Remembering Miami’s music man pioneer, Bernie Mackey, part 7

(Top Left to Right) Billy Bowen (bass), Cliff Givens, Bernard "Bernie" Mackey (baritone), and (Bottom) Bill Kenny (lead singer) smile as they pose for a group picture at the Gale Agency, Inc., in New York. (Courtesy of Austin Casey)

Bernard “Bernie” Arthurneal Mackey, a singer and guitarist for the Ink Spots, a famed quartet of the ‘30s and ‘40s, was a Black trailblazer, leaving an imprint on pop culture and paving the road for other African American vocal groups, from the Ravens to the Orioles to Motown’s Temptations.   

Born in the Bahamas on July 29, 1909, Mackey was brought to Miami when he was just six weeks old. Along with his four brothers and two sisters, he learned to sing and play stringed instruments. 

With his baritone voice and guitar abilities, he took off for Washington, D.C. in 1940 after working as a porter at a Miami hotel for a year.

Mackey’s ambition to become a musician led him to the Ink Spots in 1943. His work with them would influence the birth of R&B, rock and roll, and doo-wop. Pop artists of the day, such as Ella Fitzgerald, Bull Moose Jackson, and Bunny Berigan, featured Mackey’s guitar and vocals. 

Despite being in the quartet for only two years, Millisa Della Lilley, the group’s former Fort Lauderdale-based booking agent, confirmed Mackey as an original member in a 1999 Miami Herald news clip. Lilley died in 2013. 

“Two of the members knew him,” she said. “He was in and out of the group but was always their favorite guitarist.” 

He replaced Charlie Fuqua, another Ink Spots member, in October 1943, and made his first appearance at the Stanley Theatre in Pittsburgh. Mackey contributed to the group’s biggest hits: “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall,” with Ella Fitzgerald, “If I Didn’t Care,” “Do I Worry?” and “Whispering Grass.” 

Long after he had left the Ink Spots, Mackey was still playing music in other bands and touring on shows for major artists such as The Big Broadcast of 1944. 

He continued playing until he died on March 12, 1980, succumbing to cancer in his sister’s home in Miami. He was buried in the family plot at Miami City Cemetery, and slowly faded from memory for all but family, friends and a few fans. His grave was left unmarked in the “colored section” near a tool shed in the cemetery. 

But in April 1996, the Dade Heritage Trust shined a spotlight on him once more. Through an anonymous donor, they secured funds to pay for the tombstone of the doo-wop great. Mackey’s stone was upgraded to a polished Texas rose granite with designs of musical notes and the names of family members. 

The trust also commemorated a service for him on April 11, 1999. The procession started at St. Agnes Episcopal and ended at the Miami City Cemetery.

“It was a long time coming,” said Mackey’s niece, Juanita Jackson, 65. “Everyone was happy it was being done.”

Enid Pinkney, 89, the former president of Dade Heritage Trust, said the tribute, part of Dade Heritage Days, underlined the intent of the event she helped start 28 years ago, which aimed at saluting all the pioneers buried at the historic cemetery. 

“We wanted it to be about celebrating our history, calling attention to the people in this community and what they’ve done,” she said. 

Mackey helped establish the preeminence of the tenor and bass singer as members of the pop vocal ensemble, creating a natural instinct for hot rhythm accompanied by single-string solo work and phrased vocalisms. His performances with the group, albeit minimal, added to their unique musical ballad style, heightening their popularity amongst Black and White crowds during segregation. 

Beneath the grass and weeds, Mackey’s story continues to serve as a reminder of how far the Black community in Miami has come. From a young boy who lived on 1912 NW Fifth Pl., to a man singing and swinging across the U.S. for almost 40 years, his legacy continues to push Black vocal artists into the mainstream of popular music and provide a template for changing times and tastes.

Audio Recordings of Bernard Mackey: 

https://youtu.be/p_nWN-UZsOI

https://youtu.be/hvhDyEBkXdc 

https://youtu.be/ACfVn6Z3ifs 

https://youtu.be/eTfGdTlNFGU (This is a recording of Mackey singing lead with a non-original “Ink Spots” group of his own composition “Do-nuts.” The other members on this recording are Orlando Roberson – tenor, Essex Scott – second tenor, and Adriel McDonald – bass vocal.)

Elizabeth Garcia is a senior at Florida International University and studies journalism. She aspires to work for National Geographic as a photojournalist and to continue her work as a youth soccer coach.