & Amsterdam Avenue.
    A group of us (Ronnie, Leroy, myself, Marva, Helen, James,) and others, hung out in the park across from "43" after school. We used to have some impromptu 'singing' contests there on the benches, and when it was my turn to sing, I sang soprano; not what was wanted then, as I would always sing "Trees" & "Cielito Lindo" which I learned in music class.
    We would also attend the Friday night dances at JHS 43 and sometimes I would be the "disc Jockey". We had fun as most young teens did, and once, I remember Ronnie saying he would write a song for me to sing one day. He must have been all of 13 or 14. I never gave it a thought.
    I remember when the Mack family moved to the Bronx, in the same PH where my cousin Jim lived, and I visited them a few times. Ronnie was by then well on his
    way to fame.
    I once met him on 125th st. and as we walked, he said he had not forgotten 'my' song. He asked me to go with him to "Sugar Hill" because he had an appointment with some agent or producer. It was interesting.
    A few years later I saw him on Riverside Drive where I was sitting on a bench with my children and he stopped to talk. He reminded me again of writing me a song. This time I smiled and said OK my friend.
    Then, later on I heard he was ill and in Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx. I went to visit him and he was in good spirits. We talked about old times, old friends, my best friend Marva J., and saying again that he would write that song. OK Ronnie, I said with a smile, name it "I Wrote The Song"! We laughed.
    Not long after that, Ronnie was gone. I went to the wake, then went to the Apollo theater because the Chiffons were appearing there and somehow I expected them to announce his passing. They did not, but they looked saddened.
    The last time I saw his sister(s) Dot, or Brenda, was during the George Harrison incident. I was going to see my cousin Jim and met her along the way.
    I keep a collection of "oldies" from my teenage years and play them from time to time. I still have the 45's also. RIP & SIP Ronnie Mack, my friend.
  • Dov Shurin from Jerusalem IsraelHow I met Hank Medress and saw the Gold Record of ' He's so Fine' on his office wall. Right after John Lennon was murdered, I wrote an amazing song for John.
    In 1986 I took a demo of it to BMI and met with Composer Bobby Weinstein, head of BMI, who said he liked the song, "And I don't say that often!" He sent me to Hank Medress, originally of The Tokens, but now a big producer. His wall was covered by 'Gold Records, including ' He's so fine.'
    He listened to my John Lennon song, also liked it, but wanted ME to record it. At the time, I wasn't interested in singing it but just selling it. (By the way, I recorded it in a great clip 20 years later. And it can be enjoyed at my web site's video section- www.dovshurin.com I'm still waiting for a group wanting to record it????) while I sat with the late Hank Medress, he told me how he, and a bunch of friends were driving down Broadway when the George Harrison 'new' song came on the car radio, and he said, smiling, "we nearly went out of control, hearing 'He's So Fine,' now suddenly, 'My Sweet Lord!'"
    He told me that they sued George and won, but lost. "I made a million dollars, but was asking for much more!!" He ended, "The judge ruled that George didn't realize that he was 'borrowing' the tune, it wasn't done purposely, and thus, George received only a 'small' fine. Hope I contributed, check out 'Joy's Eternity' on my website❤️.
  • Spider Harrison from Los AngelesI grew up Barbara Lee, original member of The Chiffons who had the hit on the song "He's So Fine" She was from the Bronx and visited relatives out in Hempstead, Long Island in the summers late 50's. She was fine. By 1963 we all saw her at the top because of Ronnie Mack. Great story...
  • G. Brown from Harlem, NyI grew up with Ronnie and remembered when he was writing Puppy Love and He So Fine. We would be sitting on a park bench while he was writing them. I knew his whole family and grew up with them since we were young kids. It bothers me that people are trying to take credit for his songs and all the creativity that bestow Ronnie as a person. If Ronnie had lived, I believed he would have had a great career in the music industry.
  • T Drew Hardin from New Albany IndianaA very moving article that cleared up SEVERAL things. I disagree that George Harrison plagiarized "He's So Fine". The Beatles had a whole catalog of songs(2000!) both as a group and as solo members. They were giving songs away to other groups(Badfinger, Rolling Stones). That said, they, as well as the Stones, the Who ,etc. really dug groups such as Smokey Robinson & The Miracles. In fact, the Beatles were going to do a rendition with Otis Redding before a plane crash tragically ended Mr. Redding's life. With all due respect, the Beatles(and the Stones) would love Ronnie Mack because he did make significant contributions to the Rock 'n' Roll scene and I am saddened that he died at such a young age because I am VERY confident that he not only would keep the hits going but that he was a very fine fellow in the process. Thank you for reading my comment.
  • Paul Miller from FloridaDid Ronnie's family benefit from the lawsuit against George Harrison?
  • Dale Riley from Quincy Mass UsaI finally got to see these wonderful pictures of Ronnie Mack who wrote songs that brought me through my very tough life. Thank you for EVERYTHING Ronnie Mack !
  • Stephen Vine from London UkFor "He's so Fine" and for The Chiffons Ronnie Mack will always be remembered as one of the greats and rightly so. RIP
  • Dakota from Houston TexasWow such a talent so young thanks mr mack r.i.p.
  • Hugh FitzWhat a wonderful story... behind a much beloved song... Thank you for sharing it with us Ms Sanders...
see more comments

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