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Before the Flood: Bassist Tommy Shannon remembers Stevie Ray Vaughan

You walk into a small club one night, and see a gawky teenager playing some of the hottest blues guitar you’ve ever heard. You decide on the spot that you need to get yourself into that kid’s band…You do, and you start making musical history.

So it happened in the mythical land of Austin, Texas, when bassist Tommy Shannon heard Stevie Ray Vaughan for the first time. Vaughan, Shannon and drummer Chris Layton were Double Trouble, the band that cut the landmark debut album Texas Flood (keyboard and sax players joined the group later on). From the start, the band was blazing through blues and Hendrix tunes for local crowds who didn’t know what was hitting them.

In this exclusive interview Shannon takes us back to the peak days of Austin’s blues scene, the formation of the band, and some of the misadventures that happened later. You’ll hear about the early gigs, the road trip they took to make Texas Flood before they had a record label deal, and the very unlikely band they found themselves opening for on their first arena tour.

 

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Brett Milano: I want to go into the history a bit here – can you tell me about the first time you met Stevie Ray? How did that come about?

Tommy Shannon: Well, in 1969 and I was playing with Johnny Winter.

BM: You were in his band as well, right?

TS: Right. I played on his first three records and he let Uncle John [Turner] and myself go – Uncle John was the drummer – and we flew back to Dallas and went to the same club we’d been going to. And I walked in [and] there’s this little fifteen-year-old, pigeon-toed, big-eared guy playing, and that was Stevie. We made friends that night and about a year later we were getting this band called Blackbird together.

BM: What did that band sound like?

TS: It was real good, really good. People love Stevie.

BM: The first time you saw him, did he have that kind of flame that he had in Double Trouble? Was the sound already there?

TS: The sound was already there, [but] he wasn’t as good as he became. He was still special. You could hear it through his playing.

BM: What did you think seeing a fifteen-year-old guy doing that kind of thing?

TS: I was kind of surprised.

BM: Was it pure blues at that point, or was he playing rock n’ roll as well?

TS: Mostly pure blues. We did “Manic Depression,” and later on start doing “Voodoo Child” and we had an instrumental version of “Little Wing.” Other than that, it was just straight blues.

BM: So Hendrix was already in the mix from the get-go with you guys?

TS: Right.

BM: You had just come out of Johnny Winter’s band, and here you were with another hot-shot guitar player. Did it feel very different to you to be playing with those two guys?

TS: Oh, yeah. It felt totally different. Stevie was still real young. I guess we started playing together in Blackbird when he was about sixteen and I guess I never did compare the situation, really.

BM: At what point did it become Double Trouble?

TS: It was Double Trouble before I got in the band. In the last of 1979, I remember I went into Rockefeller’s – this club in Houston – and Stevie was playing, playing his ass off. It was like this revelation. Some mystical experience. I knew – that’s where I belong. Right there. That’s where I belong. So, they took a break [and] I ran up to Stevie and told him. Next time they played I did the same thing. They had me sit in [and] it sounded great. So they called me to play with them and I joined in 1980.

BM: Did he immediately start working on getting you in the band when you said that to him?

TS: It was kind of a slow process because Stevie needed to fire guys. He had to fire the bass player and that took about three weeks before I actually got the call.

BM: What was Austin like at that time? That scene that you had there in the early ‘80s was pretty legendary. Were there a whole lot of music fans that were open to good stuff?

TS: Oh, yeah. That’s back before we had computers and people, especially young people, defined themselves through the kind of music they liked. They were more crazy about music back then. We of course had LPs and 33s. It was just a totally different time. Austin was like paradise back then, literally like paradise. There were just great musicians in town. There weren’t near as many clubs, but you could go out any night of the week and hear a great band.

BM: Is it anything like that nowadays?

TS: No. It’s grown so much, it’s lost it. Except South Austin hasn’t changed hardly. That’s where I live. But North Austin, I don’t even know my way around. I never go there. I might as well be in Chicago or something.

BM: Was it the same kind of kids that would go to see Double Trouble in the early days that were also into the punk thing and the rock n’ roll? Were those kids listening to blues as well?

TS: No. It changed a lot of people. Our first big tour was with the Moody Blues. We were playing those big – I guess you’d call ‘em coliseums. People loved us, and they were shocked. They’d never heard that kind of music before. It sort of gave a new meaning to the blues, because they loved Stevie and from there they started going back to find his roots which were in all these old guys that were blues players. They revived that, and they started making more money. So it was a good thing all the way around.

BM: Did Stevie feel that he was on a mission to enlighten more people about that kind of music?

TS: No. He hoped he turned on people by it, but I wouldn’t really call it a mission. He did what he wanted. People liked him. I wouldn’t really call it a mission, but it was more just an underlying feeling of giving people what he thought was real music.

BM: I’m kind of surprised that you were on a tour with the Moody Blues. Was that the strangest double bill you ever did?

TS: Yes. It was real strange. The next day we’d get these great reviews – all of them were great. And the Moody Blues got real bad ones. We never even met any of those guys. They really kept to themselves.

BM: I assume they probably weren’t happy when you wound up stealing a lot of their thunder.

TS: Yeah. But a lot of people hadn’t heard what we were doing. We weren’t just playing blues – we were playing power blues, loud and hard-hitting. Kind of like a rock blues.

BM: Was that partly your input to push it into that power trio direction?

TS: Yes, it was. It just naturally started becoming that once I joined the band. We started turning up our amps and it just was more like a rock band kind of blues. So many people never heard of that music and were converted once they heard us.

BM: What was it like for you to be the bass player on a stage where everybody’s looking at the guitar player?

TS: It’s cool, it’s great. People do look at the band too. I didn’t mind at all. My place was to hold down the solidity of the whole thing. I was having a ball.

BM: So you were the one that kept everyone else well-grounded?

TS: I’d like to think so. Somebody else might tell you different, but Stevie was the best friend I ever had in my life. It just occurred naturally.

BM: I assume you can only play that way with that kind of synchrony that you guys had, when you’re totally in each other’s wavelength and you can all rely on each other.

TS: Yeah, exactly. It was like an unwritten rule, when we got onstage to give 110%. No excuses of any kind.

BM: During the club days you played for hours at a time, right?

TS: Yeah. Oh, yeah. The tour for our first record was driving around the country in a milk truck. We had it all rigged up and that’s how we traveled. We were in this one club in California, we’d play and there’d be maybe a hundred people there or something like that. And after Texas Flood came out, we went to play there and there was a line around the block. At first, we thought it was [for] some other band. When we found out it was for us, well that was a wonderful feeling.

BM: When you did Texas Flood, you did it on your own, right? You didn’t have a record label or anything like that when you recorded it.

TS: No, we didn’t. We did it on our own. We did eight songs in one day and two in the next.

BM: Did you look at it as if you were on stage - this is what we’d play if there was an audience here?

TS: Right. We all played in the same room, just set up our amps like we would on stage.

BM: Was it easy to get the magic happening when there was nobody watching?

TS: Oh, yeah. It was always easy.

BM: What were the songs that were especially satisfying to play on stage? Was there anything you’d save for the best part of the show when you knew people were going to get into it?

TS: You mean off Texas Flood?

BM: Yeah, especially that, but anything else you were doing back then.

TS: [On] Texas Flood, I liked “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” I liked that a lot, and I liked “Texas Flood” itself.

BM: “Texas Flood” is [something like] five minutes or so on the record, but I assume it could go on for a lot longer on stage, right?

TS: Yeah, it did.

BM: That was one of the ones where Stevie would get into the zone. I remember him playing some brilliant solos on that. Could he do that any time he wanted to? Really get into the stratosphere?

TS: Oh, yeah. He’s one of those guys who could pick up a guitar and instantly go into another state of mind. He was a prodigy.

BM: How do you think people do that? Is that just a magical thing that some people have inside of them?

TS: Yeah, it is. Some people are just born that way. There’s no better feeling than when the band is tight and in a groove. That’s the best feeling there is.

BM: When Stevie got asked to play with David Bowie on the tour, which he wound up not doing, were you guys a little worried that you might lose him?

TS: Yeah, but he wanted to pay us for the year he was taking the tour. And he just wasn’t meant for that band. Very close to the last minute, he pulled out. [He] just couldn’t do it, because he wasn’t doing what he loved. He went back to riding around in the milk truck with us. What he gave up with Bowie [was] traveling in jets and limousines and big buses and all that stuff. But he was so devoted to what he loved that he stayed.

BM: After Texas Flood came out, you got to move out of the milk truck after that, right?

TS: Into a bus.

BM: Did things get different when the audiences started getting bigger and you started playing bigger places all the time?

TS: Yeah, it did. We learned how to handle ourselves when it was a big show. We learned what to do in front of a crowd like that so we’d look professional and we did that.

BM: What kind of tricks or techniques did you have for dealing with that?

TS: It’s hard to explain. It’s more of a state of mind than anything. You just play like you’re playing in front of thousands of people instead of a club. You don’t take a bunch of time between songs and just really try and keep them interested.

BM: I remember Stevie seemed to have this aura around him. You knew that he was feeling it when he was on stage.

TS: Yeah, he did. It’s where he belonged.

BM: Were there any songs that were especially satisfying from the bass perspective to play?

TS: The songs on In Step were really good. That was my favorite record we did. We were thinking about putting that on this thing you got going, because it’s the best record we did. It was the first one after Stevie and I got clean and sober. And it’s a really superior record to the rest of them.

BM: There are some great songs on that record.

TS: “Crossfire” was a number one song for about six weeks. That’d be a good one to put on there.

BM: What effect did the getting sober have on the music?

TS: We all got better. We came together tighter as a band. We weren’t insane anymore. Just Stevie and I were really messing up. And we both got clean and sober on the same day.

BM: Was that an agreement that the two of you made with each other that [you’re] both going to do it now?

TS: Yeah, it was. He broke down in Germany. Literally, he broke down. We had to call an ambulance and they took him to the hospital. And we had to cancel the tour in Europe and he was in the hospital for a week in London. He was pretty straight then. About that same time, I broke too. So we both went into treatment. He went into one Charter Lane in Atlanta, and I went to Charter Lane here.


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