Born April 25, 1915, in Frazier, TN; died in 1992 in Chicago, IL; married first wife, 1932; third wife's name, Hattie; eight children.
Truly a founding father of modern blues, Johnny Shines is regarded as the finest interpreter of Robert Johnson's immortal songs. Although Shines first heard guitar chording from Howlin' Wolf, he is embedded in blues mythology through his friendship and travels with Johnson, the archetypical cursed genius of the blues.
Shines was born on April 25, 1915, in Frazier, Tennessee. He worked on his father's farm as a boy, before wanderlust took him to Memphis and the sundry excitements found on Beale Street. Shines's interest in the blues was natural and began early; he recalled being inspired by Blind Lemon Jefferson after seeing him perform on Beale Street in 1925. As Shines told blues historian Peter Guralnick, "Anything there was, it was to be found on Beale Street. There were preachers, pimps, lawyers, gamblers, doctors, shysters, anything and everything."
It is not known under what circumstances Shines first encountered Howlin' Wolf, and later, Robert Johnson. Before Shines died in 1992, he completed his autobiography, Success Was My Downfall, but it remains unpublished. Shines recounted to Guralnick a 1932 sighting of the larger-than-life Howlin' Wolf: "I first met Wolf, I was afraid of Wolf. Because it was an old saying, you know, people thought about magic and all such things as that, and I come along and say, a guy that played like Wolf, he'd sold his soul to the devil. I mean the sound he was giving off--that's how great I thought Wolf was."
In 1935 Shines met Robert Johnson through a Memphis piano player named M&O. "Robert changed everything," Shines later told Guralnick. "Now I had Wolf's style in the beginning, and I was beginning to pick up on a few guys' different styles, and then I ran into Robert in Helena, Arkansas. Matter of fact I just began tagging along. Not that he wanted me along, I don't think, but Robert had a style that I liked, and I always felt if you wanted something you have to get right behind it and stay with it."
As they traveled together, Johnson and Shines often performed opposite one another, playing gin joints, country suppers and dances--any gig they could get. For three and a half years they rambled, going from the South to New Jersey, New York, Detroit, Canada, and finally, Chicago.
After Johnson's death in 1938, Shines traveled for a time with Robert Jr. Lockwood, Johnson's stepson. Eventually Shines settled in Chicago, where he cut sessions for both Columbia and the J.O.B. label, all while fronting the Dukes of Swing, an eight-piece jump blues group at the Apex Chateau in Robbins, Illinois.
The 1946 Columbia sessions were not released until the Testament label unearthed them in 1971. The album, titled Chicago Blues--The Beginning, reveals Shines as the embodiment of the great Delta country blues tradition, albeit somewhat displaced. The recordings were also highly portentous; with Muddy Waters, Shines foreshadowed the electric Chicago-style blues to come. Although the Dukes of Swing offered renditions of jazz and R&B tunes (anything by Count Basie or Duke Ellington was fair game), Shines soon drifted back to the blues for the J.O.B. sessions in 1953. In 1958 he gave music up entirely, selling his gear to a pawn shop for $100. Between 1958 and his rediscovery a decade later, Shines worked a construction job in Chicago.
In 1965, on the heels of the British infatuation with American blues, Shines was embraced by a young, white blues audience. British blues aficionado Mike Rowe brought Shines back into the international limelight; Rowe was impressed with Shines's personal history as much as he was with his affinity to African rhythms and voicings. Between the late 1960s and his death, Shines recorded for several labels and traveled with Willie Dixon's Blues All Stars, enjoying a reputation in the blues world as one of the living greats. Not only the keeper of Robert Johnson's flame, Shines also had a direct influence on modern bluesmen like Robert Cray and John Campbell. Shines died in 1992 at age 77. While his records display unmatched authenticity, great technical command, and an expressive candor, Shines will remain most famous for being the principal witness to Robert Johnson's mercurial talents and travels.
by Stewart Francke
Johnny Shines's Career
Began traveling to Memphis and Beale Street, 1925; learned guitar from Howlin' Wolf, 1932; traveled with Robert Johnson, 1935-38; led eight-piece band the Dukes of Swing; recorded for Columbia, 1946; recorded for J.O.B., 1953; worked in construction in Chicago, 1958-66; rediscovered by blues music world, 1966; toured with Willie Dixon's All Stars, 1969; recorded Hey Ba Ba Re Bop, Boston, MA, 1979.
- Selective Works
- Chicago Blues: The Beginning, Testament, 1971.
- Johnny Shines, Advent, 1974.
- Hey Ba Ba Re Bop, Rounder, 1979.
- (With Robert Jr. Lockwood) Dust My Broom, Flyright, c. 1979.
- Johnny Shines, Hightone, 1989.
- Last Night's Dream, Sire, 1993.
- Guralnick, Peter, Lost Highway, Vintage Books, 1982.
- Heilbut, Anthony, The Gospel Sound, fourth edition, Limelight, 1992.
- Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers and Shakers, Billboard Books, 1991.
- Rolling Stone Album Guide, edited by Anthony DeCurtis, James Henke, and Holly George-Warren, Straight Arrow, 1992.
- Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, edited by Jon Pareles and Patricia Romanowski, Rolling Stone Press, 1983.
- Rolling Stone Record Guide, edited by Dave Marsh, Rolling Stone Press, 1979.
- Scott, Frank, The Down Home Guide to the Blues, A Capella Books, 1991.
- Whitburn, Joel, Top R&B Singles, 1942-88, Billboard Books, 1990.