Cry Tough

Essential bassist Tommy Shannon hangs in there

Tommy Shannon and his wife, Kumi, are raising four elegant horses -- three of them Trakehners, an athletic European breed -- on their Austin ranch. This land, where the Shannons have recently settled, spills out into unspoiled Hill Country. With just a bit more landscaping, it will resemble an American dreamscape, one befitting a humble musician who's overpaid his dues.

"We just got that black mare over there," says Shannon, standing at the corral. "Her name's Deja. She's being bred tomorrow. They're sending sperm down, the vet's gonna squirt it in, and she's gonna have a baby."

Two 11-year-old cats stroll the turf. Poignantly, both were presented to the Shannons as kittens by an old friend who died just yesterday. That friend was Keith Ferguson, the only other Austin blues bassist whose importance rivaled Shannon's.

The interior of the ranch house bears testament to Shannon's allegiance to another dear, departed comrade.

For a decade, Shannon was Stevie Ray Vaughan's musical partner, and gold records and Canadian platinum discs line the ranch house's hallway. "I'm so proud of these," says Shannon of the four Grammys sitting on a piano. The most recent arrived in 1996 -- Best Blues Instrumental for "SRV Shuffle," from a televised tribute concert. Another commemorates the 1984 Montreux Pop Festival. "Seven people booed us, but it sounded like a thousand," Shannon recalls. "We left the stage brokenhearted, crushed." For the live recording of the evening, Blues Explosion, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble copped a Grammy -- karmic payback for the encore they never received.

Encores continue as the SRV legend grows. Vaughan provided Shannon points from album sales and even on merchandising -- an extremely rare arrangement for a "sideman." But despite his legendary past, Tommy Shannon's ego remains modest.

He may indeed be a wonderful bassist, but he knows that his special place in music history boils down at least in part to the fact that he was in the right place at the most right of times. He was the primary bass player not only for Vaughan, but also for Johnny Winter. During two distinct and separate eras, he provided solid support for Texas's two most celebrated rock guitarists. Shannon accompanied both from obscurity into their prime -- and in the case of Vaughan, through his entire recording career.

"I'm glad to be 50 years old," says Shannon, who now plays bass in the soul-rock band Storyville. "I was born [at] the perfect time. I witnessed the birth of rock and roll, I went through the whole revolution of the '60s and I got to participate [in] and live it. There's no way you can explain to kids today how great it was."

It's also hard to explain Shannon's plunge from budding '60s rock stardom with Winter into a hell of addiction and multiple jail sentences, followed by hard labor as a bricklayer. It was only when Shannon teamed up with a then-obscure Austin guitarist named Stevie Ray Vaughan that lightning struck again, a generation later.

The months before and after an artist's breakthrough -- the elusive transitional period known as making it -- are often his most urgent artistic moments. That Tommy Shannon happened to be there for both guitarists may not be sheer coincidence. Tall and humble -- Lincolnesque, you might say -- Shannon's rise, crash and resurrection seem orchestrated by angels.

Keith Ferguson, the bassist who made his legend with the Fabulous Thunderbirds and the Tailgators, died the day before this interview. Shannon is deeply shaken. He can't even attend the wake on Sunday -- Storyville is booked on the road.

Shannon donated five bass guitars to Ferguson in recent years. Each bass likely got Ferguson out to a few gigs. Then, like all of Ferguson's instruments, they ended up hanging in Austin hock shops for dope cash.

Ferguson was also a bassist for Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan, playing with both before Shannon. Though Ferguson's career disintegrated as a result of his attachment to heroin, he remained savagely witty and cool, a bittersweet sage among plentiful admirers. Shannon never possessed such charisma, and he bottomed out harder than Ferguson ever did.

Born in Tucson in 1946, Shannon moved to West Texas when he was nine, growing up primarily in Dumas, where there existed no black folk. There wasn't even a wrong side of the tracks.

"[Blacks] simply weren't allowed," Shannon says. "I guess I never gave it much thought back then. I was only l5. If they drove by, the cops would escort them through town. You'd hear some Jimmy Reed and Sam Cooke on the radio. But since there were no blacks in Dumas, I had little exposure to black music."

But Shannon had already gotten a blast of rock and roll in Tucson. He was a little kid when, on the way home from school one day, he heard "Good Golly Miss Molly" on the car radio. "It shot electricity through me," Shannon recalls. "The hairs stood up on me."

Shannon began making a living playing music in high school. Like most bass players, he began on guitar. In his case, it was with a local Dumas band called the Avengers. He moved to Dallas after high school, joining the soul cover band New Breed in 1966. A long-forgotten Dallas club called Fog was the site of the two most significant meetings of Shannon's career; it was where he first encountered Winter, and then, a decade later, where he saw Vaughan. New Breed drummer Uncle John had known Winter since his childhood in Beaumont, and one night "Johnny sat in with the band, and I was blown away," Shannon says. "I thought he was beautiful. He came in with long white hair, incredible stage presence. I'd never seen an albino before."

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."

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."

Shannon recites the 12-Step Program from AA, which worked for him: "You had to hit bottom, become totally powerless and helpless and full of despair before you could break through and find a life, a way out. Which comes from a power greater than yourself. Stevie was sober when he died. Four years of sobriety. We were playin' better, our ideas blossoming. I helped write 'Crossfire,' came up with that riff. I've got over ten years of sobriety now. I'd rehabbed on my own. Cops didn't drag me in."

Then disaster struck. Shannon was on one of a convoy of helicopters flying back to Chicago from Wisconsin's Alpine Valley Music Theater in 1990, where Vaughan had opened for and played with Eric Clapton. "We got there first, and I went to my room, got a call about six in the morning that Stevie's helicopter had gone down, no survivors. The best friend I ever had in my life. Lost him and the career." But unlike when he was left behind by Winter, "this time was different. It's strange, I had no desire to go drink or get high. Every year you get a chip for however many years you've been clean and sober. Every year I get my chip, and I get him one too, and give it to his mom."

As he had with Uncle John Turner, Shannon forged a rhythm partnership with drummer Chris "Whipper" Layton. With the Vaughan band defunct, they joined the Arc Angels with noticeably younger members Doyle Bramhall II and Charlie Sexton. "The idea was to play a few gigs around [Austin]. But people packed the clubs, goin' nuts," Shannon recalls. "So Geffen flew down an A&R guy. We did a lot of rehearsals, did our record." It was a bittersweet experience. Shannon cites "internal conflicts" as the reason the rising band was destroyed within 18 months "If we [had] stayed together, we'd probably be rich by now."

At present, Shannon and Layton are road warriors in twilight, trying to make their current band, Storyville, ignite beyond its fanatic Austin base. "I don't like being on the road anymore," declares Shannon. "Been there, done that, seen that, so to speak. My whole idea of enjoyment is different. I'd like to do studio work. But I'll never quit playing as long as I live, that's like breathing."

His foundation comes from the '60s, when music shaped people's lives the way World War II had for the previous generation: "It breaks my heart; I feel sorry for young kids today. Music is so disposable now, so totally oversaturated. It's just business. People have totally lost touch with what it's really all about, the love of music."

Still, when Shannon acknowledges a young guitarist -- like the young Winter, the adolescent Stevie Ray -- people should perhaps take heed. Shannon and Layton have recorded an album with Kenny Wayne Shepherd. "He's 19," Shannon says of Shepherd. "This guy Johnny Lang is 16, another guy in town here, Guitar Jay, I think he's 16. He's incredible -- I first played with him when he was seven years old at Ann Richards's inaugural ball. Give 'em a chance; what do they expect of 'em at this age?" Shannon says, still taking young guitar slingers seriously when few other professionals will.

"I also got to play with Clapton, the Stones, Jeff Beck, Little Richard. Can you imagine that?" he marvels, like some provincial musician. I point out something that seems to elude Tommy Shannon: They also got to play with him.

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