During the period of time I worked for Bass Frontiers I had the opportunity to do the following interview with one of my favorite bassists of all time: TOMMY SHANNON. Most of the interview was done in December of 1998. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed speaking with Tommy and working on it. Feel free to e-mail me your comments here: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tommy Shannon is the quintessential groove-oriented rock/blues bassist of our times. Whether you listen to his early playing with Johnny Winter in the late sixties and early seventies, his work in the eighties with Stevie Ray Vaughan or more recent recordings in the nineties with The Arc Angels and Storyville one thing remains constant – the rhythm section grooves. Tommy is a master at playing exactly the bass line that is called for in whatever song or style he’s playing. He understands the function of bass playing in rock and blues music and has the ability to lock in and create just the right feel with the drummer that sets the whole song up perfectly. Listening to recordings with Tommy on bass is a like getting lesson after lesson of the proper things to do as a rock/blues bassist.
This interview was pieced together from several contacts and conversations Tommy and I had in December of 1998. His band Storyville was just breaking up and he was in the process of getting things ready for a new Double Trouble recording. I found him to be extremely generous and willing to discuss just about anything that has happened to him throughout what has been some very trying life experiences. He has survived drug and alcohol addiction, losing everything including his friends at one point in his life, only to clean up and then lose his best friend in a helicopter accident. None of this was off-limits, Tommy spoke openly and honestly about it all. It was a pleasure dealing with him – I have always respected Tommy as a player, after speaking with him I can’t help but respect him as a person as well. More information can be found at Tommy’s website here: www.TommyShannon.com
Your father sang and played harmonica and guitar, was he an early musical influence for you?
Yes, definitely. Though my father was a working man, he worked construction all his life, in all honesty I believe he was more talented a musician than I was. Though he never really got that far he had that potential in him. He knew these folk songs all the way back from the Civil War. He was like this warehouse full of musical history and knowledge.
You started out playing guitar and originally played bass with a pick, do you still play guitar much? How would you describe yourself as a guitarist?
Well, I don’t. I play guitar, play rhythm good and I have a little studio here in my house and I play the guitar on that, mostly rhythm guitar. But I don’t think of myself as a guitar player. I would never go play in public, put it that way.
I’ve heard you speak of Willie Weeks as one of the early & ongoing influences on your playing. Can you talk a little bit about Willie, your relationship and what it is that makes his playing so special?
To me Willie Weeks is the very epitome of bass players. He’s a bass player that can play as little as he wants or as much as he wants without ever interfering in the groove. If you listen to the “Donny Hathaway Live” (Atlantic, 1972) record, which is probably one of the top five of my favorite records ever, he plays a lot but it all fits. Him and Freddie White the drummer are a great rhythm section. And I met Willie back in about 1966, we were playing in this club together in Dallas. He was playing in this band called Les Watson and the Panthers, an all black soul band and they’d play a set and then our band called The New Breed would play a set (all white guys). And I was so knocked out by him I used to just sit there and watch the whole set just staring at him. And we became pretty good friends and we still talk to each other and I have nothing but the greatest respect for him.
What were some of the early bands you played bass in, preceding Johnny Winter? Did you form any relationships during this period or play with any musicians that would go on to greater fame and/or resurface later in your career?
No, the bands I played in nobody would have ever heard of. The New Breed is one of them, The Young Lads, when I was in high school it was The Echoes. And my first band actually I started in junior high school it was called The Avengers and lets see… no, none of these people really went on to anything greater. Some of them got out of music and they’re working straight jobs now and I still keep in touch with some of them, though.
Let’s touch on the Johnny Winter period – How old were you when you joined the band? Describe the period before Columbia signed you in 1969 and what it was like after you signed what was a HUGE contract for a blues band at that time? How long were you with the band and what led to it’s demise?
OK, let’s see, I was about… I was either 20 or 21 when I started playing with Johnny Winter. And, it’s really strange – I met Johnny Winter in this club in Dallas called The Fog. I was playing in a band there called The Young Lads, it was like a soul band. We did the usual 45 minute sets with 15 minute breaks – 8 hours a night, before and after hours. And, uh… the drummer we had (Uncle John Turner), he quit the band and moved to Houston and we got another drummer. And a few months later him and Johnny came to town and something had happened to their bass player and they came up and sat in. And I had never seen anything like Johnny Winter before, he had this long white hair and he was an incredible musician. You know, he blew me away. And they asked me if I wanted to join the band and move to Houston – I said yeah.
So I quit this gig I had in Dallas which I was making great money at the time and joined up with Johnny Winter and moved to Houston and we starved our butts off for a while. Uncle John and myself slept on floors and couches and anywhere we could. Then Steve Paul saw a little clip in Rolling Stone about Johnny Winter. He flew down to Texas and it was literally an overnight success story. One day Uncle John and I were sleeping on floors, the next day they flew us up to New York and we had a big mansion waiting for us up in the country. And that was a great time in my life. In 1969, that was the year of all the giant pop festivals in all the major cities. We played just about all of them. And there’d be like, a hundred thousand, two hundred thousand – we played Woodstock and there was a half a million. That was a great time in history, it’s hard to put in words so some of the younger musicians would understand just how important music was to people back then. Things have changed so much now.
When we first got together we weren’t a blues band at all, we were playing really weird stuff, whatever we had to play to make a living. I remember we were doing that one song “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”, stuff like that, you know. Then we did some Hendrix stuff which Johnny did really good. We did that for a while and Uncle John the drummer, it was his idea – he said “man, there’s a big blues revival going on” – and Johnny was afraid to do that at first. Uncle John kept saying “man, we should really do this” – and Johnny finally decided OK. It was Uncle John’s idea, and sure enough we starved our asses off for a while after we started doing that.
Oh, one thing I wanted to mention. We did our first record with Johnny – it was called The Progressive Blues Experiment, we did that before we got the big record deal. We did that here in Austin at this old club we used to play at a lot called The Vulcan Gas Company. And we just set up in the middle of the club there in the middle of the daytime and recorded on a little two track recorder and I’m very proud of that record. I think that’s still one of Johnny’s favorite records he ever did and mine, too. It’s really good – it’s just raw three piece blues on a little two track machine.
The reason we broke up was that we were having a hard time because at that time none of us were good song writers. We’d run out of material and Johnny was getting pressure from his manager Steve Paul. And so one thing led to another and he let Uncle John and myself go and joined up with Rick Derringer of the McCoys. Rick Derringer had a lot of material and that was the beginning of Johnny Winter And. But Johnny and I are still friends, we talk a lot.
It’s well documented that you are a recovering alcoholic/addict. Congratulations on celebrating & passing your twelfth anniversary! Were you already using pretty heavily by the time you got with Johnny Winter? When did it all start?
Well I started using, popping pills and I took acid and smoked pot, stuff like that before I got with Johnny and I did it some while I was with Johnny but I hadn’t really developed a problem with it yet. What happened is after we broke up Uncle John and I had formed a band called Krackerjack and sometime during that period there I started getting real heavy into it and I couldn’t stop. In my early twenties there I probably went into the worst part of my drug abuse ever. I ended up getting busted, thrown in jail, put on probation and sent to a rehab center in San Antonio for 4-1/2 months. That’s a long story – I went through about seven years of hell there, in and out of jail. Institutions, halfway houses, I lost everything I had. I didn’t have any friends left, none. I was in trouble with the law. I was told to leave the band Krackerjack, I wasn’t allowed to play music. The judge gave me a choice, either give up music or go to prison. So I gave up music. I had to go out and get a real job, I didn’t like it – but I did.
I have also seen at least two nicknames that were given to you in those early years – “slut” and “nappy”. How did they come about?
Well the first one “slut”, that was given to me because for many, many years I chased girls a lot. I loved women and it was like a full time occupation for me. But that nickname went away quick – when I got married my wife put a stop to it.
And the nickname “nappy” was given to me by Cutter Brandenburg who was our road manager with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble when I first got back in the band in 1981. That was given to me because we’d get in our milk truck when we were touring and I’d get up in the bed and sleep all day. So Cutter started calling me “nappy”.
Can you tell me about the first time you ever saw Stevie play and the events that led to what would eventually become Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble as we think of it today?
Well, it’s kind of ironic – I met Stevie at the same club that I met Johnny Winter, The Fog in Dallas. After I broke up with Johnny Winter we flew back to Texas. So I went down to The Fog, my old stomping grounds and as I was walking in I heard this guitar player that just amazed me. It’s like it just grabbed my attention away from everything else. I knew in my heart that this was a special guitar player, that there was something very special there. And I don’t know what I expected or who I expected to see when I walked in, but I walked in and it was this scrawny little awkward kid about 15 years old and it was Stevie. Him and I hit it off right away. We became real good friends and I guess maybe a year later we were in a band together called Blackbird. And then we formed Krackerjack and Stevie was in that band for a while. And we were very close, we had the same vision of life at that time. It’s like by that time I had started using real heavy and Stevie was just getting into it. But, it’s like we didn’t want to hurt anyone, we never had any wrong intentions about hurting people, either one of us. You know we just got lost, that’s what happened. And so when I got busted and went through all my stuff we kind of went our separate ways.
And in 1980 I was living in Houston, I’d just gotten back into music I guess a year or a little more earlier. I was playing in a club band in Houston and I remember walking into Rockefeller’s, this club in Houston one night and it was Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble. I walked in and it was like a revelation, I heard him playing and I knew in my heart that’s where I belonged. I remember they took a break, I walked straight up to Stevie and told him that I belong in this band, I belong playing with you. That’s the first time I had ever done anything like that, I was shameless about it – I just went right up and said that. And I guess about three weeks later he called and asked me to join the band and I did.
Also it’s worth mentioning that when I first got back with Stevie we were touring around the country in this, it was like a milk truck we’d rigged up ourselves. Just Chris, myself, Stevie and our road manager Cutter and one other crew guy that worked with us. We had all our equipment in the back and we built this bed, this sliding bed up above the equipment and every time you hit the breaks the bed would slam forward and that’s pretty much how we toured around. We were having a great time, you know – it was a hard way to tour but we were all pretty young and we loved what we were doing, we loved the music.
I once saw an interview with Eric Clapton where he was talking about Stevie and he said something about Stevie that has kind of stuck with me ever since. The basic gist of what he said was that Stevie’s playing was just pure emotion with no filters, it just came straight from God through Stevie and into the guitar. Most people filter their creativity through their own insecurities and thoughts, through whatever is going on in their life at that given moment, but Stevie just let it go and was always able to get into a zone where there were no filters. Do you feel that’s an accurate representation of what it was like to play with Stevie on a nightly basis? Could you just “feel” the intensity and emotion flow from him when you played live? Is that “no-filter zone” something we all strive for as musicians?
I agree with Eric Clapton completely, it was like Stevie’s music came from God and straight through him. The whole time I played with him, the whole ten years there, there was never a night that I didn’t get on stage that he didn’t do something new or something that just blew my mind. It’s like when he picked up his guitar he went into a different state of mind. Even if he was just sitting around in his living room, he’d pick up his guitar and start playing and I remember there’s that look he’d get in his eyes – half drooped a little bit, it’s like he went into this “zone”, and yes that is the place that all musicians strive to get. I get there sometimes but I can’t say that I live there like Stevie did. It was a great gift he had. I remember on the song “Soul To Soul”, there’s one part in it where I’d go up to his mic and we’d sing “soul to soul” during the breakdown and it was like walking into this energy field. I know that sounds strange, but it’s the truth. You could just feel the fire and the intensity and passion in his playing. It was incredible, he had an incredible gift. It’s like when he played he poured out everything in his life and I’ve never met another musician like that. I have to say the years that I played with Stevie were the best of my life as far as my musical projects go.
From everything I’ve seen and read you and Stevie were two very close personal friends. You entered treatment the same day in two different cities (October 13, 1986). Please tell me about the events leading to your hitting bottom and seeking help, as well as how sobriety has affected your life since then.
Yeah, that’s right. What led up to this was after our first record came out and we started becoming successful it’s like the cocaine became real accessible to us. There was lots of it and we were making money and there was lots of alcohol, just the typical story you always hear. Sex, drugs and rock and roll. And for a while it didn’t seem to slow us down or hurt us. You know, we were just having a great time. But as the years went by it started catching up with us and it started getting worse and worse. And I remember we were trying to quit and we couldn’t do it, we just could not stop. And everyone was worried about us, Chris and Reese were real worried about us. But they knew they couldn’t stop us, no one could stop us. I remember a few months, or… I’m not sure how long it was before the actual hitting bottom. We were at the Opera House here in Austin and I was taking to our manager Alex Hodges at the time and I told him, I said “Stevie and I are headed for a brick wall, I know we are.”, and that’s the truth, I could feel it coming but there was no way I could stop it. It’s just one of those things, it’s like being in a real fast car and you have no brakes so you just wait to hit that wall.
I remember we were in Europe and Stevie actually was the first to crack, I mean to crack down, or crack up – whatever you want to call it. We were in Germany after a show one night and we were all drinking as usual and Stevie just turned pale, turned real pale and sweaty. And he looked at us and said, “You’d better call an ambulance”. And we did, we called an ambulance. And they took him to the hospital and he was in pretty bad shape and they kept him overnight and the next day they made arrangements to send him to London to the same facility that Eric Clapton was in for a while. We ended up having to cancel our tour of Europe because of this and it’s like we both knew it was over, you know? If we went on any further we were going to die. And we were both very frightened because we knew we had to get help but we didn’t know exactly what that would be. So he entered Charter Lane in Atlanta and I entered one here in Austin. We spent 28 days in there, we got out and had to go straight back out on the road. Our first thing we had to do two days after we got out was leave to go to California and make the video for “Superstition”.
That first year was very hard for us, it was like we really held each other up. If I was weak he’d be strong, if he was weak I’d be strong, and somehow it was kind of like if one of us didn’t do it the other one wouldn’t do it. So that’s basically how we got through that first year, it was real hard because it was like this whole new world that we didn’t know – being sober and clean. You know, we loved it but at the same time it was like being a newborn baby and you’re trying to learn how to walk and you keep falling down and stumbling around if that makes any sense, I don’t know…
I have over twelve years sobriety now, when Stevie died he had a little over four years. And in the program that we were in, that I’m still in, it’s a tradition to pick up a chip each year for the length of sobriety you have and every year I pick up a chip for Stevie and I send it to his mother because I don’t want people to forget what a profound impact he had on other people as far as them getting sober and clean. It’s like our whole life changed there. Before we went into treatment if you went backstage there’d be dope dealers and alcohol and just all kinds of wild stuff going on. After we got out of treatment there was no alcohol backstage, we would have meetings back there. Meetings where people in our program get together and share with one another. It was like a whole new world.
And after twelve years I have to say that this time in my life is the best time personally from a spiritual standpoint that I’ve ever been in. I’m writing music, I’m doing a lot of things that got lost when I was younger because of my addictions. I actually enjoy music as much now as I did when I was a teenager. There’s no difference in the way I feel about it. And my life spiritually has changed because the program’s taught Stevie and I both it’s only through a belief in a higher power that you can ever recover. And today I know that’s the truth and I’m very grateful for that. My life is blessed beyond my understanding and I wouldn’t trade one minute of my life now for all the drugs and alcohol in the world.
Everything seemed to be looking up after you and Stevie went through treatment. The band released “In Step”, a killer album and both of you were working 12-step programs while touring only to have it all cut short when Stevie died violently in a helicopter crash. A cynical person might ask “What good did cleaning up do him?”. You must have gone over this in you mind hundreds of times, do you have any thoughts on the timing of Stevie’s death?
The part about a cynical person might ask “What good did cleaning up do him?”, first of all I’d say that’s a very shallow question for anybody to ask. It did everything for him. He found his life again, his soul. And he had a very deep spiritual conviction, he helped a lot of people that are still clean and sober today. And the reason he died, I don’t know any more than anyone else does. I don’t know why. I know it was the worst moment of my life when I found out. I can’t put into words what it did to me. There’s no way to describe that.
As far as the timing of Stevie’s death, well it’s kind of ironic. You know, after we cleaned up, had our sobriety – we also had a top-notch organization. You know, great management, everyone was professional in our organization. No drug use or alcohol. We had insurance for everyone and workman’s comp and everything just set up so well and so professional and then Stevie died. And that put a deeper question in my life than I had ever had at that time. It shook the faith that I had at the time very deeply because I think Stevie’s death brought the living reality of acknowledging death for the first time in my life. I don’t want to get morbid or anything, you can use this or not – it’s up to you. But it’s like after he died I started reading books about dying and I’ve realized in my life that I have to find faith that can withstand death. And that’s something I’m working on and I’m very happy to say that I am slowly coming to understand this – the impermanence of everything. Everything dies and everything’s born, nothing’s really mine – I’m just passing through.
I remember one thing stood out when I heard Stevie died. I had this thought that I was supposed to have been with him. Now I can’t explain that really, except that we had done everything together, then all of a sudden it was like he was gone. And I thought well, I got left behind here, I wonder why? I’m not sure why still, but I’m glad I’m still here.
Did you go through a period of soul-searching after Stevie’s death? Were your own program and/or spiritual beliefs coming into question during this period at all?
Yes, they really were. The faith that I had at that time I found out was not that strong. I’ve come to understand now a deeper faith, a much deeper faith. Yes, it shook my spiritual beliefs, it shook everything in my life. Everything.
How did the Arc Angels form and what are your feelings about playing and recording with this band? What led to the breakup? Do you keep in touch with the former members?
Well, the Arc Angels formed, it’s really strange how it happened, we just got together, we were going to do some gigs around town for fun. None of us took it seriously. People started showing up and going crazy for the band, we started packing places and the momentum just kept building and then Geffen Records came down and offered us a contract so we just went “OK, sure”. So it was one of those things that was just kind of handed to us on a platter, it just came out of nowhere. But our intentions when we got together was just to have a good time. You know, play some gigs around town because everyone else had their own projects going.
I had a good time with this band, I mean we had some internal conflicts but I enjoyed playing the music a lot. And I had a real good time making the record, Little Steven produced it and I think it came out a really good record. I’m proud of that record. He (Little Steven) was really good. He’s the one that actually brought that band together. Before he came in and worked with us it sounded like two different bands, it’s like Charlie would get up and do his stuff – it’s one style of music, and then Doyle would get up and do his which is totally different and it was kind of confusing, you know. He kind of brought them together, had them share verses in songs and stuff like that.
And the reason we broke up was, like I say, internal conflict. I don’t want to go into all the tiny details of it. I still talk to Doyle and Charlie. Of course Chris and I are still together. Doyle’s doing very good now, he’s clean and sober and he’s making a record. He’s doing very well and Charlie’s doing very good, he’s playing with his brother Will. They made a record that should be out fairly soon. So we’re all still friends.
Did you get a tryout with The Rolling Stones? How did that come about? What was that like?
What happened was, I got a call from Bass Player magazine that Mick Jagger’s manager was trying to get in touch with me and they wouldn’t give my number out without my permission. So I called them back and said yes, give them my number! And they did, and they called and asked if I would audition. And I said of course, so they flew me up to New York and they auditioned I guess something like 25 bass players.
I remember right before I went in I was scared to death because they wouldn’t tell you what songs they were going to do or anything. They wanted to know if you were really a Stones fan, which I was and still am. But I had a great time, I know I did really good because they kept me for like an hour and forty five minutes. Before I went in this guy was telling me don’t be let down if they just keep you a few minutes and let you go, but we had a great time. They just started calling off the songs and I knew them, we played them and it was really a trip playing some of those big hits with them, you know like “Brown Sugar”. It was one of the highlights of my career, it really was. So I came out of there knowing that I did really good because they kept me so long and we had a good time man, we were jamming. You know, we played some of their songs, then we jammed some and then just hang around and talked some. So I know I did good, that’s something I can live with.
They were all really nice guys, you know. I thought The Rolling Stones, you know – sure, they might be assholes – they can afford to be, but they weren’t. They were really nice guys and very respectful.
They’d bring in one bass player and make sure he was gone and then they’d bring in another one. They didn’t want us getting together, you know – talking about “well, what songs did they do?”, stuff like that. But I know a lot of really top bass players tried out for it. It was an honor and I really do believe I was considered, so I can live with that.
Your latest band Storyville recently broke up after recording three albums as well as doing some touring. How did this project come together, how do you feel about the products this band put out and what happened that lead to the breakup? Do you foresee working with the former members on future projects?
It came together kind of like the Arc Angels came together. You know, Chris and I had ideas and we thought it would be good to get this combination of people together and to start a band. And we did. I have to say Storyville had a very hard time. I’m not sure exactly why, either. I had a great time with this band and it’s kind of sad to see it break up, but it was a mutual agreement. We’re all still friends. And I know Chris and I are going to keep working together and we’re gonna be working some with Malford, I know that. And David and David, I’m not sure exactly what they’re gonna do.
Describe your relationship with Chris Layton, had you ever played with him before joining him in Stevie’s band? Do you see the two of you remaining as Double Trouble, pretty much doing future projects as a team?
Chris is my very best friend. We’ve played together since 1981, and that was the first time I ever played with him was in Double Trouble, I didn’t really know him until then. And through the years we’ve gone through a lot together. We are gonna stay together. It’s strange, people have always called us Double Trouble for a long time. We never planned it that way, but after a while we went OK, yeah – we’re still Double Trouble. And yes, I do see us remaining as Double Trouble. And we’re definitely going to be working together. Chris and I… we’re going to try and do a Double Trouble record. We’re going to have several guest artists. I can’t really say too much about it because we don’t know exactly how it’s going to turn out and exactly who all’s going to play on it, we’re going to have some really good people on it. It’s going to be a good record, I know that.
How much studio work do you do? Are there a lot of side recording projects that request both you and Chris together? Can you read music at all?
Yeah, Chris and I have been doing some session work for different people and we have some stuff coming up. We enjoy doing session work. Personally I love it because it always makes me a little bit better musician.
Can I read music? Very little. I play by ear mostly, I can read but it’s very slow. I mostly just hear something and then play it. Whether it’s in my head or I hear it on a record or however, I just play it.
There was one song (There’s A Light) on the last Storyville recording (Dog Years) written solely by you. Is this the first song written entirely by you that’s shown up on record? Are you working on your song writing, can we expect to see more Tommy Shannon originals in the near future? And what about vocals?
Yes, this is the first song ever recorded that I wrote all by myself. I helped write “Crossfire” with Stevie which was #1 for like 6 weeks, but I wrote all this song and I dedicated it to Stevie because it’s about what him and I went through together. I am definitely working on my song writing, it’s like that’s become a very important part of my life. I have a little studio in my house now, and I hope you see more Tommy Shannon originals in the future, I really do. It’s really strange, it’s not blues that I’m writing, it’s… hopefully it’s soulful in a way, but it’s kind of melodic kind of stuff. I think it’s something you really wouldn’t expect out of me.
What about vocals? Well, I’m getting better and better, I’m practicing a lot and I’m getting better. I’m not a bad singer at all, Malford loves the way I sing. But I still lack some confidence in that area, though I do sing on my own demos that I make, my own songs. Then I take them to someone who can sing real good. But you definitely will be seeing some more songs on some records .
Please tell me about the basses you own – What are your favorites, if any? What bass (or basses) did you use on Storyville’s “A Piece Of Your Soul” album? I especially like the bass tone on that recording.
Well, I used my old 62 Jazz bass on that. That’s my most precious bass. That’s the same one I used on the early Johnny Winter recordings. That’s the one I used in the Arc Angels and with Stevie on just about all of our recordings. It’s a very precious bass to me, I don’t take it out anymore, I keep it locked up in my closet. There’s just something about it, it’s one of those basses that it’s just a piece of wood and strings, but there’s something about it that’s really magic. Plus Jimi Hendrix played it, and a lot of other famous people have played that bass and it’s been through a lot.
I have an endorsement with Fender, I’m using a Jazz Deluxe is the one I play most of the time. When I record they sent me this other one – it’s really good, it’s a P-J configuration. They put a special neck on there and everything, it’s not a custom bass, but they took the best parts – an ebony fretboard and all that. It sounds really great recording, so that’s what I use recording. I also have a 66 P-Bass which I love. I use that here at home, playing at home and playing locally sometimes, it’s great. And I have a 57 P-Bass that is really incredible, Stevie gave me. Stevie carved in there with a woodburner “Soul To Soul”.
I have a five string and a four string Jennings and Thompson, they’re called JT Basses. They’re really great basses, it’s too bad the guy went out of business. They’re really a high quality instrument, they’re about a $3000-3500 bass. They made me both those and let me have them. I have an Ibanez five string also, they gave it to me. They also made me a custom bass which is really nice, they put my wife’s name on the twelfth fret in pearl inlay. It’s a beautiful bass, sounds great. For a long time I was playing this bass called an A Bass and I love that bass. I also have a Steinberger, they sound real good on some recordings depending on the song. I don’t even know how many I have, man – I’ve got basses all over the house. My wife’s always saying, “You’ve got too many of these, get rid of some of them”. You know, people give me basses so I’ve got a bunch of them. I have a Peavey fretless, it’s a really good sounding bass. I haven’t been in any bands that really call for a fretless, but I love playing them. I love the way they sound, I mean, you can do a lot more with them.
What amps and cabinets are you currently using? Have you ever been totally satisfied with a bass amplification system?
Right now I’m using two Hartke 4×10’s and I also have Trace Elliot 1×15 and 4×10 cabinets. I have a Trace Elliot AH600SMX head, an Ampeg SVT II head, an SWR head and a Gallien-Krueger head besides those. And I’m still in search of that perfect bass amp, I think a lot of bass players are.
What strings and gauges do you use?
I use D’Addario’s and it’s just medium round wound. I use the Slow Wound and regular round wound, I kind of switch around a lot. The half and half are really good strings, too – the Half Rounds. They sound good.
What do you feel is the prime role of a rock/blues bassist? How important do you view the relationship between the bass player and drummer to the overall sound of a band?
Well the role to me, this is just my personal feeling, of a rock/blues bassist is to find the groove and to really emphasize that. And in doing so the whole band sounds better. It’s not a matter of getting out there and showing off how many licks you know, it’s a matter of finding the right thing to play and playing it. And finding that heart beat, or pulse of the song. When you rest on that pulse it becomes easy, I think that’s the most important thing is just to find that pulse and stay in there. I think it’s very important for a bass player and a drummer to play together right. If they don’t, everything falls apart. No matter how good someone is up front if the rhythm section isn’t holding it together it’s gonna hurt them, they’re not gonna sound good. So, personally I can’t stand to play with drummers I can’t lock in with, it drives me nuts. So I’d say for a bass player that’s the most important thing of all – to be able to lock in with the drummer.
What do you think of the flashier jazz bassists out there these days? Do you listen to the recordings put out by Victor Wooten, Jeff Berlin, Oteil Burbridge, Gary Willis, etc., and enjoy that type of thing, or do you prefer listening to more groove-oriented players?
Once again, it’s kind of like Willie Weeks – you can play as little or as much as you want, you know, if you do it right it doesn’t matter. And I think these guys are great, I think they’re incredible. So I don’t really have any preference there, you know. If you take Jaco for instance, he played a lot and he was incredible, I loved his playing. So there’s no rules to this at all, if you play the right thing it doesn’t matter if you’re playing a little bit or a lot.
Has there ever been a Tommy Shannon bass solo recorded and released to the general public? Any possibility of seeing some in the future? What do you think of bass as a solo instrument?
On our live shows with Stevie I used to take a bass solo in “Couldn’t Stand The Weather”, we’d all take solos in that. Yeah, I’ve done solos – but not on recordings. It would have to be the right song to do that, you know – it wouldn’t be proper just to take a bass solo on some song at random. After hearing Willie Week’s bass solo on the “Donny Hathaway Live” record I’m a little reserved about taking bass solos.
What do I think of bass as a solo instrument? Well, I think it’s cool to take bass solos, you know, I think that’s great. I hear a lot of real good ones. As a solo instrument though, I guess I don’t get that… I guess I don’t feel that’s the place of the bass to be the lead instrument if that’s what you’re asking, I’m not sure… See, there’s a difference when you get out there and you’re just trying to show off, show your licks and you totally lose the groove of the band. I see a lot of bass players like that. It doesn’t matter how many licks you know, it just doesn’t matter if you’re not with the band, you’re not in the pocket and you’re not doing your job. But if you can get out there and play a bunch and be in the pocket, then you’re doing the job. Once again, there’s no rules, it doesn’t matter.
I’ll assume Willie Weeks is your main bass influence, other than him what other bassists influenced your playing? Who do you enjoy listening to now?
Yeah, Willie Weeks was my main influence though I can’t really say that we actually had the same style, but if you listen to some of the records I’ve made I do play some stuff that you can tell comes from Willie Weeks’ school of bass playing so to speak. There’s a lot of great bass players that influenced me, one was James Jamerson. He was the very first bass player to step out and do what he did. He brought a whole new revolution to bass playing. I love James Jamerson, I love Larry Graham, I love Leland Sklar, I love Jaco, there’s so many of them that I really like a lot and I love to go see really good bass players, I love doing that. I like Roscoe Beck. Also a bass player I really love is Johnny B. Gayden, he was Albert Collins bass player – he’s a great bass player.
Did you meet your wife after cleaning up? Do you have any children?
Actually I met my wife about two years before I got clean and sober and we got married about six months or so before I got clean and sober. I remember when I was in treatment and I became sober I was really afraid because I had never been with my wife sober, and I was afraid we might not love each other. But it turned out that we loved each other more. In fact I was on the verge of losing her if I hadn’t cleaned up. She’s done a lot for me, she’s my iron butterfly. Do I have any children? Not that I know of….
Have you read any of the books put out about Stevie after his death? Are there any that you feel are exceptionally good or bad and why?
I’ve read the two that I know about and there’s a lot of facts in them that are right, there’s some things that aren’t correct about them. I guess my overview of them is they never really touched on who Stevie was, they just more or less chronicled his life. I don’t think they really represent Stevie at all. You can tell these people didn’t really know Stevie and I don’t mean to put them down or anything like that, but I think they mainly just skimmed across the top and got the details so to speak without ever getting into the heart of the matter.
I’ve heard that Jimmy Lee Vaughan took some heat about some of the Stevie Ray recordings released after his death. Can you say a little about this situation? What are your feelings about the recordings put out after Stevie’s death?
That’s true, a lot of people were giving him a hard time, some people were giving Chris and myself a hard time. But Jimmy is in control of Stevie’s estate right now. As far as these records coming out, I’m very proud of these records myself. There’s nothing out there that I’m ashamed of, I don’t know what the big deal is – why people would object to them coming out. I mean I’m very proud of them, especially the “Carnegie Hall Live” CD, I think Stevie played phenomenal on that. I’m glad they’re out there, so to all those critics – well… never mind, OK? I’m not gonna say it….
In your own words, what do you think music is?
Oh, boy. In a way I have no idea if you wanted to get technical about it, but I can only say for myself what it is – it’s life itself, it’s what I feel I was put here on earth to do. I mean music has the most healing effect on me of probably anything, and to be a musician and to have this life as a musician is the greatest gift I have. I’m very grateful for it. I believe that music is a gift from above so to speak, something that transcends all the languages and it gets down past the head into the heart. I could go on for hours about that, but – music is life, it’s love… it’s feeling, it’s… I’ve often thought too, or it seems to me, that music comes out of silence. Without silence there’s no music. You have to think about that…
Any final words of advice for aspiring bassists and/or musicians?
I would say the most important thing is to ask yourself if you really love it, if that’s what you really want to do. If you really love it, that’s what you really want to do with your life, you will find a way. I know for myself, I knew when I was about twelve years old I was going to be a musician. I knew that and I had faith in it. I went through all kinds of hard times in my life and I had every reason to get out of it and go do something else, but that was never an option for me because I loved it so much. And a lot of friends of mine, they decided to get out of it and go do something else. But I think if you really love it you’ll find your way.
And I think it’s real important to practice, to sit and work, do scales or whatever you do. Take lessons, learn all you can, go listen to other bass players, and some day when you become good enough to play with a band, or maybe you already are – maybe you’re already in a band, when you get up on the stage and start playing the most important thing is to let go of all that and play from your heart and not your head. I think that’s real important – it’s just kind of like you let go, you take all the learning which is very important (don’t get me wrong, it’s very important to sit down and practice and do the tedious stuff over and over), but that prepares you so when you get up there and play with a band you can let go totally of all that and just let it come out of your heart. If you play from your heart you can’t go wrong. So don’t think about it too much when you’re playing – just feel it.
Also, I know a lot of young musicians who stay at home and practice all the time but they never play with a band because they want to wait until they get really, really good before they do that. And I think that’s a mistake. I think part of getting good is playing with other people, it’s real important. It doesn’t matter – if you’re good enough to play in a band, it doesn’t matter if you’re real good or not, what matters is playing with other people. That brings your playing along and it teaches you how to play with other people. If that made any sense…, so good luck to all of you!