Lonnie Shields Defines Authentic Blues at The Linda January 11th
“People used to say that to me. They said, ‘God has chosen you, and you’re still playing the devil’s music.’ I didn’t call it the devil’s music. I just called it different.”
At age 63, Lonnie Shields’ heritage is old school Delta blues. His daddy took him to see Sonny Boy Williamson perform on the King Biscuit Time radio show in his hometown Helena, Arkansas when he was just a kid. Jim O’Neal, founding editor Living Blues magazine and CEO of Rooster Blues Records released Lonnie’s Portrait album calling him “the brightest star to come out of Helena since the old ‘King Biscuit Time’ days of Sonny Boy Williamson.” That album was a Delta all-star sampler with guest appearances by Lucky Peterson, Eddie Shaw & The Wolfgang featuring Vaan Shaw, members of both Al Green and Bobby Blue Bland’s touring band, not to mention the Jelly Roll Kings’ Sam Carr, Big Jack Johnson, and Frank Frost.
Lonnie played nine of the first 11 King Biscuit Blues Festivals beginning in 1986.
For my money, he’s right up there with Buddy Guy and the late Luther Allison in grabbing an audience by the throat in concert. I once saw him virtually rip the roof off a packed house in a club on Cherry St. during the King Biscuit Blues Festival. His dynamics are incredible, and his ability to blend blues, soul and R&B is nonpareil.
I asked him if there was something in the water at The Biscuit that brings the best out in him. “I don’t know if it’s the water. I just think that’s the way we are with southern hospitality, southern gentlemen. A lot of people play just to go out and get the money, but we play from the heart and love of the music. If it was for the money, I never would have been into it, ’cause I never made anything. I never got to the point where I’m comfortable just playing and making money.”
If Sonny Boy Williamson was God in Helena, The Jelly Roll Kings were the sons of God, and Lonnie Shields learned his chops as the youngest member of that group at age 16 in 1972 with guitarist Big Jack Johnson, drummer Sam Carr, and keyboardist and harmonica player Frank Frost.
“Frank Frost once told me, ‘You work the crowd, and you give people a show. You don’t just stand on stage and not do something to get people excited. Jump off stage sometimes. Just go out and approach the people and look them in the face, and show them how much you care.’ He said, ‘Don’t ever let anyone tell you you’re not good,’ and I said, ‘Well, you’re a legend.’ And he said, ‘I’m not a legend. I’m just Frank Frost.’ Frank was very inspirational to me. We sat together and we laughed. We always told stories about how to play to the crowd and make people love you for who you are but got to (play) to them face to face. You have to be intimate with the crowd.
“Sam Carr’s ideas just fit me. He used to talk to me. ‘Young man, you have a lot of talent in you, and I just want you to slow down and listen to me.’ And I said ok. He said, ‘I can take you to a lot of places, and I know you like Al Green, and old people, and that funky stuff, but people love the blues. Just settle down and listen to me. I like when you funk it up. I like that,’ and Jim O’Neal liked that, that same approach. I speak softly, but a lot of people say when I hit the stage I’m a different person. ‘The band is more relaxed, but when you hit the stage it’s electrified.’ I don’t see it, but people see it more than I do. I play the blues and go into R&B, go into soul, deep blues. People love that.”
If a cat has nine lives, and most bluesmen have 13, the case can be made that Lonnie Shields has had at least 20. He comes from a family of ministers. His mama frowned on his playing blues, and he’s led his life helping others, often at the expense of his own career.“Yup. I’ve always helped others and never tried to help myself. My whole family is the same way. Everybody in my family is like that. They’d rather give than receive. It was a blessing.”
The latest example of Lonnie’s largesse is his guitarist/manager Jesse Loewy whom he met when Jesse was just 13 in 2011. “He impressed me how he played. His skill is different than the blues because he’s a jazz player, and I kinda liked how he played. I brought him on stage at one of my shows and played a blues tune. He played my guitar and the crowd went crazy. He looked like a little baby at that time.”
Jesse came into Lonnie’s life at a time when he was thinking of getting out of the blues.“I was thinking of going back to gospel. Then, I changed my mind. I’m like Al Green. I go into gospel and then back into rhythm and blues. So, I tried that. At the time I wanted to quit because there was so much going on, and things weren’t right. I wasn’t making money. I just feel that I wanted to do something to help somebody else because I was tired of playing, and I didn’t want to do music anymore.
“Yup. I’ve always helped others and never tried to help myself.”
One can credit his dad for letting Lonnie follow his muse when his mom was afraid of his playing chitlin circuit bars where there was spit on the floors and the women all carried knives and weren’t afraid to use them. “Dad told my mom, ‘Let that boy go. One day he might make something out of himself. That boy wants to play some music,’ and my mom said, ‘That boy’s not going into juke joints where they got all those crazy women stabbing folks.’
“So, finally my dad convinced my mother to let me go, but she didn’t ever want to let me go. I was her pride and joy. She used to follow me around. Everywhere I’d go to play, my mother and father and my sister were there.”
You don’t want to miss this guy. He’s as authentic as a fifty-dollar gold piece.