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Cry Tough

Essential bassist Tommy Shannon hangs in there

When Shannon was finally freed from the farm, his probation stipulated he couldn't join a band or even play bass -- the court automatically associated music with drug abuse. Shannon's bricklayer cousin took pity on him, teaching him the trade. He laid bricks and rocks for a year and a half.

Finally, in 1977, his callused hands bleeding, Shannon laid down his trowel. He told his cousin he was going back to music and walked off the job. He went down to Ray Henning's legendary music store in Austin and posted his name on the bulletin board with this simple declaration: "Played with Johnny Winter." Shannon hadn't seen Vaughan for years, and then one night he was in Houston at Rockefeller's and caught an early version of Double Trouble. At that point, the band featured Vaughan, drummer Chris Layton and bassist Jackie Newhouse.

"I walked in and had a revelation: This is where I belong," Shannon says. "I knew it. After their set, we hugged, and I told [Vaughan], 'I belong in this band, I belong playing with you.' Normally, that's not the way to approach somebody. You just don't go up and say, 'Fire the bass player; let me play.' But that's how strong I felt. I had no shame."

Shannon sat in with Vaughan and Layton a few times in Houston. Then in 1980 he got a phone call to join Double Trouble. Starting at $200 a week, crossing the country in a milk truck, Shannon spent nine years with Vaughan, traveling with the guitarist till the day he died. "You'd think I had enough of it, but Stevie and I were doin' cocaine and alcohol," Shannon says. "Yet good things started happenin' for us. We met Jackson Browne, who was blown away the night we did the Montreux Festival. He gave us his studio free to do basic tracks on Texas Flood. David Bowie was there, whom Stevie almost played with. That shows what kind of person Stevie was. We'd made our record, but hadn't yet sold it. Stevie had this incredible opportunity to go from ridin' around in a milk truck to limos with Bowie. He was pushed into it by management and said okay. They rehearsed, but the night before leaving, he said, 'I just can't.' He chose to stay with his band."

The Bowie tour was to be a year. Chances are, had he signed on with Bowie, Vaughan would never have become the Stevie Ray Vaughan. Vaughan soon had his own record deal, though, thanks to the good graces of John Hammond -- history's greatest A&R producer, the man who signed Billie Holiday and Bob Dylan.

"Working with him was the greatest honor," Shannon says of Hammond. "He talked Epic into signing us -- they didn't want a blues band. They only did it because John Hammond said, 'There's something here.' Then the record took off. I'll never forget, we were touring around in our little milk truck. All of a sudden, out in California, there was a line of people around the block at the club."

Shannon and Vaughan seemed to be made out of Texas cast iron. "We had fun for years," he recalls. "But he and I both started getting real sick from over-coking and drinking. We were doing it all night and all day. Best way we figured to never have a hangover was to never stop." Eventually, they reached meltdown. "One night in a hotel room, we had a big ol' pile of coke. He drank Crown Royal, I drank vodka. We knew we were in trouble. We couldn't stop. We'd isolated ourselves from everybody 'cause they thought we were getting too high. But they couldn't make me and Stevie stop. And this night, we both got down on our knees and prayed together for help to stop. We knew instinctively we were violating the laws of human decency. We got back up and did some more cocaine."

As Shannon describes his descent back into nonstop indulgence, an ashen expression comes over his face. But he once again set himself up for salvation.

"When I met my wife, Kumi, I didn't realize for months that I was in love with her," he says. "I'd go out and meet a girl, be with her one night, forget about her. But I kept remembering Kumi."

Kumi Shannon comes from a military family. She never got high or drank or smoked. This amazed Shannon: She saw through the haze and liked him. "Thank God she could do that," he says. Stevie was best man at their 1986 wedding. "Shortly after that, Stevie and I got cleaned up."

The band was in Europe. "Stevie started vomiting blood," says Shannon. "Two days later we were in his room just drinking after a gig. And he turned white, started sweating. He went to the hospital. And we knew that was the bottom. We canceled our tour. He checked himself into Charter Lane Hospital in Georgia. I checked myself into Charter Lane in Austin at the same time. It'd never work if we weren't separated. We got clean and sober. Everything changed. It was a miracle."

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