Johnny Shines – The Blues Came Falling Down | Album Review

Johnny Shines – The Blues Came Falling Down

Nighthawk/Omnivore Recordings OVCD-328

20 songs – 120 minutes

Born near Memphis in 1915 and one of the most important yet under-recorded artists who bridged the gap from country to urban blues, Johnny Shines lives again with this never-before-released live concert set that was captured in 1973 when his skills were as sharp as a razor.

Shines spent part of his youth touring with Robert Johnson before launching a career that included extensive work with Robert Jr. Lockwood, Mississippi Fred McDowell and other early stars. In his adult years – after relocating to Chicago in 1941 and being “rediscovered” at a concert headlined by Howlin’ Wolf, he performed and recorded with Big Walter Horton, James Cotton, Willie Dixon, Sugar Blue and Kent DuChaine.

And his final album, the 1991 Blind Pig release, Back To The Country – which was issued a year before his passing, captured a W.C. Handy Award and featured contributions from Johnny Nicholas and Snooky Pryor. He was also featured that year in the documentary, The Search For Robert Johnson. One of the most talented finger-picking guitarists of his era and a man with a beautiful, powerful and melismatic tenor singing voice, Shines left us in 1992, the same year he was inducted into the Blues Hall Of Fame.

Shines’ early work appears on several of the most important blues labels in existence during his lifetime, including Biograph, Testament and Blue Horizon, and his later albums were released by Rounder and others. But both Columbia — in the ‘40s — and Chess and J.O.B. — in the ‘50s – invited him into their studios but never issued his work on vinyl.

The same holds true for this set, which was recorded at Washington University by St. Louis-based Nighthawk Records, a label that issued several blues compilations and one Henry Townsend album before abandoning blues altogether for reggae in 1980. Fortunately for blues lovers, however, Omnivore Entertainment Group acquired the Nighthawk catalog in 2017. Like Townsend’s Mule, which preceded it, this is an exceptionally well-remastered time capsule of a musician at the very top of his game.

Johnny’s solo and acoustic for the first 12 and final five cuts of this concert. He’s accompanied on guitar for the other three tunes by Nighthawk co-founder Leroy Jodie Pierson, who also contributed the liner notes for this release.

Shines opens with the dazzling instrumental, “Big Boy Boogie,” engaging the audience by talking over his playing and recounting how he’d first heard it in his childhood and remembering the impact it had on the folks who’d heard it back then. When he finishes, the audience’s response is nothing short of explosive. Most of the material that follows comes from his own catalog, which is interspersed by four tunes from Johnson, one from Hammie Nixon and Sleepy John Estes and another from Willie Johnson.

The slow blues, “Seems Like A Million Years,” begins with several masterful and understated guitar runs before his pyrotechnic singing voice hits like an A-bomb for the first time. The slide instrumental “Cold In Hand Blues” follows after a tuning change before Johnson’s “Kind Hearted Woman Blues” and his own masterpiece, “Have You Ever Loved A Woman.” The hits keep coming with “Stay High All Day Long,” “I’m A Steady Rollin’ Man” and “Stand By Me” – a gospel tinged original not to be confused with the Sam Cooke number of the same name – and continue with “Happy Home” and “Someday Baby Blues.”

The second half of the performance is equally as impressive, beginning with “They’re Red Hot (Hot Tamales)” then “You’re The One I Love,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” “The Blues Came Falling Down” and “Big Star Falling” before a finishing run that includes “Tell Me Mama,” “Ramblin’,” “It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” “Goodbye Boogie” and “How Do You Want Your Rollin’ Done.”

If you have a warm spot in your heart for traditional acoustic blues, you’ll absolutely love this CD. The sound quality is so good that you can almost feel Johnny Young’s breath between verses. It’s an absolute shame that his concert went unreleased for 46 years, and it’s a true blessing that we’re able to enjoy it now. It’s both a surprise and a treasure!

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