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Cry Tough

Essential bassist Tommy Shannon hangs in there

Eventually, Uncle John left the band to join Winter in Houston. Soon thereafter, Winter's group needed a bassist, and Shannon moved to Houston, where he received a crash course in the blues.

"I'd heard Cream and saw the name Robert Johnson or Albert King under a song, figuring that must be a friend of theirs," he says. "[Winter] sat me down and played me everything, all the way back to field hollers -- which we did in one of our songs."

Thus began the seminal power trio that in 1968 became the Progressive Blues Experiment. The band's planned debut, Progressive Blues Experiment, was recorded for a huckster named Bill Josey before they had a record deal. The band recorded this bona fide masterpiece live, in two afternoons, on a two-track machine at the Vulcan Gas Company, a psychedelic ballroom in Austin. But nothing happened to the tapes after the album was recorded; they just sat there until Winter signed with Columbia a year later. At that point, Josey sold the Progressive Blues Experiment album to another label.

Winter's first Columbia release, the eponymous Johnny Winter, made the Top 40, but the fact that Progressive Blues Experiment was released on Imperial Records at the same time confused people. Winter scored no Top 40 singles, as had immediate predecessors such as Jimi Hendrix and Cream.

After Second Winter, the only three-sided vinyl LP in history (the fourth side remained blank), was released in October 1969, Johnny had a hard time writing songs. Under pressure from management, he hooked up with a band called the McCoys, whose guitarist, Rick Derringer, wrote savagely funky material.

"A blind man coulda seen it comin'," says Shannon. "Johnny would start goin' over there, jammin' and stuff. Johnny'd said things earlier, like, 'We gotta do a new record, but I don't have any new songs, I'd hate to let y'all go, I hope we can pull this all together.' "

But they never could. Shannon and Uncle John were dismissed with only $2,000 compensation apiece. Winter's new band, Johnny Winter And, featuring Rick Derringer, became one of the hottest concert tickets in America. Meanwhile, Shannon and Turner joined a minor San Francisco-area band called Krackerjack.

Upon his dismissal from Winter's comet, Shannon's life began a dramatic plunge. He feels no need to keep it secret: In Krackerjack, "we starved our asses off out in California, so we moved back down to Austin. That's when I started shooting crystal meth. A poly-drug abuser. And here comes the hard part of my story. In a year and a half, I got so screwed up and pathetic, I lost enough weight to look like a skeleton. I began missing gigs. I alienated myself from friends and all the good people in my life. Began hanging out with dealers and hard-core criminals who burglarized drugstores, then came over to my place. It was the sickest time of my life."

Shannon briefly left Austin for Dallas, where, while at his old stomping grounds the Fog, he again heard an "incredible guitar player" on-stage. When he looked up, Shannon caught a glimpse of a scrawny, 14-year-old Stevie Ray Vaughan.

"He was so humble and meek," Shannon remembers. "All these older musicians blew him off, and I'm saying, 'God, he's better than all these guys.' He and I hit it off and I told him, 'Man, you're great.' Stevie said in a lot of interviews he remembered that night, 'cause I was the only person who talked to him."

For a moment in the early '70s, Shannon and Vaughan played briefly in a band called Blackbird, living in the same duplex. "We talked about spiritual things," Shannon recalls, "got high together, all that shit."

But then things got worse for Shannon. "I'd stay up five days without sleep," he says. "I remember one night getting ready to play. So I did a shot and just blacked out. They found me with the rig hanging out of my arm. I didn't wake up for three days, while friends shook me. None of us thought we could die back then. But I got busted and thrown in jail, ending up with two years' probation."

As a provision of probation, Shannon spent four months in a San Antonio rehab center, where he was treated with Valium. After that, he rotated between short jail terms and probation, failing urine tests, unable to remain straight. For a while he played bass for an Austin group called the Fools, but that didn't last long. His next jail term released him to a halfway house for four months, where he was introduced to AA, whose methods he first rejected.

Shannon's brokenhearted parents were then living in Amarillo, clueless as to their son's whereabouts for years. "I eventually ended up on this 'farm' out in Buda for over a year, where derelicts were sent," he says. "Halfway houses wouldn't have me, considered me hopeless. I was the only young guy amongst all these old guys they'd find under the bridge. It was hell."

A genuine freak, Shannon could relate to no one -- the generation gap stood firm even among derelicts. He'd pour concrete, pull nails out of wood. He had no money, lost every friend he'd had, couldn't even buy candy or cigarettes at the commissary. No girls, no music, no drugs. "I'd had my '62 jazz bass, which Hendrix had played, out there at the farm for a year under the bed," Shannon says. "I only pulled it out once, looked at it, broke down and cried. But I didn't kill myself."

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