“So, Sam Carr (of the Jellyroll Kings) came over and asked my mother, ‘Can I go out and play with him in Mississippi?’ My mother said, ‘No, my son’s not gonna play in no juke joint where they spit tobacco and stuff all over the floor.’
“I was 16.
“She thought I would probably get killed over there. My hair was real long, and the girls was always after me and my mother said, ‘So, that’s gonna be the whole downfall. My son’s gonna get killed over there.’ So, Sam kept coming over, and he convinced my mom by bringing her a lot of fish. My mother loved fish, and that’s what got me playing the blues. He used to bring set tubs full of fish like those big 32-ounce jobs of fish all the time, every weekend he’s bring her fish. That buttered my mom up, and my father said, ‘Let that boy go.’”
Singer/songwriter/guitarist Lonnie Shields didn’t start out as a bluesman. His gospel flavor he gleaned from The Greater Baptist Church as a youngster. He was a founding member of Shades of Black in 1970 at age 14 covering the funk and soul of Earth, Wind & Fire; The Average White Band; and Al Green. But it was Jellyroll Kings drummer Sam Carr, stepson of the seminal blues slide guitar player Robert Nighthawk, who talked Shields into playing the blues and touring with the Jellyroll Kings.
“That’s how I really got started. He took me all over Mississippi, Clarksdale, down in Jackson, Greenville, Greenwood, Tupelo, Mississippi, all over. When he told me Big Jack Johnson was going out on his own, he really wanted me to learn the blues. Jack was always (imitating guttural talk) ‘Sam doesn’t know about damn guitar. He’s a drummer. You come over here. I’ll teach you how to play guitar.’ So, there was a back and forth jealousy that if I go over to Sam’s house, Jack would get mad, and Frank Frost (harmonica player in the Jellyroll Kings) would just sit back and laugh and grin.”
Shields is a native of West Helena, Arkansas, home of the King Biscuit Time Radio show hosted by native son Sonny Boy Williamson. “My dad took me around to KFFA radio station. ‘See that man right there, that tall man right there? He plays harmonica. He’s gonna be on the show (King Biscuit Time) at 12 o-clock.’”
Shields performed at nine of the first 11 King Biscuit Blues Festivals. His first single “Cheatin’ Woman” premiered at the second King Biscuit Blues Festival in 1986. He played The Biscuit in 2014, plays again this weekend and will be on my Call and Response Seminar at the Malco Theater at noon on Saturday, October 8).
“Helena, Arkansas when I was a boy was a very vibrant town. You couldn’t even walk in this town because there were so many people. You had to turn sideways just to get down the road, and the streets were full of people, and there were juke joints going on all the time. My uncle used to play harmonica with Sonny Boy Williamson, and this town was just jumping.
“There was gambling houses, and a lot of drinking and a lot of partying. This town is so unique because it’s right on the water. It’s like a little sleepy town where nobody knows anything about it until they come here. People came from all over just to be in Helena and have a good time. That’s why the town was so packed ’cause you had people coming from different towns, from Mississippi, all around Arkansas, Memphis. The all just piled up here and made this town what it was.”
Shields never actually met Sonny Boy, “My uncle used to run around with him and Dudlow, Houston Stackhouse and Curtis Peck. He’d come back blowing some of the stuff Sonny Boy learned him, and we used to have fun, and I never knew about the blues until my uncle really came around a lot blowing the harmonica, and that’s how I started listening to Sonny Boy Williamson on the radio at noon, listened to how he played the harmonica and sang.
“I kinda strayed away from that because I had met a guy that was looking for some young guys to play music. His name was Willie Slater, and he called us the Checkmates, and that’s when I first started out with the young group The Checkmates ’cause we ended up going to Houston which he was part of another group. We merged together and became Shades of Black.”
The Shades of Black were a 10-piece R&B band. “The band would tell me, ‘You sound like blues.’ And so I didn’t even know until I got with Sam Carr, these were blues chords.
Sam Carr may have lured Shields into the blues, but it was B. B. King who sealed the deal. “What really turned my head when I listened to B. B. King singing “3 O’clock in the Morning” it sounded like he was very hurt. I was listening to the music and listened to the lyrics. They was telling a story. I just stopped listening to the music and started listening to the lyrics, and then I could find what the blues was all about was just people talking about their problems, hard times and hardships and all this here stuff.
“I’ve been having a rift with myself ’cause I come from doing gospel, and then I went into soul and R&B when we were Shades of Black back in the day. So, I try to keep both of them tied in together, the blues and the soul altogether. That’s why I struggle a lot as a blues artist because (my music) is more contemporary than the blues of my predecessors like Big Jack Johnson, Sam Carr and all those guys. I do it my way, a more funky blues tune to be coming out. I’m working on two CDs. I’m doing all originals on one and cover tunes on the other, the tribute album.”
Big Jack Johnson, lead guitarist for the Jellyroll Kings, was supposed to teach a teenaged Lonnie Shields how to transition from gospel and funk into blues, but things didn’t go according to plan. “Jack would always turn away from me so I couldn’t see what he was playing, but he said, ‘If you want to learn something from me, you come over to my house.’ So I had to go over there and spend the night with him for him to show me something and then he didn’t show me very much. He showed me a few chords and then he stopped. Then, he’d play all day. So it’s like he didn’t give me a chance to really play. A lot of times we’d go out to play, he wouldn’t recognize me a lot. It was like I wasn’t even there, and he seemed to think I was a threat to him some kinda way. I knew I wasn’t because I had not that much guitar or blues in me that I was a threat, but it was the point where how I played was different from regular blues people.”
Shields plays guitar from the bottom up. “What it is is more like twisting and turning like somebody twisting strings and pulling and popping. There’s no picking. A lotta time I don’t even have to use the bottom finger. I use just my top fingers and do a lotta wild stuff. You have to see me. A lot of people didn’t think I could play the guitar the way I should play the guitar because I was kinda little strange the way I played because I incorporate the blues and funk together. (The Shades of Black) didn’t like that, and that’s one of the reasons they kept wantin’ to vote me out of the group.
Shades of Black covered the Isley Brothers who had a young Jimi Hendrix as their lead guitarist early on. I asked Shields if he was influenced by Hendrix. “No, I wasn’t, but I listened to Hendrix through my brother-in-law. He was over in the Army, and he used to come back with a lot of Hendrix stuff. He had LPs. I actually listened to a lot of that, but I didn’t really like Jimi Hendrix because it was just too much guitar. I couldn’t get that Funkadelic stuff in my head. He was unorthodox. He was something different.
“I was somewhat like him. A lot of people didn’t think I could play the guitar the way I should play the guitar because I was kind of a little strange the way I played. That’s what set me aside away from playing of a lot of different bands. People didn’t like the way I played because I incorporate the blues and funk together. They didn’t like that, and that’s one of the reasons they kept wantin’ to vote me out of the group.
“When I’d switch over and start playing soul and blues and gospel (on my solo album album Tired of Waiting, 1996)I was criticized because they said I sound like dance music playing for the yuppie people. I say, ‘Well, the yuppie people want to pay my bills. You call the people I play for yuppie people. I don’t call people yuppies and nothing else. I don’t call them nothing. I call them people who wanna a listen to my music and hear me. Don’t label me and make me seem like a person who is trying to cross over into another scene to make the music or to make money or what have you. It’s not the point.’
The church proved to be as powerful an influence on Shields as the blues, and to this day Christianity infuses his music and his attitudes about playing. “(I grew up in the) Baptist Church. It was always music. There was always a revival coming.” In both recordings and live performances, he mixes and matches. And he presents both genres with equal intensity.
“Jesus is gonna come back and raise the roof,” he told me in 1996. “Ain’t nobody gonna be ready caught doing what they’re doing and not thinking about him, and the song (“Coming of the Lord” on Tired of Waiting) is really relating to the kids, trying to bring them back from the wayside and try and do something positive with their life and stop killing themselves and us and putting our lives in jeopardy. I think it’s the youths mostly that’s our biggest problem in the world today.
“I don’t feel God has no quarrel with me long as man does things in moderation if man do things that do not hinder him to foul up the body, mind or soul. I was called to be a minister. My brothers’ a minister, and I didn’t deny being a minister, but I feel I could do more by going into clubs singing the gospel and relating to people on the road, trying to get people aware that there’s a second coming.
“I never did any drugs or nuthin’ like that. It’s a blessing to me to know that it didn’t take me to get out there and get on drugs to really perform. I do it from the heart. So, I think this is one of the relationships where people say that the blues and gospel do not mix because we’re saying two different musics, but they don’t understand that the blues is more like gospel to me, very similar.”
Twenty years after making that statement, Shields today remains uniquely committed to incorporating religion into his blues. “Sometimes people don’t do anything until they’re too sick to do anything or they’re too old or they’re dead and gone. That’s when they want to pray. I say they should pray when they’re alive and not pray when they’re dead and gone. You say all these great things about them, but you never did anything for them while they were alive.”
Maybe it’s that combination of the sacred and profane that helps give Lonnie Shields the incredible energy and emotion he pushes out in live performance. Whatever it is, every time I see him I have to remind myself again that, yes, that last concert wasn’t a fluke. He’s as electric and energetic as Buddy Guy on a good night, and I’ve never seen Lonnie on a bad night.
“It comes from the heart. I play that way, and the people make me feel that way. And I give myself to God and all my stuff comes from Him. That’s the higher power. Whatever you want to call it, I feel it. I mean I close my eyes, and I just feel it. I don’t see a note. I feel the notes in my head. I just deliver.
“I’m better in the nighttime than I ever am in the daytime. Music does not come across good with me in the daytime because it’s just like I’m a very shy, timid person, and when my eyes are open in the sunlight it’s more of a timid part of me, but when I’m in the nighttime I can keep my eyes closed all the time. Never have to look at my guitar. If the stage is big enough, I’ll move.”
At age 60, Lonnie Shields defines himself as “a starving artist.” While Johnny Rawls produced two of his albums, a young Shemekia Copeland was guest vocalist on his self-defined best album Blue Is On Fire, and Portrait took the Living Blues Critics Award for Best Blues Album (New Recording) of 1993, he’s spent large parts of his career working day jobs in construction.
Portrait is his best known album. It was a six-year effort that began as Rooster Blues’ first recording session in Clarksdale, Mississippi. The label’s president and founding editor of Living Blues magazine Jim O’Neal in a 1993 article in King Biscuit Time magazine called Lonnie “the brightest star to come out of Helena since the old ‘King Biscuit Time’ days of Sonny Boy Williamson.” That album was a Delta all-star sampler with guest appearances by Lucky Peterson; Eddie Shaw & The Wolfgang featuring Vaan Shaw; members of both Al Green and Bobby Blue Bland’s touring band; not to mention the Jelly Roll Kings’ Sam Carr, Big Jack Johnson, and Frank Frost.
Jim O’Neal in his liner notes for Shield’s Midnight Delight CD also on his Rooster label writes, “Rooster Blues Records, then based in Clarksdale on a mission to record and promote Delta artists, had continuing financial problems as well. The recording process bogged down when money ran low and the studio couldn’t be repaired or used for months at a time. Progress was further impeded by the ongoing effects of “Delta time” on everyone involved: things could always wait another day, another week, another, month….”
Shields says the record was delayed “because Jim did not have the money to put it out, and I really wasn’t even paid for the recording. I wasn’t paid for most all of my recordings. I think John Stedman (JSP Records) was very generous to me, but Rooster Records never had the money. You can’t pay somebody out of a cigar box for recording. So I felt I was held back for a while, and I was very agitated, and I told Jim I was agitated.
“I call myself a starving artist really because it was so hard in a way. Sometimes you’d go to places that you think you’re going to play, and all of sudden the gig done fell out. Then, you’re all these many miles away from home, and you get up to go to the next gig, and you don’t know if that guy’s gonna be good or not. It’s been a long, long hard struggle as an artist being a blues man.
“I’m kind of hardened by it because I showed that I gave my best years when I was young, and no one ever cared about it, and now I’m 60 years old now, and I’m still not getting any credit for what I’ve done, but I want the next generation to be able to get something form what they do in their music.
To that end Shields dedicated all proceeds from his 2012 CD ’Cause the World Ain’t Been Good to You to the Child Life Department of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to support children in dire medical circumstances and has worked throughout his career to help young people learn skills they can turn into employment as adults.
“I went to their parents and asked could I take them to my job site and learn them how to paint and do carpenter work and brick work, and then I’d take four kids at a time, and I’d take them out on the job and try to learn them a trade which a lot of them thanked me for an the parents did, too, because it made a difference in their life to have money to go out, and buy their own school clothes and not have to be out in the street doing something bad.
“We’d go to church and do stuff like that. So, I’d take them to a house where people wanted them to paint. I teach them how to put window panes inside of the windows and stuff like that, putting windows in and hanging doors.
“I want to make sure what happens to me doesn’t happen to them. And I want to make sure that if anything I can do to help a young person I would.
“There are things I do for younger people because it’s all coming from the heart. It’s not something I want anything back from. I don’t need anything back. If I can help one kid or one individual – it don’t have to be a kid – I have done my work, and I have been doing that all my life because you can’t take anything away from here with you when you’re gone. I’d rather give it back to someone else and that’s how I feel, and that’s how I’ve been all my life. “
Visit Lonnie’s website at: www.lonnieshields.com.
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.