Considering bass legend Tommy Shannon once shared the stage with Johnny Winter and was present at Woodstock, nobody would blame him if his career arc trended downward. But Shannon would ascend to greater heights, joining Stevie Ray Vaughan in Double Trouble in 1981.
Of course, it's no secret that Stevie Ray Vaughan was a hell of a guitarist. But when Shannon thinks of Vaughan, his thoughts tend toward the man rather than the player.
"When I think about Stevie, I don't just think about the fact that he was a great guitar player," Shannon says. "That man was my best friend. I still miss him every day. I still think about him every day. Stevie was such a humble person; I loved that about him."
He continues, "We played the music that we loved. But the thing that many people don't know about Stevie is that, in many ways, he wasn't so sure of himself. But I always was. And the truth is that every bass player wanted to play with him, but I was the one he chose. That was an honor that I would never take for granted. I treasure the days I spent with him. I've had many great moments, but playing with Stevie is still my best gig ever."
It's been 33 years since Shannon last shared the stage with Stevie Ray Vaughan. Since then, he's kept busy, working with Doyle Bramhall II, Susan Tedeschi, and even reforming a rock-oriented version of Double Trouble in 2001.
But these days Shannon is retired, saying, "I don't really play bass anymore. Playing bass without a band is boring. But I've still got my Jazz Bass. I named it Susan a long time ago. I love that bass; she's been with me my entire career, and I'll never let her go. It's still the sweetest-sounding bass that I've ever heard."
From his home in Texas, Tommy Shannon dialed in with Guitar World to dig into his exploits alongside Jonny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and why he didn't get the gig with the Rolling Stones.
How did you first meet Johnny Winter?
"There was this club in Dallas, Texas, called The Fog. I was playing there one night, and Johnny was playing, and his bass player didn't show up. And so, one of Johnny's buddies recommended me to him; he asked me to come and try out with him, and we got on so well that he asked me to join. Johnny was easy to get along with, and we locked in musically immediately."
You famously played Woodstock as a member of Johnny's band in 1969. What are your memories?
"Let me say this: I was on acid, so I don't know how much I remember [laughs]. But it was a wild time. I remember naked people running all over and a lot of wild things that you'd never imagine. But, like I said, I was smoking pot, taking acid, and honestly, I didn't think it was a big deal. We didn't learn how important it was until later. But as far as the music went, our version of Tobacco Road was killer. I've always felt that was the definitive version."
You met Stevie Ray Vaughan after leaving Johnny Winter's band, right?
"Yep, that's true. I met Stevie the same day I left Johnny’s band. We flew back to Dallas and ended up at The Fog. And that day, at that same club I'd first met Johnny, I met Stevie. We formed a band called Krackerjack, a great band, man. But I was starving; all I had was $2,000 and my bass after I quit Johnny’s band."
What were your first impressions of Stevie?
"When I met him, he was just a kid, but as soon as we talked, I could tell that Stevie was special. He let it rip, and I listened, and I was like, 'Man… here's this little 15-year-old kid playing better than anyone else I've seen.' And after he got off stage, we talked more and became fast friends. Even back then, Stevie was playing a Strat. That's really the only guitar I ever saw him play."
You went through some tough times in the '70s. How did you reconnect with Stevie?
"I went to hell because of my addictions and was thrown in jail. I ended up in halfway houses, treatment programs, and even this farm in Texas, where I was the only guy under the age of 65. But after I was on my feet again, I got with Rocky Hill, who was Dusty Hill's brother, and through that, I ran into Stevie. We got to talking, and we rekindled our friendship again."
How did Double Trouble form?
"Getting together with Rocky was a blessing because I couldn't find a gig due to my past. He hooked me up with Alan Haynes and The Texas Boogie Band, and I was on the road with him for around nine months. And one night, we were in Houston at the same time Stevie was, and I thought, 'Let me go down and see my old friend.' Well, man, let me tell you – seeing Stevie that night was like a religious experience. I watched him and thought, 'That's where I belong.' So, I went up to Stevie and told him, 'I'd like to join your band.' And a few weeks later, he called me on New Year's Eve, 1981."
Do you recall what gear you deployed while recording Texas Flood?
"For the most part, both me and Stevie used Dumble amps. Stevie had his Strat, and I had my old '62 Fender Jazz Bass. We did two songs on the first day and eight songs the next. Texas Flood came together quickly because we approached it like a live gig. We set up in the studio just like we did when we'd play a show and didn't try and do anything baffling, you know? We set up, went at it, and it turned out great."
How did you acquire your '62 Jazz Bass?
"I was living in Dallas well before playing with Stevie, and I had been playing a Gibson bass with a double cutaway. I loved that bass, but it got stolen. I had no bass and didn't have much money, but I heard that this guy had a white Fender Jazz Bass for sale. I went over there, he did have it for sale, and I bought it for $125. It's the best-sounding bass that I've ever played."
What makes it unique?
"I honestly don't know. I've had other Jazz Basses, but none of them sound as good as that '62. It's all original, made of maple, and has the classic cylinder pickups. I never changed anything, and the guy before me didn't, either. But for whatever reason, that bass puts out a hell of a sound. I've even had people make custom bass guitars for me with a bunch of knobs and all kinds of bells and whistles; none of them are as good as my '62. Maybe it's all the great stuff that's been played on it… maybe all of that has seeped into the wood."
Did you know you had a special record upon first hearing Texas Flood?
"What we did there is tough to put into words. We went through a lot together. We went through our doping and drinking together, which was hard. But we got sober together on the same day, too. Stevie was my best friend. And as far as playing goes, I knew the record was good, but what Stevie did there was great. When you listen to him and hear the way he plays, there's no question that Stevie was an all-time great guitar player."
Despite those troubles, the quality of the music never seemed to suffer.
"During the first three records, we were doing a lot of cocaine and drinking heavily, but you're right; it hadn't caught up with us yet. But it kept getting crazier, and one day, Stevie broke down in Germany while we were all sitting in his hotel room. We were sitting together, and suddenly, Stevie turned pale white and said, 'I need some help….' He put himself in the hospital, canceled the rest of the tour, and got clean. As for me, I wasn't in any better shape and was at my breaking point, too. So, we both got sober on October 13th, 1986."
What were the most significant differences in Stevie after getting sober?
"It's hard to believe, but Stevie's playing got better. To my ears, anybody who listened to him after he got sober could tell he was better. And as a band, we were on a new path. We were faced with either living or dying and chose to live. And like I said, we did it the same day, so me and Stevie supported each other through the whole program. I'm proud to say that we gave it our all; we remained sober until the very end."
What are your memories of your final gig with Stevie?
"I remember that it was one of our best gigs. Stevie came out to jam with Eric [Clapton] and Jimmie [Vaughan] at Alpine Valley Music Theater, and the crowd went crazy. Just thinking about it sends chills up my back. I can still hear that first note he played… that one note will remain with me forever. I will never forget that gig; we played our asses off. And I still remember the last thing Stevie said to me before he got on the helicopter: 'I'll see you back at the hotel. Love you, man.' We always used to say that whenever we'd part."
It must have been tough to pick up the pieces after that.
"God, it was so hard. It was total chaos. None of us knew what to do. We were facing the great unknown without Stevie. I didn't leave my house for about two weeks. That's how tore up I was over it. It hit me so hard having him gone, and that was bad enough. But once I accepted that he was gone, the next thought was, 'What am I gonna do? I don't have a gig anymore…' So, it was not an easy time by any means."
Is it true that the Rolling Stones asked you to audition after Bill Wyman retired?
"Oh, yeah, that happened. I believe there were something like 17 bass players that auditioned, and I was one of 'em. I made it to the top three, but I obviously didn't get the gig. I went in, knew all the songs, and it felt great. I always loved The Rolling Stones, so that wasn't an issue; I was very comfortable."
Why didn't you get the gig?
"I'm not sure. But I did so well that I remember leaving and thinking, 'I think I got this gig.' But it wasn't to be. I guess they liked Darryl Jones better. That was tough because after playing Jumpin' Jack Flash, Start Me Up, Miss You, and some other songs, I really felt like I should have that gig. I still do. I still think I would have been the best choice for that band. But they disagreed."
How do you remember Stevie Ray Vaughan?
"He wasn't cocky and never acted like he was better than anyone. Even when Stevie was a kid, though, he was special. But that didn't matter; despite how great he was, Stevie would look at all the older guys and talk about how great they were. I remember saying, 'Stevie, you're already better than all these guys. Don't you know that?' But none of that mattered to him; he respected the musicians in Austin, Texas, and he never wanted to leave anybody behind. He was a great guitar player, but Stevie Ray Vaughan was an even better man."