Long before becoming a force in Chicago blues, Johnny Shines hoboed with Robert Johnson through Depression-era America. They hopped freights, played on street corners, shared rooms and whiskey, and made it as far north as Canada. Johnson, the Mississippi Delta’s most celebrated blues performer, perished in 1938, and for the next half-century, his spirit haunted the music of Johnny Shines. It echoed in his turnarounds, mournful bottleneck slides, impassioned lyrics, and falsetto moans. At clubs, house parties, and other gatherings, Johnny Shines was just as likely to launch into Johnson’s “Crossroads Blues,” “Terraplane Blues,” and “Sweet Home Chicago” as he was his own “Evil-Hearted Woman Blues,” “A Little Tenderness,” and “Evening Sun.”
Raised in Tennessee and Arkansas, Shines took up guitar in 1932, and within three years began his celebrated rambles with Johnson. Shines moved to Chicago in 1941, amplified his guitar, and staked Frost’s Corner as his home turf. He played Tom’s Tavern for many years with pianist Sunnyland Slim, and worked in nearby Robbins, Illinois, with the jazzy Dukes of Swing. His first recordings, four 1946 OKeh sides, remained unissued for a quarter-century. In fact, bad luck seemed to dog Johnny’s recording career the whole time he lived in Chicago. After two 1950 sides as Shoe Shine Johnny, a pair for Chess in ’52, and a handful for J.O.B. 78s with Walter Horton in ’53, he pawned his guitar and quit music altogether. He wasn’t persuaded back into the studios until 1965’s Chicago/The Blues/Today! During the ’70s, though, Shines became a blues celebrity, touring America and Europe and recording for Biograph, Testament, Flyright, Advent, Rounder, and other labels.
A kind, intelligent man with penetrating eyes and a subtle wit, Johnny moved to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 1969, and stayed there until his death in 1992. A stroke eventually slowed his fretting hand, but his powerful voice remained remarkably similar to his earliest records, echoing the deep Delta blues of a bygone era. He was 73 when I encountered him playing California clubs and house parties. Our interview was held in a Watsonville farmhouse on January 23, 1989. I brought along three albums – Advent’s Johnny Shines, and his two collaborations with Robert Jr. Lockwood, Hangin’ On and Mister Blues Is Back to Stay. I also had a Xerox copy of the Johnny Shines sessions listed in Mike Leadbitter and Neil Slaven’s essential reference book, Blues Records. Midway into the interview, I handed Johnny a photograph of Robert Johnson that had recently been found and published in Rolling Stone. Portions of our interview appeared as “Johnny Shines: Whupped Around and Screwed Around But Still Hanging On” in the March/April ’90 issue of Living Blues. Here’s the complete conversation:
Were you born John Shines?
John Shines, that’s right. John Ned Lee Shines. I had two middle names. That was from my uncle and great uncle. Ned was my great uncle, and Lee was my uncle.
Do you consider yourself a Delta bluesman?
That’s what I am, a Delta bluesman. And now I’m considered the king of the Delta blues.
A few years ago you were working on an autobiography.
Yeah. I never did anything with it so far. Yes, sir. I been so busy going to school, you know, and doing different things. I go to school every day for upholstery.
Is this a new sideline you want to get into?
Well, yes. That will be my main line. See, I had a stroke back in ’80, and this [left] hand here is not very good. It affected my playing very badly. So the biggest playing I do now is slide, because I can’t hold a chord down good. The chord is all muted out. So I’ve taken these trades as therapy as well as a position in life.
Could you play at all right after your stroke?
I’ve been playing just about as good as I play now, ever since I’ve had a stroke. Well, I play a little better now than I did before, when I first had it. My stroke happened after I had done Hangin’ On. When I did that one, why, shit, I was playing like hell.
You mean good or bad?
Good! Now this one here, Mister Blues Is Back to Stay, let me see. Hangin’ On was my first. See, on this one here [picks up Mister Blues Is Back to Stay], I had had the stroke, and I didn’t play at all on it.
What are your favorite tracks on those albums?
I think “Soul Power” was pretty powerful. I like the way it was done and the arrangement.
What about on Hangin’ On?
Well, yeah. “Razzmadazz.” “Full Grown Woman” I thought was pretty good. Robert Jr. and I were doing those acoustic, just the two of us.
Do you prefer playing acoustic guitar?
Well, yes. I prefer playing acoustic over electric, but since I’ve had the stroke, I have to play electric to really be heard, because I mutes the strings out so bad.
That didn’t come across when you played electric onstage last night.
A lot of things people don’t hear [laughs]. A lot of things they hear, but they don’t be goin’ on.
Are you critical of your own playing?
Where can someone hear the best of Johnny Shines’ guitar work?
I think they should look this one up [ points to Hangin’ On]. I like “Razzmadazz,” “Big John,” “Early in the Morning” and “Lonesome Whistle.” Those songs was done acoustically – just Robert and myself – and I was in the peak of my playing right then.
What do you think of your earlier records? What about the Advent album?
Well, that’s a good record. I didn’t like it at all, until lately. Because the song that I really did to sell this record was fucked up from the get-go. It was the first song on side two, “My Love Can’t Hide.” See, the introduction should have been an Ebm when it was the piano, and the guy just claimed he couldn’t do it. He just could not do that. Okay, now in the middle of the damn song, when he gets ready to take a solo, here he come with the introduction – what I wanted him to do at first! And that just pissed me off. I damn near hated the record from there.
Let’s go back even further. What do you like about your very first sessions in Chicago?
[Looks at the sessions Xerox.] “Delta Pine” and “Ride, Ride Mama.” Well, all of them were pretty good, I think [points to Feb. 24, 1946 entry in Blues Records]. “Joliet Blues” and “So Glad I Found You” was good. “Ramblin’” was good, “Evening Sun” was good, and “I’m Gonna Call an Angel” was good.
After that, you didn’t do any more sessions as a leader until 1965.
I had really retired when I did that, and I am very unhappy with it [Chicago Blues Today 3], because I didn’t intend to ever record again. I’d been whupped around and screwed around, so I just said I wasn’t going to record no more. Matter of fact, I quit playing. I took all my stuff, ’bout $3,000 worth of material, and carried it to a pawnshop and got $100 for it. I tore the ticket up and threw it on the floor, because I didn’t want the stuff. I just quit, give up.
Then these two fellows from England, they started writing to me, and I got hip to what they was trying to do, so I quit answering their mail. Doorbell rang one morning. My wife went to the door and said, “Here’s two men out here. They talk silly, but I don’t know what they’re saying.” I said, “Send them here. I’ll know what they’re saying.” So she sent them in, and it was Frank Scott and another fellow. I can’t remember the man’s name. Anyway, they came in and I talked with ’em. So they hung around and hung around until finally they got me to say I’d do one more recording session. So I did, and Sam Charters was the one I did it for. I did these songs [points to the Vanguard entries]. “Rockin’ My Boogie” – I really didn’t have that song in mind. That was something I pulled the musicians in and made them do. That’s the first time Charlie Musselwhite had ever been in the studio, the first time he’d ever blowed on a recording session. And his leg got rubber; he fell out on the floor, couldn’t stand up. That was a session without any rehearsal whatsoever.
What led you to decide to give up music altogether?
I had some pretty shitty deals. I was playing about seven nights a week, but I was turning in three to the union – only paying the tax on three things. They caught up with me because one of my musicians got mad with me and went to the union and told them what was happening. But now in the meantime, my old lady and I had cooked up food and stuff like that, you know, to entice peoples to come down and vote for the president of the union when they was trying to kick him out of the union. And they fined me four hundred and some dollars, and I thought he should have said, “Fine suspended,” or anything. You understand what I mean? But he didn’t say a damn word. He just sit there and let it go. Then too the union never got me a job in my life. I paid my dues, sit down there goddamned day in and day out, never got a job in my life. Boys just drive in town to get jobs. It overlooked me, so I felt pretty bad towards the union. Then I was trying to play jazz too, and I wasn’t doing no good at that. Progressive jazz.
This is when you had a small band for about seven years?
Mm hmm. It was in Chicago, yeah. So I got disgusted. Went in one night and the goddamned plug was in my door – I couldn’t get in my door because I hadn’t paid my rent. A lot of things happened to me, man, very disgusting. I just got disgusted and just took this shit and said, “Man, I give it up.” Carried it to a pawnshop and got me $100 on it. That was about ’54.
What was it like when you first got to Chicago in September 1941?
A lot of guys was playing then – Big Bill Broonzy was playing, Arthur Crudup was playing, Tampa Red was playing. Dr. Clayton was singing somewhere, Memphis Slim was singing somewhere. Memphis Minnie and Son Joe was playing somewhere. Everybody was playing, so pretty soon I got started playing. It wasn’t bad.
Did you usually work by yourself or with another guitarist?
I played with a piano player. I didn’t need no other guitar player.
When you were growing up in Helena, Arkansas, weren’t there several two-guitar teams in town?
Oh, yeah. June Clay and Ollie Burks – they was good. They was good as a team. They was two stepbrothers.
Did you know them when you were young?
Mm hmm. Yeah.
How old were you when you started playing?
I really was 16 when I started playing, but I didn’t turn professional until I was about 17.
Did you play anything before that?
I played a little organ as a kid. Gospel music, you know.
Where did you get such a powerful voice?
I don’t know.
Is it from singing in places without electricity?
No. I’ve always had a powerful voice. When I was a little boy like this [holds hand a few feet above ground], I used to stand and squeal. You know how children squeal? Just squeal – heeeee. And people could hear me for a half a mile. Just like a person whistles, that’s the way I squeal, you know. Same sound. I could call my auntie from over here and my uncle from over there.
Ah, yes, I did. When I was a kid, a person heard you singing the blues like from here over to that mountain over there [waves to an outcropping about a half-mile away], if they heard you singing the blues and recognized your voice, you couldn’t go down their house, around their daughters.
Is that why bluesmen traveled around?
No, that wasn’t why they was travelin’ around. They was travelin’ around to make paydays and things like that, where there was cash money being out.
Was most of the work on the street or in clubs and roadhouses?
There wasn’t many roadhouses at that time. There was little clubs. You see, after Prohibition was broke, whiskey come back. And then you could go into little taverns and play. But you went in on your own; they wasn’t hiring you. There was many times when I just went in and sit down, and the guy said, “You play?” “Yeah.” “Sit over there and play us a tune.” You sit there and play all night, long as people are pitchin’ in nickels and dimes. Sit there and make yourself seven or eight dollars, and that was good money in those days. People work for much less than that for a week.
What were the first songs you learned?
“Jim String,” “Bumblebee Blues,” “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.” “Jim String” – that was a song about a pimp and his whore. He killed his whore, and that’s what the song’s all about. “Jim String killed Lulu one Friday night.”
Did you learn slide and fingerpicking at the same time?
Well, yes, I did. See, my picking – I don’t know whether you notice or not, most people think it’s two guitars when I’m picking by myself. Well, that’s because I learned to carry my own background by using two fingers and a thumb. I learned to carry my own background.
By carrying a steady bass beat with your thumb.
When you were young, who showed you things on guitar?
My brother was a guitar player. He tried to show me how to play the “Bumblebee Blues,” and I learned that from him. “Jim String” – I learned that from him. “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” – I learned that from him. But when it come to the heavy stuff, I had to go to somebody else, like Willie B. Burnam or Willie Tango or Eddie Vann, some of those guys. They’d show it to me. Willie Tango was a boy around the Memphis area. He was one of the good ones. Played a lot of popular numbers and jazz and things like that.
When did people refer to you as Little Wolf?
That was when I first started to playing. Now, you see, I was playing mostly songs that [Howlin’] Wolf was singing, and other people. Because I didn’t know too many other songs. And when I started, I started on Wolf’s guitar.
How did that happen?
Wolf set his guitar down to take a break, and I sit there and watched him that night. I said to myself, “Hell, I can do what Wolf’s doin’,” so I picked his guitar up and started to frailin’ the hell out of it, you know, singin’ this song. So Wolf came back and I had the joint jumpin’ – everybody was dancin’, just like it was when he was playin’. I set the guitar down. Before that, they called me Jim String. After that, they started calling me Little Wolf. All around through the country, they called me Little Wolf. And when I started playing professionally, they still called me Little Wolf. But the Little Wolf died out. It was Johnny Shines, Johnny Shines, Johnny Shines, you know.
What other musicians did you know when you were coming up in Helena?
Well, Houston Stackhouse was about the only somebody until I met Robert Johnson.
You met Robert Johnson a little later, right?
Around ’35 or something.
Through a piano player?
I brought you a gift. [I hand Johnny a framed 5x7 print of the Robert Johnson photo that had been published in Rolling Stone issue #467.]
Thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. [Stares intently at it for about 20 seconds.] Yes, sir.
Did you have a copy of that?
No, I didn’t. I’m really glad to get this.
Is that the guy?
That’s him. That’s him. [Long pause.] Yes, it’s him.
Do you remember that guitar?
No, I don’t.
Looks like a Gibson or Kalamazoo.
No, I don’t remember. It might be the one that we bought in Steele, Missouri. We bought a flat-top in Steele, Missouri. This is not a archtop, but he really liked that archtop.
Cigarette smoker too.
Mm hmm. Yeah.
Was he a little man?
Yeah, he was slender.
Was he as tall as you?
What would he have thought if he could have foreseen how much his music would come to mean to people, that a half-century later he’d be regarded with the same respect as Charlie Parker or John Coltrane?
To me, he was just as great as Charlie Parker. The man did everything they did – whatsoever you did on a horn or on a piano, he figured he could do on a guitar, and he did it. And he didn’t look for it, either. I never seen him practice. I never seen him look for nothin’. He’d just sit down, tune a guitar, and play it. Whatever you wanted him to play, he’d play it. I never seen him look for a chord. I know many chords he never heard of, because he couldn’t read music, but he could make them.
Could he read or write?
Yeah, he could. But I didn’t know this until just a few years ago, because he didn’t write anything. I never saw him pick up a newspaper and try to read it.
Did you do much two-guitar music together?
No, he didn’t like that.
How would it work?
He’d go one way, and I’d go the other. We’d work in the streets. I’d go over here and start playing, and he’d go over there and start playing. He’d draw his gang; I’d draw mine.
What would you use for a slide?
A bottleneck. You’d find or buy a long-neck bottle and just break it off – get some pliers on there and break it off down where you could use it.
Did you see Robert do that?
Yeah. I did it too.
Did you know Son House?
I learned of Son House later in years. I didn’t know him too long before he died.
One of the players you and Robert both admired was Lonnie Johnson. Was he one of the top guitar players in those days?
Him? Was he one of the top ones? He was the top. I remember one record of his was strictly jazz, and boy, he was so goddamned fast – whoo! With a straight pick. See, he use a straight pick like another man uses three fingers. I’ve seen guitar players use three fingers wasn’t as fast as him.
Did you use a pick in the early days?
Yeah, I always did use fingerpicks. I used flatpicks a little, though, if I had to. But I always use fingerpicks.
What kind of fingerpicks did they have in the ’30s?
Guitar strings must have been pretty different back then.
You broke up a lot of guitar strings, because at that time I didn’t know how to play in all the keys. And I had to use a capo to change keys lots of times, so that was hard on a guitar string – wrapping them down, and tuning with the clamp on, pullin’ ’em and backing off of ’em. The guitar strings would rattle and break.
Did you have a store-bought capo?
Make one yourself, or you could buy one. You could take a pencil and string. Put the pencil on the neck, wrap the string around it on the back side, pull it up tight. Just as good as any capo.
When you and Robert Johnson were traveling together, what would you do when you first got to a town?
Just try to find out where the black neighborhood was. Walk up and down the railroad track and just watch to see which side the black kids are on. Whichever side we find the black kids on, that’s the side we go, ’cause that was the black side. All the towns was segregated then – whites on one side of the tracks, blacks on the other one.
Did you both have guitars?
Mm hmm. And your clothes that was on you.
What would an average playing day be?
All day, if the money was still hoppin’, because we didn’t have no particular place to go. As long as there’s nickels and dimes afloat. When they quit, then we’d just walk on.
Were there any places where you did especially well?
St. Louis was a profitable town. Memphis was a good town. Memphis was always good. You never got to be too well known in Memphis. I’d go down to Handy’s Park, play with the guys down there. Now, a guy over here have a big crowd, and we’d strike up over there and probably pull half his crowd or all of his crowd. If you pull all of his crowd, that’s what we called “headcuttin’,” you know – we just cut his head! Yeah.
In past interviews, you’ve mentioned that Robert Johnson played polka music on guitar.
Even today, not many people do that well.
[Laughs.] Well, you had to do it. You see, when I come along playing guitar, lots of times you wake up in the morning and you didn’t have no money at all. Somebody ask you to play a song, maybe they’d give you a dollar for that song. That meant about four meals off of a dollar, ’cause you could get a meal for a quarter or 30¢. And if you couldn’t play that song, you miss that money. So you had to learn to play some of everything you heard. If we passed a place, a white dancing hall, and the big bands was playing in there, whatsoever kind of music they was playing, we used to have to listen to. Hide around outside and listen. So we’d go home, and when we get ready, we’d play those same pieces.
That’s why your Dukes of Swing learned Lionel Hampton tunes.
Mm hmm. “Flying Home.” “Hey-Ba-Ba-Re-Bop.” Things like that that was popular at that time.
So when you were working the streets, you’d only play a blues once in a while.
Lot of popular songs in between. Whatsoever the people seemed like they enjoyed more.
Did you play for whites?
Have you ever heard of stages being split, with whites on one side, blacks on the other, and musicians in the middle?
I never played that kind of stage. When we played for a white audience, it was a white audience. Played for a black audience, it was a black audience. When we played for Polish people, we had to play Polish music.
Did you learn to sing any of those songs, or was it always instrumental?
Well, yeah, some of them I learned, like “Beer Barrel Polka,” “Too Fat Polka.” Several I know, as well as a few Jewish tunes. We had to learn them too. Yeah.
Did you ever carry a gun during your rambling days?
Mm hmm. But not too much, because you subjected to being attacked by the police at any time. If you had a gun on you, why then you went to jail for carryin’ a gun, see.
Did Robert carry one?
No, Robert wouldn’t carry a gun huntin’.
Was he a peaceable person?
Until he started drinking. He started drinking, he’d do any goddanged thing. Wasn’t nothin’ too good for him to do.
What did he like to drink?
Why, wasn’t nothing but one thing to drink, and that was that fist-made liquor at that time. Corn liquor. And Ten High when the bonded liquor come in, Ten High and Dixie Dew. Those cheap brands of whiskey. We drank that ’cause that’s what we was able to buy. We’d buy a better brand once in a while, such as Old Taylor and Old Grand Dad.
Were you ever much of a drinker?
That’s all I would do. Yeah. I had the habit when I went to bed, I had the habit when I woke up, I had the habit when I got up.
Was this when you were younger, or all through your life?
Pretty well all through my life, but younger some.
You talk about hopping freights. Does that mean jumping into an empty boxcar?
Whatsoever. If an empty boxcar was handy, we’d get in it. If it was not, we’d get on it.
And then you’re stuck riding it until it stops.
Mm hmm, yeah. Or somebody hit you upside the head [laughs].
Do you remember that as a good time of your life?
Well, it was some of the best of the times. Yeah, because I had to make my own way through my own skills. I felt more freer then than at any other time. But now, if I got into a town like tonight – on a Monday night – by Thursday I’d have me a job somewhere. Because at that time the police was bad about picking you up for vagrancy. I always had a job to go to. “Where you work at?” “I work at such-and-such a place.” “How long you been there?” “Oh, two or three days.” He knew when you went there and everything, because if you was a stranger, everybody knew you was a stranger in town. Everybody knew everything you did in those small towns like that. Just tell them you’re working at a gas station, car wash, gin, or anything.
Was there ever a time when you supported yourself solely as a musician?
Yes, those was the times. Before Chicago, when I was traveling up and down the road. Those are the times when I was living solely as a musician, with the exception I was getting these small jobs – dish washing, busing dishes, or something like that. That way I could say I had a job.
Did the guitar seem to be part of your soul back then?
Well, it was. See, these jobs was just some sideline, just something to keep the police off of me. But I was living off the guitar. I’d come in and get off of work in the evening, come and get my guitar and walk down the street, be playing real slow. Somebody go, “Hey! Come over here!” I go, and that’s where we pitched the party at. They’d slip me a dollar that night, and I wasn’t getting that much for a week’s work. I was getting $4.75 or something like that for a week’s work.
What were your favorite guitars back then?
Well, I had a little black Regal guitar, and then later on I had a Kalamazoo like Robert had. We both had it. The Kalamazoo was a Gibson with a flaw in it. The Kalamazoo had f-holes in it.
Did you want an archtop because it was louder?
Yeah. Had more body to it.
Did you have a case for it?
No, we didn’t have no case.
Just throw it over your back?
Did you or Robert spend much time playing guitar when no one else was listening?
You reportedly played “get-backs” during the 1930s. What are those?
Say, for an instant, you live here and you sell corn whiskey. On Saturday night, you’re going to have a get-back. You just take the bed and things down, probably throw sand on the floor – that was one way of washing a floor, put sand on the floor. And you put a crap table in the back room, card table somewheres else so you can play cards, and then a dance floor and the musicians in the main room. You’d put a table or a door across something and sell fried fish.
You’ve also said that some of the places you and Robert played were so tough that they’d only serve in paper cups.
Yeah, I was playing at a place like that down in Memphis. A guy got to fighting with two other guys and one of the guys’ wife. That woman cut his guts out. She cut him down. I’m quite sure she killed him. Me and Walter Horton just picked up our stuff and walked out. We saw him get cut, and he fell. Walter and I just walked out, because we knew he was just about dead. She cut his guts out.
There’s another story that you and Robert lost some guitars in a fire.
That was West Memphis. Robert and I walked out to get some food or something, and on our way back we looked up and saw this place afire. I said, “Robert, that look like where we live at.” He said, “Yeah, it sure do.” Sure enough, got there, that’s what it was. Hunts Hotel – this black fellow had a little place there, nothing but a rooming house. Paper walls and things like that. Rooming houses ain’t worth a shit. You could fart in your room and deafen the fellow in the other room [laughs].
Was Johnson known as Robert Spencer or Robert Dodds?
Johnson is all I ever knew. He didn’t tell me anything about this Spencer and Dodds and all that shit. His stepfather was what he talked about.
Did he like him?
Yes, he did. But now, to be talking about his stepfather, I never knew which one of his stepfathers he was talking about.
Do you know any of his relatives?
Yes, I know one of his sisters.
Were you aware of his records during his lifetime?
Mm hmm. Hear ’em on jukeboxes. He was very proud of having it. In fact, the idea was to get out there – which was a damn good idea, being able to get out there.
I think of Robert Johnson as being one of the first people to play rock and roll.
Well, I know he played rock and roll. It was the same beat, but it just wasn’t called rock and roll. That’s all.
Did you ever sense that he was going to have a short life?
Who, Robert? No, I never did. It was very hard when I heard he was dead. I just couldn’t believe it.
There was sure a lot of mystery around it.
Well, yes, there was. Tell you the truth about it, Honeyboy Edwards was the one who confirmed it with me that he was dead. See, Sonny Boy said Robert died in his arms. Sonny Boy [Williamson II] was such a big liar. Rice Miller, yeah, such a big liar. He speaked lying lies. Still couldn’t believe that Robert was dead. I looked any day to walk up on him somewhere as I traveled around. Since I been playing professionally, since I made my comeback, I look any day to walk up on Robert or Robert walk up on me.
Do you ever feel his presence?
Many times. Many times.
Did he have any favorite sayings? Was he a hip-talking guy?
He talked really hip. Of course, we all did because that was the present language at that time. Like, “Yeah, man,” you know, or “Look, daddy so-and-so” and “Look, baby so-and-so” – like that. I still use that. I call you baby, honey, and things like that, which I know you’re not my baby, you’re not a honey, but it’s just something that comes out that way. And lots of people look at me like, “Is he funny?” [Laughs.]
Tell us about playing The Elder Moten Hour radio show with Robert Johnson.
He was a preacher, and he broadcasted out of Canada. Lots of people could pick him up back over there in Detroit and all over Canada. He was a sanctified preacher, and he wanted a lot of music with his outfit, you know. He had a pretty good-sized choir. Robert, Calvin, and myself, we go over there and play for him. Calvin Frazier was my first cousin; he had to leave the United States.
You played blues on a preacher’s show?
No! No, no [laughs]. No, no, no. I was playing gospel music.
Do you remember what songs?
Yes. Regular old gospel songs, like “Ship of Zion,” “Stand by Me,” “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In,” “Just Over In Glory Land,” songs like that.
Did Robert Johnson write “Take a Closer Walk With Me”?
No, no. Robert didn’t write that. “Just a Closer Walk With Thee”? No, Robert didn’t write that. We met that song on the road.
Do you know the inspiration for any of Robert’s songs? What caused him to write them?
No, I really don’t. I really don’t.
He’s got that line, “She’s got a Elgin movement from her head down to her toes, break in on a dollar most anywhere she goes.”
Well, playing for dances and things like that, you see people dancing, movin’ on the floor, you know. You gets inspiration from that.
No, but that was a hell of a car at that time. Fast. Supposed to have been a pretty good car, you know. I think that Studebaker was making it first; I don’t know. But I know Hudson was the last one made a Terraplane. Terraplane Hudson.
Was it true that Johnson could hear something once or twice and then . . .
He could hear it once; not twice – once. Just like we’re sitting here talking now, the radio be playing. Robert heard something on the radio he liked, he never stopped talking with you. Keep right on talking to you. Tonight or tomorrow or sometime or another, he’d pick up his guitar and play the song, note-for-note, chord-for-chord, word-for-word. He was way before his time, that’s all. The man had to go. He was a genius. See, I say he was a genius because chords and things that he’d never heard before, he’d hear it on the radio, and he never tried to look for that chord. He’d just pick up a guitar and make it.
Would you keep your guitars in an open tuning?
Regular tuning, most time.
Even for slide?
No. We’d tune them in open G or open A for bottleneck. Open D, E. Open A was called Vastopol. [For more on the origin of these tunings, see Blues Origins: "Spanish Fandango" and "Vastopol" .]
Learn all the chords along with the slide. Learn the chords which is the accompaniment to the slide. Learn that, and learn how to place the slide. And then he go from there.
Should you should wear the slide on your little finger or ring finger?
Wear it on the finger that you’re most comfortable with. I’m most comfortable wearing it on my little finger.
So you can chord with your other fingers?
Is it a good idea to lay your other fingers on the strings behind the slide, or do you like the sound without it?
Well, it depends on what you want to do. If you want to heel [damp with the heel of the hand], why then you heel behind the slide. If you don’t, why then you just let the slide ring.
When did you get your first electric guitar?
I bought a Kalamazoo in Chicago, another Kalamazoo, and I used a DeArmond pickup on it, which electrified it. That was in ’41, ’42.
Was Robert Nighthawk already in town?
Well, he came to town. He wasn’t already there. He had been there, though. Robert Nighthawk and Honeyboy had been every goddamned where up and down the Mississippi River, north and south.
Is it fair to say that Muddy Waters is the person most responsible for changing the sound of blues in Chicago?
I think Muddy used his style, which was a Mississippi style, of singing. And he changed the style of music, through Willie Dixon. See, a lot of people don’t give Willie Dixon no credit for things that happened. Willie Dixon was the man that changed the style of the blues in Chicago. As a songwriter and producer, that man is a genius. Yes, sir. You want a hit song, go to Willie Dixon. Play it like he say play it and sing it like he say sing it – even Willie Dixon can’t sing a lick, but just find out what he’s talking about and do it – you damn near got a hit.
What kind of a guy was Tampa Red?
Tampa Red was one of the best guys there ever was. Very good-natured. Kind person. Open-minded.
Sure was close to his wife.
Yes, he was. Those two people was close to each other.
Did you know Big Bill Broonzy?
Oh, yeah. Big Bill was fun. Big Bill was a hell of a man. Very helpful. Tampa Red, same way. Those two guys were mountain of men towards musicians.
Did you know Memphis Minnie?
Oh, yeah. Yeah, she was good.
Was there something where you two didn’t get along?
Why didn’t you play slide on your early sessions?
I didn’t want to. I was pickin’ pretty good then.
What’s the best band you ever played in?
The best band I ever had was the Dukes of Swing.
Did you do any Mississippi-style blues with that band?
I did. With them, it could be arranged in that way. Yeah.
Did you have a regular club gig in Chicago, or did you move around?
Well, yes, I played at a regular place. Frost’s Corner – I played there. That was on the North Side. I played at Tom’s Tavern – Sunnyland and I played there for a heck of a long time. Then I played out in Robbins; that’s when I had the Dukes of Swing. We played out there for about three years. It really was a club. A few people did dance, but most of the people come there to listen and drink, have a good time.
Did you play slide guitar with that band?
Did it come as a surprise when white people started to pick up on blues during the ’60s?
Well, that’s when it become rock and roll. I’m quite sure it was quite a surprise to most of us. Because a lot of us said we wasn’t gonna play no rock and roll. Certain men that said they’ll never play rock and roll, they’re playing rock and roll now.
Well, yeah, you got a lot of black people that don’t go for blues. It’s because they think the blues is a degraded kind of music towards black people. Not because they don’t like it – they say they don’t like it, you know. Just like when I was working at Raytheon. A bunch of girls there found out I was in music. “You don’t play that Muddy Waters stuff, do ya?” I said, “Yes, I do. Same stuff Muddy Waters is playing – that’s what I play.” “Ah, I don’t like that. I like jazz.” “Okay, then, go to with your jazz.”
So one night I got off kind of early, and I went by the 708 Club where Muddy was playing at. And all those girls, that’s where they was. So when I walked in, they started hiding their face behind the table. So quick as I walked in, Muddy called me, “Come on up here! Come on up here and get this guitar. Come on up here and get this guitar.” I went on up and got to playing good, and the heads popped up, you know. [Laughs.] I said, “I’m glad to see a lot of our friends here that I work with out at Raytheon, even though I know they don’t like blues, but they here for some reason. I don’t know what the reason is.” I said, “Muddy, you’re a great man. You draw people out here that say they don’t like blues.”
It must have surprised them to find out who you were.
Yeah, it did. That Monday when I went to work, a lot of people, they stayed way back from me, because they was afraid I was going to say something about, “I saw you Saturday night, I saw you Saturday night!” But I wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t say nothing to them. I just went on about my business, doing what I was doing. So finally two or three come over, “Mr. Shines, we think your playing’s nice.”
Why did you move back to Alabama?
Well, my daughter died and left a bunch of kids, and I had a problem rentin’ in Chicago. And we was staying in a kitchenette, and there just wasn’t room for them. We had to make some better arrangements, so my wife, she went to Alabama on a vacation. She found this house down there, and she called me back and told me about it. I asked her if she like it, she said yes. I said, well, then get it. So she got it, and I just packed up everything and moved on down there.
Did you raise the children?
Mm hmm. Yes. There was seven of them. And one of my own made eight. Three adults – my wife, my mother, and myself.
Never a dull moment.
No. It was fun, though. That wife and I stayed together about 16, 17 years. I been surrounded by kids all the days of my life.
You had the Stars of Alabama for a while during the ’70s. Was that a blues band?
It was a band, period. Not just a blues band.
Was The Velvet Vampire film soundtrack recorded in Hollywood?
Yes, it was. It was recorded in Hollywood.
Was that almost like a soft-core porn flick?
Well, I really don’t know what the meaning.
Was it a naked vampire girl movie?
No, no, I wouldn’t say naked, but you could tell it was related to being naked and things like that. What it was, this woman she come in, this man is sitting there playing the guitar, you know, and singing the blues. She sits down, and it affects her mind, you know. She begin to think about these things as he’s singing about it. Whatsoever he was singing about, that’s the way her mind made, you understand what I mean? But she finally recovers herself and walks out, and that’s when many other things begin to happen, you know.
Did you just do the title song, or . . .
Did it come out on a record?
No, no. It never did.
During the ’70s you recorded for several different labels. Do you like the one you did in England?
I did do one for Blue Horizon [Last Night’s Dream]. Yes, I like that one. I thought it was a pretty good record. A lot of different companies copied some of the tunes off of it, puttin’ them on their label. Now, that’s one way of telling whether your record is good or not – if other companies want to put ’em on their label.
Are you getting royalties from any of your records?
Have you written any songs lately?
Saturday. I don’t remember the title [laughs].
What are your best songs, the songs you’d most like to be remembered for?
Well, I really don’t know. That’s one – “I Don’t Know.” And “A Little Tenderness” – I’ll probably be remembered for that one. “Ain’t Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” which is a gospel song; people think it’s a blues. “Evening Sun.” Those are the songs the rest of the people learned, most of them.
It’s amazing how the blues transcends time and race to speak to so many people on so many levels.
You see, blues don’t have no race. Blues don’t have no level. The blues is just like death. Everybody is going to have the blues. If they haven’t already had ’em, they’re gonna have ’em. Because everybody is going to have some bad luck in their life. They are going to be confronted with fortunes unexpected – one way or the other. The blues is only a thought, anyway.
It’s not just about hard times, though. It’s about seduction, about . . .
About everything. That’s right. You see, whatsoever touches the heart is where the blues come from. Say, for instance, a man might go out here to the racetrack and win $15,000 or $20,000 at the racetrack. Well, he’ll have a happy blues, because he’s happy from the heart on out, from the inside out. And the man go out there and lose all his money – his wife has told him she gonna quit him if he lose his money again – he got a different blues. [Laughs.]
What kind of blues do you have now?
Right now I got the I wanna go home blues [laughs]. But I knew that was coming. I knew that was coming before I left home.
Did you do much playing before this tour?
Yeah. I played the Chucker, I played the Getaway. My wife played the Getaway Friday night. The Chucker, the Getaway, and the L&N – I play those three joints in Tuscaloosa.
How many nights a year are you playing?
Oh, about 30 or 40.
After playing for close to 60 years, what are your views on the guitar?
Well, guitar is a wonderful instrument, if you’re learning to use it effectively. Now, the acoustic guitar I traded off for the one I got here now, I was just thinking about it. I bought a home and fed 11 people and clothed them, just out of that little round hole there. I went to England with it, come back, and I went to Germany with it, come back. I went to Sweden with it, come back. That means a lots to me, that guitar does. I traded off for this one here, and I’m gonna get it back. That was a Gibson B-25.
Why did you swap that guitar for the Alvarez you’re now playing?
Because I thought I’d get more action out of the Alvarez than I was the Gibson. The Gibson was a very popular guitar – easy to handle and everything – but I thought I’d get more action out of the Alvarez.
What are your plans for the future?
Well, I really wants to get myself together and buy me a nice small farm someplace, preferably a ten-acre farm, where I can put a nice catfish lake on it and a nice trout lake, you know. Let people come and fish, have fun. I like to see people enjoy themselves.
You’ll probably always be interested in music.
Oh, yes. I love music. See, I could hear something good in all kinds of music. Makes me no difference what it is – jazz, pop, rock, ballads, gospel, symphony. Don’t make no difference. If it isn’t the arrangement, it’s some kind of beat or something, a rundown or something. A stationary chord or a movable chord. I can always hear something in music that’s good to me. Yep, I love all music. I can listen to all music. Some people say, “I can’t stand this. I can’t stand bluegrass.” Heck, I like bluegrass and mountain music.
Do you ever regret becoming a bluesman?
No, not really.
Was it worth it?
Well, the experience have been worth it, yes. Like the crowd we had Saturday night [in Los Angeles] – I enjoys a crowd like that. I can sing better to them, and I can play better to them. Oh, yeah, they was dancing. Hell of a damn nice crowd – four hundred and some people. So I enjoyed that. I don’t really enjoys playing these small clubs where only 50 or 100 people in there, ’cause I feel like when I got a big crowd like that, I know they come to dance. They come because they wanted to hear me. When I got 50 people in the damn club, I don’t know whether they was going to come anyway or not, ’cause they may be regular patrons of the place.
What compliment do you appreciate the most after a gig?
Like we played here the other night. One of the greatest compliments was we sold a box of tapes [laughs]. Now, that was telling you something, you know. That’s better than spoken words, you know – people appreciate your music well enough to buy a whole box of tapes.
Why are Europeans so enamored with the blues?
I’ll tell you the truth about it. Those people think that black people are still in bondage over here. Yes, sir, they do. They think we’re being told when to go and when to come, how to go and how to come, and everything. They think we’re still being whipped at the stake. Even though we are still slaves to the system, but there’s another master other than the slaveholder. You’re a slave to the system. And even the slaveholder is a slave to his own system, because that’s the way the guy was raised.
Talking about the blues, I would like for people to know that the average thing that they listen to really is not the blues. What we call the Delta blues is not blues. It’s storytelling. It’s something that have happened in somebody’s life that they’re telling a story about. Say, for an instant, if I walked up to you, and you was fixing to catch a bus and go to work. I tell ya, “My house burned down last night and burnt up three of my children.” You say, “Yes, I’ll listen to you later. Say, here comes my bus now. I’ll see you.” You get on your bus and go. But now tonight, when I put music to it, you pay $10 to hear me tell the same story I tried to tell you for free over there at the bus stop. Same story! See?
These what I call blues come out of the story of peoples in slavery time. We’re telling the same story now that they was tellin’ back there, only it was in a different time. You see, then they went out and walked. Like a song I have, I say, “If a rich man get the blues, he can charter himself a plane and ride. But a poor man get the blues, he walks until he gets satisfied.” Same story back then.
When did blues as we know it begin? In the 1890s?
Well, as far as the year is concerned, nobody knows. And they don’t know where it come from.
I don’t thinks Charley Patton started it. I think the blues was being played before Charley Patton. Because if not, where did Charley Patton get it from? See, Charley Patton could tune a guitar in open tuning; he could play it in straight tuning. And he had to learn that from somebody, because before Charley Patton and lots of others, we only knew cross-tunings, such as open tunings. Because we didn’t know how to tune the guitar; we didn’t know how to make the chords. G, A, B, D, C, to E, something like that – we didn’t know how to make those chords. We only knew how to play with the bottleneck. See, everybody think the bottleneck is something new. The bottleneck was the first guitar playing that the black people did, because he didn’t know how to chord a guitar. So he tuned a guitar to open tuning, and he used a slide to make his chords.
Did that come from the Hawaiian music craze or from Africa?
It come from Africa. Matter of fact, all your American music come out of the bowels of slaves. All your American music.
It’s amazing that a group of people who were so held down created something that’s enriched us all.
Yes, sir. Well, the old saying is, “You can’t take what is good and keep it. You’ve got to share it.” And the old saying that “You can’t keep a good man down” – the black people have been rising ever since they hit here. Yes, sir.
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© 2011 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This interview may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.