ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, AUG. 6, 1998
By Steve Newton
Blues-rock bassist Tommy Shannon is best-known for playing with Stevie Ray Vaughan in Double Trouble, but his résumé hardly stops there. The veteran musician has performed with so many other guitar legends that you’d be hard-pressed to find one he hasn’t accompanied somewhere along the line.
He has missed at least one biggie, though.
“The one person that got away was Jimi Hendrix,” explains Shannon from his horse ranch in Austin, Texas. “I would have given anything to have jammed with him, ’cause he’s my favourite musician of all time. But I’ve been fortunate enough to play with all the other great guitar players. You know, I’ve got to jam with Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck, Stevie, and Johnny Winter. Albert King and Albert Collins. Just about everybody. Muddy Waters.”
Shannon currently handles the bass in Storyville, a blues-rock quintet that performs with B.B. King, the Neville Brothers, and Dr. John at GM Place on Friday (August 7). The Vancouver gig is the first stop on the B.B. King Blues Festival tour, but it’s not the first time Shannon has shared a stage with the King of the Blues. He recalls jamming with B.B. back in the late ’60s, when Shannon was a member of one of Johnny Winter’s early blues outfits.
“I doubt if he remembers it,” says the bassist with a chuckle, “but I sure do.”
Shannon performed on the early Winter albums Progressive Blues Experiment, Johnny Winter, and Second Winter, but left the fold before the albino guitarist hit it big in the ’70s with such albums as Johnny Winter And…Live and Still Alive and Well.
“It was kind of a mutual agreement,” says Shannon of his split from Winter. “We were tryin’ to come up with songs for a new record, and at the time none of us had any ideas, so Johnny made a move and got with Rick Derringer, ’cause he was a real good songwriter. But we’re still great friends. I saw him not too long ago.”
The last time Shannon encountered Winter, the guitar hero—who has a history of drug abuse—didn’t look so good. “He’s got some health problems,” reports Shannon, “but he’s workin’ on ’em.” Hopefully, Winter will be back on his feet soon, although judging by the uncommonly lifeless singing on his latest release—the justifiably overlooked Live in NYC 97—he’s got a way to go. But no matter how impotent Winter’s music may be right now, there’s no denying his rightful place in the pantheon of rock.
“There was a time back in the early ’70s when he was pretty big,” states Shannon, “playin’ big rock ’n’ roll shows and drawin’ lots of people. But he loved blues so much he went back to the blues, and I guess his popularity kind of dropped off then.”
Conversely, it was in the company of a gifted artist bent on bringing blues-rock into the mainstream that Shannon enjoyed some of his finest musical moments. As a member of Double Trouble from ’81 through to Vaughan’s helicopter-crash death in August of ’90, he was extremely close to the immortal Strat strangler. That everlasting bond is evident on “There’s a Light”, an inspirational track from Storyville’s new Dog Years CD that Shannon wrote and dedicated to Vaughan.
“I was sitting watching TV one night and it just started comin’ to me in my head,” says the 50-year-old rocker. “I went in and picked up my guitar and started singin’ it, and it just kinda poured out like water, you know. It was about the things that both Stevie and I have been through, goin’ through the real hard times with addiction and then finding a new life.”
Shannon claims that he’s been clean and sober for 11 years now, and he certainly sounds relaxed and at peace over the phone. And judging from the winning sound of Dog Years, he’s found a happy home in Storyville, along with guitarists David Grissom (ex–John Mellencamp) and Dave Holt (ex-Mavericks), his longtime drum pal Chris “Whipper” Layton from Double Trouble, and vocalist Malford Milligan. Like Winter, Milligan is an albino—a black one, at that—and like the Winter of old, he can sing with real conviction. He gets particularly soulful on a version of Al Green’s “It Ain’t No Fun to Me”, which the band covered on Dog Years because it happened to be handy.
“When we were doin’ our record, we all walked outside to get a breath of fresh air,” recalls Shannon, “and our producer [Stephen Bruton] looked over there and saw the CD in the front seat of my car. He said, ‘We gotta do this song,’ so we went in and did it. And Malford did a great job on it. He’s by far the best singer I’ve ever worked with.”
Shannon is quick to draw attention to the talents of others, but considering his own achievements in the oft-overlooked role of bassist, he’s deserving of some compliments himself. So what is it about his approach to music that makes the world’s top guitarists want him on their bottom end?
“Well, part of that I don’t really know,” drawls the lanky Texan, “and part of it is my whole philosophy behind playin’ bass is, I’m not up there to show off. There’s nothin’ more fun than when you find the groove in a song and stay with it—doesn’t matter if you’re playin’ one note or 10 notes, when you find that pulse that’s goin’ on, it just feels good. I always looked at it like that’s what the bass player’s supposed to do, hold it together by being solid and givin’ the guitar player something to play off of.”