One of the great examples of loyalty in the music business was guitarist William "Billy" Mackel's relationship with charismatic vibraphonist and bandleader Lionel Hampton. Concerning Mackel, who like many string players from his generation started out on banjo, some biographers would like to write simply: "He played with Lionel Hampton." Furthermore, they made a lot of records, considering that the stack of Hampton sides in which Mackel gets a tackle could be utilized to obscure a vibraphone from visibility were such an action to be required for security purposes. Vague as that is, it does summarize quite a bit of Mackel's life. It would also be only fair to mention the city of Baltimore, where Mackel was born and where he retired after more than three decades on the road with Hampton.
Up until 1982, the date of the guitarist's final performance with Hampton, the grinning bandleader would always create a special feature for the retired Mackel during any appearance in the Baltimore area. Mackel theoretically retired from the band five years earlier. From 1944 onward he had played almost exclusively for Hampton, for a short time moving over to a vocal group led by Billy Williams, who both wrote and performed the song "I'm Going to Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter," most likely on the subject of returning to the Hampton band. For an understanding of Mackel's musical outlook prior to coming into contact with Hampton, a Baltimore resident who heard him play sometime over the decade beginning in the early '30s would have to provide anecdotal description. During this time Mackel was gigging on banjo and leading his own group.
Digging through the piles of documentation that resulted from the long Hampton and Mackel association, the final year of recording studio involvement seems to be 1978. By then the guitarist had worked on more than 120 recording sessions with Hampton, but only one on his own, the 1977 At Last. Hampton's retirement present to the accompanist who had kept such perfect time in so many situations was a watch made out of solid gold, inscribed "To Mackel, Thanks for a great 32 -- Hamp."