Born: April 26, 1915 | Died: April 20, 1992 Primary Instrument: Guitar
Johnny Shines, one of the original Delta blues performers, was born April, 25, 1915 in Frayser, Tennessee, a Memphis suburb. Both his brother and an uncle played guitar, He first started playing in 1932 and early influences included Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson, Scrapper Blackwell and Charlie Patton, before he attracted the attention of Howlin’ Wolf, and he was known as the Little Wolf.
He started playing professionally by 1933-1934, playing around Memphis with such other artists as Willie Bee Borum, Honey Boy Albert Shaw, his cousin Calvin Frazier and others. While playing he made the acquaintance of Robert Johnson in Helena, Arkansas with whom he traveled with throughout Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri and other places, even going north to Buffalo and Windsor, Ontario. Johnson deeply influenced Shines guitar playing. Mike Rowe, in his history of Chicago blues, Chicago Breakdown, points to Lonnie Johnson as a major influence of Shines’ singing.
Shines moved to Chicago in 1941 and established himself as part of the club scene, although working a day job, and working mostly on weekends, including occasionally working out of town. In 1945, Lester Melrose recorded him for Columbia in a small group setting, but these sides remained unissued until 1971. His next recording session was in 1950, when Jimmy Rogers brought him to Chess and as “Shoe Shine Johnny” recorded two powerful sides, “So Glad I Found You,” coupled with “Joliet Blues,” that had Jimmy Rogers on guitar and Little Walter on harmonica. These sides were not released until the late 1960s when they appeared on a Chess anthology “Drop Down Mama.” In 1953, Johnny returned to the studio for Joe Brown’s J.O.B. label. His first record was “Ramblin’,” a fabulous recreation of Robert Johnson’s “Walking Blues,” with stunning bottleneck guitar and a scorching vocal. He also recorded a superb version of Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues,” called “Fishtail Blues,” which wasn’t issued until the 1980’s. Shines’ performances stand up to Johnson’s originals, and if Shines’ guitar playing stood in Johnson’s shadow, he was frankly a more powerful singer than Johnson was.
A subsequent session for J.O.B. produced “Evening Sun” and “Brutal Headed Woman” which featured the harmonica of Walter Horton whose solo on Evening Sun is among the definitive blues harmonica solos, while Shines sang with overwhelming power, and a later session with Sunnyland Slim and J.T. Brown produced an unusual “Living in the White House.”
Shines remained active on the musical scene until about 1958, although a disagreement with Al Benson, an influential person in the Chicago music scene, made it difficult to get a contract. In 1958 he became disillusioned with the music scene and gave up playing music. In the early-sixties Johnny was rediscovered working as a freelance photographer at the clubs where Muddy or the Wolf would play. Upon rediscovery, he was recorded by Sam Charters and Pete Welding. His recordings for Charters were issued on Volume 3 of “Chicago the Blues Today,” and featured Walter Horton’s harp. After superb versions of “Terraplane & Dynaflow Blues,” Johnny is heard on a set of solid, traditionally based Chicago blues with Horton’s harp weaving in and around his vocal. He made several albums for Welding, one of which was part of the “Masters of Chicago Blues” series for Testament with Otis Spann and Walter Horton among the sideman. Of particular interest were several duets with drummer Fred Below.
Shines also recorded a solo album, “Standing at the Crossroads,” for Testament that contained acclaimed acoustic sessions, considered his finest effort by many.This has been reissued on the HighTone label
Johnny Shines was also a charter member of Willie Dixon’s Chicago Blues All Stars around 1968, although at some point he moved out of Chicago to Holt, Alabama, near Tuscalosa. He continued to tour blues clubs and record extensively. Frank Scott recorded a brilliant album for Advent that included superb acoustic performances including a remake of “Ramblin’ “and the ominous “Skull and Crossroads Blues” with urban band blues sides, including the gripping “My Love Can’t Hide” reminiscent of Otis Rush’s Cobra recordings, and showed his capabilities outside of a Delta or traditional Chicago blues setting.
He recorded somewhat frequently during the seventies for Biograph, Rounder and other labels, and toured extensively. During the mid-seventies, Johnny and Walter Horton toured with guitarist John Nicholaus and his band, Guitar Johnny and the Rhythm Rockers, as well as recorded with Nicholaus for Blind Pig. Later in the decade he also started working with Robert Lockwood, Jr. and they recorded an album, “Hangin’ On,” which was nominated for a Grammy in 1980. Sometime after that album was issued, Johnny suffered the first in a series of strokes that limited his physical dexterity, and had lesser effect on his powerful singing style.
In his later years, Johnny appeared with a talented Kent DuShaine who handled much of the guitar chores while Johnny continued to sing with much the same power, although there might be a little bit of slur in his vocals at the beginning. With the increased interest in Robert Johnson, attention was focused on Shines who played at the 1991 Chicago Blues Festival’s tribute to Robert Johnson, as well as at the 1991 Folklife Festival of American Folklife sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution as part of The Roots of Rhythm and Blues: the Robert Johnson Era. Along with Robert Lockwood, Henry Townsend and Honeyboy Edwards, Johnny shared, with considerable patience, remembrances of Johnson, and still showed how powerful a singer he was.
Blind Pig Records issued a solid album by Johnny and Snooky Pryor which Johnny’s old friend, John Nicholaus produced, as well as handled most of the guitar chores, reflecting his love of Johnny. While suffering in comparison to those classic recordings Shines made prior to his stroke, it remained a worthy testimonial of him. News of his death on April 20, 1992, by a heart attack wasn’t a total surprise, He had been hospitalized since his left leg had been amputated because of the hardening of the arteries, although the word seemed to be that Johnny was getting better. The weekend before his death Robert Lockwood mentioned that he heard Johnny was doing well under the circumstances.
In addition to being a brilliant blues performer, Johnny Shines was a thoughtful and articulate spokesperson for the blues, who will be sorely missed. There will be no more like him. The world renowned Blues musician has been declared a Living Treasure of Alabama, been nominated for a Grammy, received the Chicago Blues Living Legend Award, been inducted into the Delta Blues Museum, and awarded membership to the Hot Club Du France.
By Ron Weinstock
Source: Ron Weinstock