Blues Bytes


May 2021

Johnny Shines
Johnny Shines With Big Walter Horton
Shout Factory

Johnny ShinesAt the end of 2019 my spouse was diagnosed with cancer, so just before everything hit the pandemic fan she had begun chemotherapy and had undergone surgery. When she resumed treatments after surgery, the social distancing protocols were in place so all I could do was put her out at the hospital door and wait until her doctor visit and treatment were finished (one of the most helpless feelings ever). This was usually a five or six hour process so I had time on my hands, and, since most businesses were closed at first I had nowhere to go (she is doing quite well, now, hopefully wrapping up treatments in early May).

As I drove around aimlessly one morning, I remembered an old record store that was about 20 miles away that sold a wide variety of albums, cassettes, books, posters, CDs, even 8-tracks. I had not been there in over ten years, so I decided to take a chance and see if it was still around and if it was open. I figured I would spend the entire six hours there, and in years past I could have. It was open and so I grabbed my mask and dropped in. The store had a pretty good blues section, so I started thumbing through the stacks of CDs and soon had an impressive stack of my own. I spent the rest of the day parked at the hospital listening to my new purchases.

A few weeks later I stopped by the store again and someone had dropped off a stack of old school Chicago blues CDs, including several from Johnny Shines. When I first started listening to the blues in the mid ’80s, one of the first blues men I heard was Johnny Shines from a documentary on Public Television about the Delta Blues Festival. I was mesmerized by his slide guitar and his big booming voice, however, I was unable to find very many of his recordings at the time other than his appearance on the Vanguard series Chicago! The Blues! Today!.

Shines was a contemporary of Robert Johnson, even traveling with him from time to time. He ventured from the south to Chicago, playing clubs and recording a few times while working construction during the day. In the late ’50s he grew frustrated with the music business and dropped off the scene, continuing to work construction until he resurfaced in the mid-’60s on the Vanguard series, which jump-started his music career. Not long after the Vanguard session, Shines recorded several sessions with Pete Welding’s Testament Records label, all of which were sitting in the blues section at this little used record store.

While all three of those Testament albums were great (and I will discuss all of them here eventually), the first one that really grabbed me was Johnny Shines With Big Walter Horton (now available via Shout! Factory), which may be one of the finest examples of ’60s-era, or just about any other era, Chicago blues. Shines is front and center for sure, but take a look at those backing musicians from these two sessions recorded in June, 1966 and January, 1969 --- a veritable all-star list of Chicago musicians who were also prominent on many other better-known Chicago blues recordings over the years.

The 1966 session, five songs recorded in Chicago by Welding and Norman Dayron, features Shines (vocal and guitar), Horton (harmonica), Otis Spann (piano), Lee Jackson (bass), and Fred Below (drums). The 1969 session, seven tracks recorded in Los Angeles by Welding, Bruce Bromberg and Frank Scott, feature Shines and Horton with Luther Allison (guitar), Prince Candy (bass), and Bill Brown (drums).

The word that describes both sessions the best is “raw.” On the L.A. tracks, Allison’s guitar work serves as the perfect complement to Shines on tracks like “Hello Central,” “If It Ain’t Me,” the slow burner “I Cry, I Cry” (which also appears as an alternate take), and the funky “Fat Mama.” The Chicago tracks benefit from the presence of Spann and Below, of course, and include the driving “You Don’t Have To Go,” the intriguingly-titled shuffle “Till I Made My Tonsils Sore,” “I Tried To Warn You,” and a terrific take on Big Maceo’s “Worried Life Blues.”

Real blues fans know, but it’s really sad that Big Walter Horton doesn’t always get the respect and recognition he deserves. He played on countless Chicago blues records for numerous artists and influenced basically everyone who has put a harmonica next to a microphone since the ’50s, directly or indirectly. One really gets a sense of the depth and breadth of his talent on these tracks. He really shines on a couple of instrumentals, “Sneakin’ and Hidin’” (two takes) and “G.B. Blues,” and he takes the vocal on “If It Ain’t Me.”

Shines is a force of nature on these tracks. One might ask what would have eventually become of Robert Johnson had he lived past 1938, and I’m inclined to think that he might have either followed a similar path to that of Johnny Shines or maybe Robert Lockwood, Jr., whose music also retained the qualities of Johnson’s originals but often took on a jazzier edge. Blues fans are fortunate that Shines found his way back to the music in the mid-’60s because he released some classic albums that looked back on the traditional blues he originally played, but also had an eye toward the contemporary as well.

Fans of classic Chicago blues should have Johnny Shines With Big Walter Horton in their collections.

--- Graham Clarke



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