Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who've been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.
In a perfect world, Johnny Shines would be as beloved and revered as his famous contemporaries: Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and the bluesman with whom he's most associated, Robert Johnson. Like Johnson, Shines is important because of his role in the transition from country Delta blues to electric big-city blues. Alas, like so many innovative artists, he couldn't break through as a star.
John Ned Shines was born April 26, 1915, in Frayser, Tennessee, now part of Memphis. He saw Blind Lemon Jefferson play in 1925, and as a teenager he learned guitar from his mother. Shines was also influenced by Charley Patton, and in 1932, when he moved to Hughes, Arkansas, to work as a sharecropper, he met a young Howlin' Wolf, just five years his senior. At first Shines was afraid of Wolf—as he told blues historian Peter Guralnick, "A guy that played like Wolf, he'd sold his soul to the devil. I mean the sound he was giving off—that's how great I thought Wolf was."
Shines nonetheless followed his hero around, watching him play whenever he could and trying to learn his licks. Lore has it that Shines first performed onstage during one of Wolf's juke-joint gigs: while the big man was taking a break, Shines hijacked his guitar and got the place jumping. Shines started playing around northeast Arkansas, hitchhiking back to Memphis for Saturday-afternoon gigs in a park off Beale Street, and became known as "Little Wolf."
Shines is also well-known as a premiere interpreter of blues legend Robert Johnson. Their relationship is shrouded in myth, like everything about Johnson's life, but as the story goes, the two met through Johnson's stepson Robert Lockwood Jr. At first Johnson was standoffish, perhaps perceiving Shines as competition, but in the mid-1930s Shines returned to Hughes from one of his trips to find Johnson waiting for him in his room. In 1935 they became traveling companions, each performing on a different street corner in every town where they stopped.
The duo hopped trains at a moment's notice, roving around the south and playing at fish fries, juke joints, house parties, chitlin' suppers, levee camps, sawmills, and coal yards. A photo that surfaced in 2005, believed to be only the third of Johnson ever found, dates from this period and pictures him alongside a white-suited Shines.
Another surviving story says Johnson and Shines had to flee Helena, Arkansas, because they were traveling with a cousin of Shines's, Calvin Frazier, who got into a shooting altercation with his father-in-law. They headed for Canada, which led to gigs in Detroit and a 1937 radio appearance playing gospel songs on The Elder Moten Hour, across the border in Windsor, Ontario. After more than three years on the road, they split up, and Johnson headed back south. He died in Mississippi in August 1938, and Shines didn't hear the news for two years.
Shines continued to travel with Johnson's stepson, Robert Lockwood Jr., and settled down in Chicago in 1941. He worked a day job in construction but rocked it up at night, wowing bar crowds with his jagged, propulsive slide guitar and booming voice. Shines also fronted an eight-piece jump-blues group called the Dukes of Swing, which played a lot of jazz and R&B (especially Count Basie and Duke Ellington) at a residency at the Apex Chateau in south suburban Robbins.
In 1946, Shines recorded for the first time, but the two sides he cut with Columbia Records wouldn't be released until 1971. Similarly, his 1950 session with Chess produced two sides that didn't come out till 1970, on a compilation LP where he's billed as "Shoe Shine Johnny" (a name he resented).
Shines's first music to see timely release was for Chicago label J.O.B. Records, and he remains best known for those sides. He cut 11 songs in 1952 and 1953, and the label pressed four of them: "Rambling" b/w "Cool Driver," then "Evening Sun" b/w "Brutal Hearted Woman." The other seven would come out on compilations decades later.
All of Shines's early-50s recordings are now considered classics of electric Chicago blues. Seven of his J.O.B. tracks, including the second single, feature legendary harmonica player Big Walter Horton, who collaborated with Shines for many years. Blues scholar and longtime Reader contributor David Whiteis discussed that material in the paper in 1992: "Those sides established him as a blues artist of rare power—a forceful singer, poetic lyricist ('You said if I wanted your love darling I'd have to wring the silver out of the moon'), and one of the premier slide stylists of his day," he wrote. "Shines roars out his verses in a thunderous, vibrato-rich shout that owes much to the field-holler tradition: 'People could hear me for half a mile,' he told Living Blues magazine in 1990. 'I could call my auntie from over here and my uncle from over there.'"
The J.O.B. singles didn't sell well, though, and Shines ended his association with the label after a dispute with a producer. He also claimed that Leonard Chess had refused to release those 1950 sides because they would've competed with Muddy Waters's Chess recordings. He grew increasingly frustrated with the music business, and in the late 50s he pawned all his gear. "I wasn't going to record no more," Shines said in a 1989 interview. "I took my stuff, 'bout $3,000 worth, and carted it to a pawn shop and got $100 for it. I tore that ticket up and threw it on the floor because I didn't want the stuff. I just quit. I gave up."
Shines took a day job in a factory and shot photographs in Chicago blues clubs at night, selling the prints. In 1965 he was "rediscovered" by historian Sam Charters, the same year "Evening Sun" and "Brutal Hearted Woman" appeared on the LP compilation Chicago: The Post-War Blues Vol. 1. The "blues revival" was under way, and tenacious European fans even convinced Shines to return to recording. "A new generation was ready to embrace Shines and his contemporaries as irreplaceable American cultural treasures," Whiteis wrote for the Reader in 1990. "This time around, Shines found that he could play the blues and keep his finances and dignity intact."
The Johnny Shines Blues Band contributed four tracks to the 1966 Vanguard compilation Chicago/The Blues/Today! Vol. 3. That same year, Shines appeared on an Otis Spann LP and released his first full album under his own name, the Testament Records release Masters of Modern Blues Vol. 1 (with Spann on piano, Big Walter on harmonica, Lee Jackson on bass, and Fred Below of the Aces on drums).
Shines worked with Spann and Big Walter again on the 1969 Blue Horizon LP Last Night's Dream. Around the same time he moved to Holt, Alabama, to get his children out of the city, and he'd often perform gigs in the area with Mississippi Fred McDowell. Shines continued to tour during this period, playing as far afield as Europe and Japan and traveling with Lockwood Jr. and Willie Dixon's Chicago All Stars. He enjoyed a flourishing career and a large new audience, and his prolific stream of albums and compilation appearances didn't slow down till 1980, when he suffered a stroke that hurt his proficiency on guitar. He released an album with Lockwood Jr. that year, Hangin' On, that got nominated for a Grammy.
Shines appeared in the 1991 documentary The Search for Robert Johnson, and his final album, a 1991 acoustic blues record with Snooky Pryor called Back to the Country, won a W. C. Handy Award. John Nicholas and Kent DuChaine played guitar on the album in his stead, and Shines sang several renditions of Robert Johnson tunes, proving himself the master's musical heir at the end of his life. He toured with DuChaine from 1989 till his death on April 20, 1992, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Shines was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame later that year, and his music continues to be reissued. Previously unreleased material is still turning up as well: in 2019, Omnivore Recordings put out a duo set from Saint Louis called The Blues Came Falling Down: Live 1973. v
The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.