Friday, April 15, 2022

Blues Legends - Johnny Shines

One of the first blues artists I actually saw perform was Johnny Shines.  I was just beginning to listen to the blues in the mid 80's, but it was pretty hard for me to find a lot of information about most artists during that time.  There weren't many recordings available, most record store blues sections took up maybe one row and it was mostly B.B. King and Bobby "Blue" Bland (not slamming those guys by any means, but there were among the few that recorded for major labels) and a few, but not many, from Alligator Records.  The only place I ever saw blues artists on TV were on PBS, which ran a few music programs on the weekends like Austin City Limits or the Lonesome Pine specials.  During Black History Month in February of '87, the Mississippi PBS stations ran several blues programs and that year, I happened to find a show that featured Delta blues artists, a documentary of one of the Delta Blues Festivals from the late 70's  .  One of the artists featured was Johnny Shines.

I was pretty uneducated on blues musicians other than the few I'd heard at the time (King, Bland, John Lee Hooker, a little Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells), so hearing Shines gave me quite a jolt.  The combination of his energetic, intense slide guitar and his equally energetic and intense vocals was just mesmerizing to me.  I only got to hear one song of his, though, and I wanted to hear more.  Over the next few years, I was able to catch a song or two on several compilation albums or anthologies, and each time I was duly impressed with him.

Over the past couple of years, I've really gotten into Shines' music, thanks to finding several of his albums at the Little Big Store, my favorite used record store.  Apparently, someone in the area was also a Shines fan and sold several Shines albums to the store.  Over the last fifteen months or so, I've been gradually harvesting them at the store, plus picking up a few albums on Amazon along the way, so they have been a regular part of my evening listening as I wind down from the day.

When I first discovered Shines, I had no idea of his connection to Robert Johnson.  In fact, I actually heard Shines before I heard Johnson, by just a few weeks.  Shines met Johnson in 1934 and became a traveling companion, accompanying Johnson around the Southern region, hitting all the juke joints and eventually traveling to Chicago, New York, Texas, Kentucky, Indiana, and as far north as Windsor, Ontario, where they appeared on a radio program.  The two were a team until 1937, when they went their separate ways in Arkansas, never to see each other again (Johnson was murdered in 1938).

In the early 40's, Shines moved to Chicago, continuing to play professionally for several years, effortlessly converting to electric blues in the process.  He even recorded a few tracks for Columbia Records that were not released at the time, before working a variety of jobs, including construction work.  In the early 50's, he recorded for J.O.B. (considered some of his finest work) and Chess (as "Shoeshine Johnny"), but continued to work outside of the music.  Shines didn't like playing the clubs and taverns in Chicago, which probably helped to limit his success, but also spared him the grind of life in the music business with one-night stands, late hours, and some of the dangers involved with playing the clubs.

For seven years (1958 through 1965), he didn't play music at all, though he did purchase a camera and took pictures in various clubs of the musicians, fans, and capturing the general atmosphere of the scene, selling the pictures as souvenirs to the patrons.  He was able to keep in touch with the musicians and the local folks in attendance, so he never really "left" the blues.....he just didn't play them for a few years.

In 1965, he was "rediscovered" by Mike Rowe, an English blues enthusiast.  Though he was right there to be seen by anyone interested, no one was really sure what had happened to him.  Some thought he had died, while others thought he was driving a truck.  Rowe found out where he was via one of the other Chicago blues men, maybe Sunnyland Slim, who gave Rowe his address.  Rowe wrote Shines a letter, but Shines didn't answer it "because I wasn't interested," he stated in Peter Guralnick's Feel Like Going Home.  Rowe eventually made the trip to Chicago and ended up at Shines' house.

Just a couple of weeks later, Sam Charters of Vanguard Records actually got Shines back into the studio, where he recorded several songs for Charters' Chicago!  The Blues!  Today! anthology.  Shines contributed seven tracks to Volume 3 of the series, playing with Big Walter Horton (whose harmonica work on the entire set is just phenomenal), Floyd Jones on bass, and Frank Kirkland on drums.  All of the tracks were excellent, even the track with the band backing Horton and "Memphis" Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica, but the standout track to me was Shines' version of Robert Johnson's "Terraplane Blues," which Shines dubbed "Dynaflow Blues," which pays tribute to his mentor, but also takes the track to a new level with Shines' slashing slide guitar.


Soon afterward, Shines cut several albums for Pete Welding's Testament label, all of which should be heard by anyone who enjoys vintage Chicago blues.  Volume One of the Masters of Modern Blues series features Shines with Horton, Otis Spann, bassist Lee Jackson, and drummer Fred Below.  Shines teams with Horton, Spann, and Below (plus Luther Allison on several tracks) on the excellent Johnny Shines with Big Walter Horton release, while Standing at the Crossroads is a strong solo acoustic country blues effort that pays tribute to Johnson but shows that Shines was himself a force to be reckoned with in the country blues genre.  Each of these are excellent, but I'm a bit partial to the Shines/Horton/Allison collaboration.....some really good, raw, electric Chicago blues.  He also recorded Last Night's Dream, with Horton, Willie Dixon, Otis Spann, and drummer Clifton James on Blue Horizon.  It included several new original songs and it was as good as the Testament recordings.

This flurry of activity really rejuvenated Shines' career and reintroduced him to a host of new blues fans.  Shines went on tour, first with Horton and later with Dixon and the Chicago All-Stars.  Eventually, Shines began touring with his own band and was doing pretty well until his daughter unexpectedly passed away in 1969.  Shines was not enamoured with the prospect of raising his grandchildren in the city, so he relocated the entire family to Holt, Alabama, near Tuscaloosa.

He continued to recorded throughout the 70's, recording for Biograph, Advent, Rounder, and Tomato Records.  All of these recordings are worthwhile.  The Biograph highlights have been collected into Traditional Delta Blues, which includes his versions of several Johnson songs, including one that Johnson reportedly taught him, but never recorded himself ("Tell Me Mama").  The Advent set was later released on Hightone and, later, Shout! Factory, and mixes in a few R&B tracks....good, but not essential.  The Tomato set, Too Wet To Plow, is a very interesting set and teams Shines with Sugar Blue on harp and the inimitable Louisiana Red, which makes you wish the two had collaborated more often.  Shines also toured and recorded with Robert Lockwood, Jr. frequently during the decade, and he continued to perform at various festivals and locally in Holt and Tuscaloosa. 

In 1980, Shines suffered a stroke, which really affected his guitar playing, but left his mighty voice pretty much intact.  He continued to tour in America and overseas, teaming with Kent DuChaine the last couple of years of his life.  He also made one final recording, with DuChaine and producer Johnny Nicholas on guitar, and harmonica pioneer Snooky Pryor, Back To The Country on Blind Pig.  That album earned Shines a Handy Award.  Sadly, Shines passed away in April of 1992, so he wasn't there to receive the award.  His health had been deteriorating for some time.

Shines built a very respectible career after returning to the spotlight in the late 60's, crafting a powerful body of work.  Sadly, he was often talked to and about more for his association with Robert Johnson than his own formidable musical talents, which had to have frustrated him quite a bit, but he soldiered on and his catalog is most impressive.  If you are not familiar with Johnny Shines' story and his music, I can't recommend him highly enough.  You can't go wrong with any of his recordings.