Calm, cool and collected – that’s always been the standard operating procedure for the ‘King of Beale Street.’
So when you see Shannon’s eyes light up, a huge grin break out across his face and his body shakes with all the anticipation and excitement of a young child on Christmas morning, that probably means that the longtime fixture on the Memphis music scene is genuinely excited about something.
That something would be Dust My Broom, Shannon’s just-released compact disc on the Continental Music label.
“Man … my new CD, I am just so, so excited about it. All the (radio) jocks I’ve talked to all over the country that have heard it just love it,” Shannon said. “I know there’s a lot of us blues artists out here now playing the blues, but I’ll put it to you like this – this is my best one yet.”
For this disc, Shannon has favored his fans with sort of a best of both worlds approach, an idea he borrowed from one of the legendary forefathers of modern music.
“I took the idea from the King of the Blues – B.B. King – who did an album in the 1970s called Live and Well. At that time, when albums were still on vinyl, what he did was make one side of it studio songs and the other side songs that were recorded live,” said Shannon. “So I decided to do that. I decided to do a tribute to the late, great Elmore James, so I did seven of his songs and the other five songs are Preston Shannon, live in Europe with a big band. I had a six-piece band backing me, with three horns called Fat Harry and the Fuzzy Licks. And they did a great job, man; a great job. That’s what the album’s all about and it’s awesome.”
His new album has already been on the streets over in Europe for awhile now, and this past spring, Shannon treated his fans over there by playing some of the material live on a tour through Belgium, Holland and Germany.
“Well, last year (2013), I played a cruise ship over there for almost five months and went to 21 countries. This year, I started out in Amsterdam and played all the way to Germany,” he said. “It was great, just fantastic. They accept and they really love the blues over there … they just love it. And I love them for loving it.”
Shannon has always been blessed with the smooth and soulful golden throat of a blues crooner in the very best sense, but he’s also long been heralded as a force to be reckoned with when he straps on his guitar and his fingers start maneuvering up and down the fretboard. Largely because of the fertile area he grew up in, it would be hard to imagine anything but the blues coming out of Shannon when he sings or plays guitar.
“I’m a Mississippi (Olive Branch) boy and it seems like most of the old blues players were from Mississippi. You know, guys like B.B. King, Albert King, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf,” he said. “They’re all from Mississippi – I’m from Mississippi. I was raised around the blues. That’s where I get my style from.”
Like a lot of bluesmen of his era, Shannon’s gateway to music – and the blues – came through the church during his youth.
“My parents were Pentecostal and were very religious. The pastor of the church, W.E. Garner, played guitar. And that’s what inspired me to play the guitar,” he said. “At like 8- or 9-years-old. So after I got interested in the guitar, I would pick up his and play it on Sundays. That’s how I got started playing the guitar. That’s what motivated me, the preacher of the church.”
Times were no doubt brutally tough – from both economic and social perspectives – when Shannon was kicking around DeSoto County, but the one thing that wasn’t so difficult was choices in music; simply because there just wasn’t a whole lot to pick from.
“The only music that you heard back then was blues, gospel or country. Music now has got so many different categories. You may hear something that you think is the blues, but you find out that it’s considered pop or contemporary or something like that,” he said. “But back then blues was blues, gospel was gospel and country was country. Now, you can’t really tell.”
As tough as it may have been to break away from the pack and leave your mark as a bluesman back in the heady days of Muddy, Wolf and the Three Kings, Shannon thinks it may be even more of an uphill climb for today’s generation of up-and-comers to chisel out their own spot in the genre in 2014.
“If you don’t have something that’s really unique and different as a blues artist these days, you’re not going anywhere,” he said. “There’s really no outlet for the blues these days. The only blues you’re going to hear (on the radio) these days is on special days, at special times. It’s that way all over the country – even in Memphis. We’ve got the first black radio station, WDIA, and they only play the blues on Saturday. During the week, if you do hear the blues, it’s maybe something by B.B. King or some of the older acts. Maybe – maybe – that’s not guaranteed. You just hardly ever hear the blues anymore.”
Then – or now – it takes plenty of hard work and elbow grease to break into the entertainment industry. For Shannon, that meant two decades of playing in various Memphis bands at night for hardly any money, while he earned his living during the daytime working at a hardware store there in town. Hooking up with Shirley Brown in the late 1980s, Shannon really began to make blues lovers sit up and take notice and he played in the soul-blues diva’s band for nearly five years before striking out on his own.
“Well, it was something that was brand-new to me (going solo), but I felt like it was time to take a chance,” he said. “If you don’t ever take a chance, you’ll never know, so I just took a chance. But it was real hard there for a minute – I did a whole lot of different things (to support his burgeoning solo career). I did yards, drove dump trucks … a little of everything, you know. I paid my dues, I think. I’m still paying them, of course.”
He may still be paying his dues, but it didn’t take long before Shannon’s decision to start his own group proved to be the correct one. He issued three records on the Bullseye Blues label and his 1999 release – All in Time – garnered three Grammy nominations.
Not afraid to roll up his sleeves and tackle any chore that lay before him – on or off the bandstand – Shannon’s work ethic earned him the title of ‘King of Beale Street,’ a distinction he holds with great pride.
“I got that tag because once I got accepted on Beale Street as a blues artist, club owners started giving me a lot of work and I played up and down Beale Street for a number of years,” he said. “That’s how I got the name. I’d play on that end, then I’d play on the other end, then I’d play in the middle, then I’d play in the middle of the middle … on both sides of the street.”
Titles and acknowledgments are cool, but they usually carry some sort of extra responsibility or weight with them. But in Shannon’s case, he doesn’t believe that being hailed as the King of Beale Street adds any additional burden to his load.
“I just keep on doing now what I did back then. I’m basically a blues singer – I do a little bit of R&B – but it’s mostly the blues; that’s what I do … I sing the blues,” he said.
That ability to sing the blues – plus a little bit of R&B – was discovered in a most unusual place a couple of years ago. Producers of NBC’s hit talent show, The Voice, invited Shannon to compete on the program back in 2012, even though at first he thought he was the victim of some kind of prank.
“I’m at home and I get a phone call and my wife says, ‘Someone from The Voice is on the phone. So I’m like, ‘OK, yeah, cool.’ So I go to the phone and the lady says, “Hi, Preston, my name is Valerie and we want you to be a contestant on The Voice.’ I go, ‘Yeah, OK … when?’ I was thinking that someone was pulling one over on me,” he said. “This was on a Wednesday and they said they wanted me the next Monday. What? Monday? So I said, ‘Tell you what, let me call you back.’ To tell you the truth, I had just negotiated another day or two at B.B. King’s Club in Memphis, so I had to decide what to do. I needed the money from the gig at B.B.’s, but after I found out it was for real, I wanted to do The Voice, too. So I called B.B.’s and worked it out with them, so I still had a job when I got back to town.”
Once he arrived in Hollywood, the producers of the show had him write down 15 songs (there had never been a blues artist on the show before Shannon) and Shannon naturally picked all blues songs. Well, almost all blues songs.
“I decided to put down about five R&B songs that I might have a chance to do, along with the blues songs I picked. So the producers end up choosing “In the Midnight Hour” off my list. I really didn’t want to do that one, but they chose that one, so that’s the one I did.”
So Shannon channeled his best Wilson Pickett and sang ‘In the Midnight Hour” on national television. Pretty cool stuff for a bluesman from Olive Branch, even though he’s still not completely up to speed on how he came to be on the radar of The Voice.
“Well, the people from The Voice never did tell me how that got my number. When I got out there, I asked them how they found me and all they said was, ‘You came highly recommended,” Shannon said. “That’s all they told me. But it was awesome, man. There’s really a lot of work involved in that show.”
There has never been any question regarding the kind of dynamic performer that Preston Shannon is, whether on stage at the Rum Boogie in Memphis, at the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival in Davenport, or at the Cafe Bizon in Belgium. And if there is one thing that has become a show-stopping staple of Shannon’s live shows, it’s his bluesy rendition of Prince’s “Purple Rain.” That may seem like an off-kilter choice of a song for a bluesman to cover, but in Shannon’s capable hands, it really does bring the house down.
“I have really always looked at that song as a blues. I mean, Prince really did that song so well … that’s why they made a movie out of it,” he said. “But I’m a Prince fan and I just love that song. When I went in to do my third CD (All in Time), I decided to do “Purple Rain.” Really, the only thing I do different is my guitar-playing is different. I play it as who I am and what I am – a blues player. I can’t play it like Prince, so I play it like me. Blues fans love my version of that song and I love doing it for them.”
Shannon doesn’t favor the approach of covering a song just by picking one at random out of a hat. His methods for adding a song to his repertoire go a tad bit deeper than that.
“I choose a song that I feel that I can do something with. Even when doing cover songs in a night club, if I don’t feel like I’m doing anything for the song – or getting anything out of the song – I tell the band to let me know,” he said. “Because if I’m doing a song and you can’t feel nothing, it’s no good. That’s the way I look at it.”
Adding depth and feelings to songs is something that Shannon has been doing for a long time now. There was little doubt after he first picked up the guitar in church that the instrument was going to be a big part of his life from that point on. But as far as his singing voice?
“I never wanted to be a singer. I never even visualized one day being a singer and going across the country and getting paid for it,” he said. “When I got into this business, all I wanted to do was play the guitar. That’s it. I remember the first time someone put a mike in front of me, I was like, ‘No! No! No!’ But as time went on, I realized that I had enough talent to do it, so I finally decided that’s what I needed to do; to play guitar and sing.”
Preston Shannon Interview by Terry Mullins