Johnny Shines, one of the original Delta blues performers, was born April, 25, 1915 in Frayser, Tennessee, a Memphis suburb. Both his brother and an uncle played guitar, He first started playing in 1932 and early influences included Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson, Scrapper Blackwell and Charlie Patton, before he attracted the attention of Howlin’ Wolf, and he was known as the Little Wolf.
He started playing professionally by 1933-1934, playing around Memphis with such other artists as Willie Bee Borum, Honey Boy Albert Shaw, his cousin Calvin Frazier and others. While playing he made the acquaintance of Robert Johnson in Helena, Arkansas with whom he traveled with throughout Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri and other places, even going north to Buffalo and Windsor, Ontario. Johnson deeply influenced Shines guitar playing. Mike Rowe, in his history of Chicago blues, Chicago Breakdown, points to Lonnie Johnson as a major influence of Shines’ singing.
Shines moved to Chicago in 1941 and established himself as part of the club scene, although working a day job, and working mostly on weekends, including occasionally working out of town. In 1945, Lester Melrose recorded him for Columbia in a small group setting, but these sides remained unissued until 1971. His next recording session was in 1950, when Jimmy Rogers brought him to Chess and as “Shoe Shine Johnny” recorded two powerful sides, “So Glad I Found You,” coupled with “Joliet Blues,” that had Jimmy Rogers on guitar and Little Walter on harmonica. These sides were not released until the late 1960s when they appeared on a Chess anthology “Drop Down Mama.” In 1953, Johnny returned to the studio for Joe Brown’s J.O.B. label. His first record was “Ramblin’,” a fabulous recreation of Robert Johnson’s “Walking Blues,” with stunning bottleneck guitar and a scorching vocal. He also recorded a superb version of Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues,” called “Fishtail Blues,” which wasn’t issued until the 1980’s. Shines’ performances stand up to Johnson’s originals, and if Shines’ guitar playing stood in Johnson’s shadow, he was frankly a more powerful singer than Johnson was.
A subsequent session for J.O.B. produced “Evening Sun” and “Brutal Headed Woman” which featured the harmonica of Walter Horton whose solo on Evening Sun is among the definitive blues harmonica solos, while Shines sang with overwhelming power, and a later session with Sunnyland Slim and J.T. Brown produced an unusual “Living in the White House.”
Shines remained active on the musical scene until about 1958, although a disagreement with Al Benson, an influential person in the Chicago music scene, made it difficult to get a contract. In 1958 he became disillusioned with the music scene and gave up playing music. In the early-sixties Johnny was rediscovered working as a freelance photographer at the clubs where Muddy or the Wolf would play. Upon rediscovery, he was recorded by Sam Charters and Pete Welding. His recordings for Charters were issued on Volume 3 of “Chicago the Blues Today,” and featured Walter Horton’s harp. After superb versions of “Terraplane & Dynaflow Blues,” Johnny is heard on a set of solid, traditionally based Chicago blues with Horton’s harp weaving in and around his vocal. He made several albums for Welding, one of which was part of the “Masters of Chicago Blues” series for Testament with Otis Spann and Walter Horton among the sideman. Of particular interest were several duets with drummer Fred Below.