Preston Shannon was working and performing in Memphis during the 1960s and '70s, when "Soulsville USA" rivaled Detroit's Motown. Stax Records ruled the airwaves with Booker T & the MGs laying down the backing "Memphis Soul Stew" for hits by Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, and Wilson Pickett, while over at Hi Records producer and songwriter Willie Mitchell was working with Al Green and Otis Clay. It was a magic time. You can hear those soul influences in Preston Shannon's music, but he doesn't acknowledge the soul connection.
"I am really a blues man," Shannon declared in a recent phone interview. "I know the blues, I've experienced the blues, I play the blues. You know, when I recorded all my CDs, the reason I inserted R&B ... was because at the time it was so hard to get airplay for the blues."
Preston Shannon came up as so many bluesmen do - from Mississippi to Memphis, from the church to the juke. Yet he has a voice that's often described as being a cross between Otis Redding and Bobby Womack, and a specialized sound that Richard Skelly in the All Music Guide calls "a blend of Southern-fried soul and blues." Steve Hoffman of CD Universe praised Shannon's second CD Midnight in Memphis (1996) by noting that "Shannon's gritty vocals convey so much commitment and authority as to enthrall the listener." Michael Kuelker in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said that the album has "every ingredient of classic soul in the manner of Stax and Hi Records in their heyday 25 and 30 years ago. The horns - fat, sumptuous, and swinging. Guitar in the tradition of Albert King and T-Bone Walker, tartly punctuating the end of the lyrical lines and re-telling the songs' stories on the solos. And then there is the voice: gruff and startlingly immediate, stoked with passion and longing, worthy of comparisons to Otis Redding and Al Green." The Mississippi Valley Blues Society invited Shannon to play this year's festival knowing that Memphis' best-kept secret - he's known as the King of Beale Street - would be bringing a package of blues wrapped in soul.
Born in 1947, Shannon moved to Memphis with his family at the age of eight from Olive Branch, Mississippi, where his parents were sharecroppers and Shannon himself chopped and picked cotton. His father was a preacher and his mother a missionary in the Pentecostal Church of God in Christ, where the pastor, W.E. Garner, played guitar and became Shannon's musical inspiration.
"I really learned from just watching him and listening to him," said Shannon. "He taught me how to play by ear. In those days in the church, their order of service was - it was a testimonial service - you stand up and tell what the good Lord has done for you, and you might break out in a song and everybody's yelling out 'amen.' The musicians had to ... find out what key they were singing in. I would start at the top of the neck and come down until I found the right note and put the clamp on.
"Back in those days [the 1950s], you only had three categories of music: blues, gospel, and country. My parents, they didn't believe in the devil's music - they called blues and R&B the devil's music. I slipped [out] and listened to what was playing on the radio at that time - B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Elmore James."
But his parents finally relented somewhat, and bought Shannon his first electric guitar when he was 12. "Naturally my influence is the King of the Blues, B.B. King, but my favorite is Albert King," he said. "Those are the guys that I try to emulate now. Of course I do my own thing, but I've got influences from B.B. King, Albert King, and Freddie King."
Shannon started performing when he got out of high school, around the same time that Albert King was recording "Crosscut Saw" and "Born Under a Bad Sign" for Stax. Shannon was playing guitar and singing in Memphis bands while working as a warehouse supervisor for a hardware store by day. After 20 years, Shannon decided to quit his day job and pursue a solo career.
He got a gig in 1988 touring with soul singer Shirley Brown, who had recorded her Grammy-nominated hit "Woman to Woman" for Stax in 1975. Shannon stayed with her for three years, and then formed his own band, reasoning that he was just as good as the other singers he heard, and they weren't playing guitar at the same time, as he was doing. He and his band stayed in Memphis, playing the clubs up and down Beale Street, with regular gigs at B.B. King's club.
In 1994, Shannon was "discovered" at the Rum Boogie on Beale Street by Ron Levy, a keyboardist and producer for Rounder Record's Bullseye Blues label. Shannon's debut CD, Break the Ice, featured the Memphis Horns. Both Midnight in Memphis and All in Time (1999) were produced by Willie Mitchell in Memphis, and Mitchell wrote most of the songs for those two albums. All in Time garnered three Grammy nominations.
Shannon continued playing on Beale Street, but his next album didn't come out until 2006, on another label.
Shannon's much more excited about what's been happening for him in the past two years. In 2010, his recording of "Honky Tonk" became a hit on YouTube when Florida dance instructor Ira Weisburg used it in a line dance he created called Shuffle Boogie Soul. Shannon explained that Weisburg liked the term "honky tonk" and listened to many versions of different songs - including one by James Brown - before finally picking Shannon's. He said he adapted his funked-up version of the straight blues shuffle with a walking bass from Bobby Blue Bland.
In 2011, he had some luck with a song that has become a staple of his live shows, Prince's "Purple Rain." "David Z, the producer of the Purple Rain CD, heard me play it on Beale Street in 1993 or '94 and said I should record it. It's been one of my most talked-about songs that I've ever done. I play like a blues-guitar player, and that's the difference. It's all over the Internet." Last year, Dr. Fink, who had toured with Prince, called Shannon. He "told me they were putting together a tribute CD to Prince - this was his band that used to play with him," Shannon said. "And he said, 'Man, I just heard your version of "Purple Rain" on the radio, and would you mind if we use it in the tribute album?' That's kind of exciting, you know!"
Then, in February of this year, Preston Shannon was featured on an episode of NBC's The Voice on Super Bowl Sunday, reaching an audience of more than 50 million people. "It's very educational to know how TV works, and the chance to meet so many people who are in the business," said Shannon. "I got the opportunity to audition for the judges," all of whom he met: Christina Aguilera, Blake Shelton, Cee Lo Green, and Adam Levine. The YouTube video shows all four judges bobbing their heads and tapping their feet to Shannon's version of "Midnight Hour," but he was not chosen for the next level of competition.
Shannon's next project is finishing up his new CD: a tribute to Elmore James, the king of the slide guitar. And he's received a number of gigs outside of Memphis from his appearance on The Voice and from the Shuffle Boogie Soul line dance.
Now the rest of the country is learning what Memphis already knew. Shannon's contributions to Memphis music have been recognized by the city with a musical note in the sidewalk between the Black Diamond and Club Superior, just down from B.B. King's on Beale Street. It says: "Preston Shannon, King of Beale Street."