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).
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.
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.
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.