I’M NOT GOING TO APOLOGIZE FOR yet another month spent examining the work of Tommy Shannon. In this day of media over-hype, internet celebrity, and Self-Appointed Expert Syndrome, the term “legend” gets tossed around rather loosely. It seems anyone with a track record longer than five years is now considered “legendary,” and perhaps within the realm of disposable contemporary popular music, that might be applicable. But in the world of real music—where musicians create from a need to express themselves and play from the deepest place in their hearts—the designation is applied more selectively. If judged solely by his work with Stevie Ray Vaughan through the 1980s, Tommy Shannon would still deserve the title, but checking into his output from the late ’60s and early ’70s with the ground-breaking Johnny Winter group, it’s clear that Shannon is a rare, living legend of the bass. The Winter group (featuring “Uncle” John Turner on drums) was a power trio in the mold of Jimi Hendrix, but with a harder-edged, stripped-down blues approach that eschewed psychedelia and crystallized the rock/blues hybrid that fueled generations of players.
This month’s example, “Memory Pain,” is the opening track on Winter’s 1969 release Second Winter. As performed by its author, the great Percy Mayfield (“the Poet Laureate of the Blues”), the song is a swinging, slow drag that leaves plenty of room to take in the lyrics. But Winter takes advantage of the slow tempo by giving it a double-time feel that stretches it into a 24-bar blues. Listen to the backbeat of the snare drum to identify the quarter-note pulse—felt this way, the line is eighth-note-based. But if you count halfnotes, you actually have something closer to the tempo of Mayfield’s original, and the bass line can be perceived as a 16th-note-based feel. While the bass line has lots of forward motion and activity, checking in with this half-time pulse will help you play it with relaxed assurance. While significantly different from the original, Winter’s riffed-out version of “Memory Pain” has spawned covers by Savoy Brown, Thin Lizzy, Pat Travers, and Gary Moore—solidifying its place as a warhorse of the blues guitar repertoire.
Example 1 closely resembles the part Shannon plays during the first vocal chorus, after the brief intro where the signature riff is first introduced. The line is a funky classic that falls firmly in “boogaloo” territory, with lots of anticipated downbeats and syncopation. The melodic pattern that drops from the root to the lower 3rd and moves up chromatically to the 5th is solid R&B/soul gold, and Shannon lays it out in bar 1 to set the mood. The syncopation into and throughout bar 2 may look tricky, but listen to the track and you’ll hear how a tight rhythm section can make it sound natural. The first note of the syncopated rhythm in bar 4 is actually the “and” of beat four in bar 3. To make the “ands” of beats one, two, and three feel relaxed and grounded, feel their connection to the silent downbeat. Practice tapping your foot on the downbeat and playing the notes in between your taps. Another approach is to “sing” the phrase—I’d suggest something like “ch-kah, ch-kah,” with “ch” being the downbeat and “kah” for the note you play. (This exact riff is repeated in bars 12 and 20.) In bar 5, the two-bar signature riff from the intro is reintroduced, and repeats often throughout the track. It’s a simple pattern that anticipates the flatted 3rd on the “and” of beat three, followed by the solid-gold R&B lick. Over the IV chord, Shannon gets active on the low F and climbs up with a 3–4–5–8 lick that anticipates the downbeat of bar 10, and falls back down with anticipations on the “and” of beats two and four to set up bar 11. Bars 13 through 16 return to the signature riff, and the V chord uses a syncopated box pattern that “pushes” into the IV chord for a repeat of bars 3 and 4. The signature lick is back in bars 21 and 22, followed by a syncopated 16thnote pattern with Hendrixian tendencies on the V chord for the turnaround.
Shannon’s tone is clear and distinct with a burnished edge, his lines perfectly blend rhythmic interest with melodic dependability, and his lock with Uncle John is almost telepathic. Although recorded 45 years ago, these tracks still sound fresh and badass by today’s standards. Contemporary rhythm-section players would be well advised to listen to how Shannon and Turner musically breathe together.
Ed Friedland puts on his pants just like you do—one leg at a time. But when he does, it’s only because he has a gig.
Johnny Winter, Second Winter [Columbia, 1969]