As ubiquitous as the little 1×12″ Mesa/Boogie Mark Series combo has become over the past 48 years – and as large and successful as the company grew to be – there was a time when one of the world’s most-famous guitarists had to plead his case with Randy Smith to jump the months-long waiting list for amps the Boogie creator was turning out from his California home.
804 was the first of several that Rolling Stone Keith Richards would purchase – that’s right, purchase – and play on tour and in the studio. Owned by Boogie enthusiast Ian Dickey and known as “Keef’s El Mocambo Boogie,” it’s a Mark I 60-/100-watt with reverb, five-band graphic EQ, Altec speaker, and hardwood cab. At the time of the Mark I (so-called after introduction of the Mark II), the Mesa/Boogie was not a channel-switcher, but had two inputs to access different preamp configurations; Input 1 tapped the Lead channel with four stages of 12AX7-fired gain, while Input 2 tapped three stages in the Rhythm channel for a more “hotrodded Fender” tone. Footswitchable or not, as Richards, the Stones, and hundreds of thousands of fans would attest, this Boogie rocked like the friggin’ bejaysus.
Famous as the little club big acts like to play, Toronto’s El Mocambo hosted the Stones for two nights in early March of 1977. The first proper club dates the band had played in 14 years, they served as a recording venue for what would become side three of the album Love You Live, and were also a warm-up for a forthcoming arena tour. Photos of those shows reveal the characteristic cigarette burn Richards had scorched into the cab (above the Treble knob), and showed second guitarist Ronnie Wood also playing a Boogie built on the heels of Keith’s. Heady times.
So, how did it all unfold? According to Mesa/Boogie founder Randy Smith, it started with an unexpected phone call.
“At that point, building amps was a cottage industry and I did everything. So, I picked it up and it was [Stones pianist] Ian Stewart. He said, ‘We’re interested in trying a Boogie.’ They’d heard a lot about them and asked if I would send some. I said, ‘I really can’t do that. I’m a one-person shop; I don’t give away amps.’ And he said, ‘We’re the Rolling Stones, we don’t pay for amps.’”
A brief stalemate was broken when the pioneering builder kicked it up a notch.
“I could hear Keith in the background,” Smith continued. “He was talking at Ian, telling him what to say. I said, ‘Is that Keith? Put him on, would you please?’ Keith gets on the line and he’s just the best – super-friendly guy – and he says, ‘Hey man. How you doing? Yeah, I’d love to get my hands on one of your amplifiers.’ We went through the same thing and he said, ‘Well, it just doesn’t seem right. We haven’t paid for gear in forever. We just don’t.’ I said, ‘Well, I just don’t give gear away because I’m basically just a starving cat here. Besides, if I was going to give gear away, wouldn’t I be better off giving it to some guy – a broken-down blues player or an up-and-coming guy – who truly couldn’t afford it?’ And he kinda’ said, ‘Yeah, I guess so.’
“I’d probably been toking up, so I really stepped out on the plank. I said, ‘Keith, look at it this way… You guys are getting ready to go out on tour and you’re going to be raking in huge bucks. Pay for the amp, and if you don’t like it, you’ve got two choices. You can send it back and I’ll give you a full refund. Or, because people are trying to get their hands on these things and I’ve got a backlog that’s endless, a better option would be to sell it and take the cash, which you’ve already written off for tour expenses.’
“There was a long pause, and I thought, ‘Uh oh, I might have gone a step too far.’ After this pregnant pause, he says, ‘Well, yeah, mate. That would be a really good idea, except I already know I want the amp. There’s no doubt about that. I played Santana’s when he sat in with us. And I don’t want just one, I want six of ’em.’
“So, the amp Ian has is one of those first six. Over the years, the Stones have bought – and paid for – 42 of them.”
After the El Mocambo dates and recordings, the Boogie was used for the Some Girls sessions and more live dates, then was returned to Mesa for servicing in 1992-’93 before being taken on Richards’ X-Pensive Winos tour.
Sometime during the Stones’ Forty Licks tour of 2002-’03, Boogie A804 was given to guitar tech Pierre de Beauport, who sold it to Outlaw Guitars. An investment broker purchased it from Outlaw and sold it to Billy Penn, who hipped our current owner to its existence in ’05 and sold it to him in ’07.
Having been put through the intensive Stones CSI for authentication, this Boogie’s lineage leaves little to the imagination. In addition to the serial number linking it directly to the Richards purchase, we have the telltale cigarette burns, evidence of the positioning of the blue gaffer tape with “KR” that formerly adorned the amp’s top, Smith’s own “Stones” legend in faded Sharpie on both sidewalls of the chassis, and several other distinguishing marks. And after all it has been through, it’s still as mean and raucous as it was churning out “Honky Tonk omen,” “Crackin’ Up,” and “Brown Sugar” on March 4, 1977, shortly after Randy Smith himself delivered it into Richards’ hands in Toronto. In all, the little box is about as formidable a chunk of rock-gear history as you’ll stumble upon.
In 2021, Dickey lent it to the Gibson Garage, Nashville, for a display in celebration of bringing Mesa/Boogie into the Gibson fold; Smith personally thanked Dickey for the gesture. An orthopedic surgeon in Bangor, Maine, he plans to use the amp through the summer of ’23 for charitable performances near home and in his native Canada before loaning it to the new Gibson Garage in London.
“It’s generating a lot of attention, and it’s great that people are so excited about seeing it,” Dickey told VG. “It’s getting played a lot, and I’m looking forward to taking it out again.”
This article originally appeared in VG’s March 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.