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This article by Richard J. Skelly was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on June 28, 2000. All rights reserved.
When Music is the Ministry: Lonnie Shields
For blues guitarist, singer, and songwriter Lonnie
Shields, the music is the message. The 44-year-old musician, raised
in West Helena, Arkansas, has been living in Media, Pennsylvania,
for the past six years. Coinciding with his move to suburban Philadelphia
was a decision to expand his musical life into a full-time job. With
the help of his wife, Shields now makes his living as a musician.
Shields and his quartet perform at the Old Bay Restaurant in New Brunswick
on Saturday, July 1. And for those who haven’t heard him before, buckle
your seat belts. Shields throws 100 percent of his soul into his playing
and singing; he ends every set drenched in sweat. While his guitar
playing is by no means flashy, it’s rhythmic and always as soul-drenched
as his vocals.
Not unlike other bluesmen raised in the Deep South, Shields is a religious
man. His gospel-oriented upbringing shows through in his live shows.
His older brother is a minister, his grandfather was a minister, as
were several of his uncles.
"I like to spread a message through my songs," says Shields,
speaking by phone from home, "only, instead of being behind a
pulpit, I always felt I could reach more people by playing my music.
I always say, the blues chose me, I didn’t choose the blues."
While in high school, Shields played in a succession of R&B bands,
all specializing in the music of such black groups as Earth, Wind
and Fire, Al Green, and Kool and the Gang. Then one day blues harmonica
player Frank Frost and drummer Sam Carr walked into the club where
his nine-piece band, the Shades of Black, was performing. Meeting
the pair of straight-ahead bluesmen changed his life forever.
Shields, "the knee baby" (next to last) in a family of two
brothers and four sisters, worked a procession of jobs through grade
school and high school and even attended a half-year at Phillip County
Community College in Arkansas before his musical career began to take
off after the release of his debut album, "Portrait," in 1992.
Shields’ live shows are aerobic workouts, sometimes
as much for the audience as they are for him. He’s fond of going out
into his audience and spinning in circles with his cordless guitar.
"Everything I do comes from up above," he explains, "because
without putting God first, I don’t think nothing can happen anyway.
Every night, people always ask me about spinning around with the guitar.
They wonder why I don’t get dizzy and fall over," he says. "I
think it’s just mind over matter. God watches over me."
Though Shields was raised in a religious family, his parents did not
discourage him in his efforts to become a musician. They held none
of the old notions of blues as "the devil’s music."
"We’ve got a lot of ministers in my family," he explains,
"and as I talked to my older brother about the ministry, I realized
what I wanted to do was go out into the world and do what he’s been
doing — only with music."
Shields’ current CD, "Midnight Delight," just out on the Rooster
Blues Record label, has "been in the works" for seven and
a half years. Its guests artists include the Reverend Al Green’s horn
section, guitarist Johnny Rawls, L.C. Luckett on bass, and Charlie
Hodges on keyboards, all Memphis-area musicians.
Shields has also recorded "Blues Is On Fire" and "Tired
of Waiting" for the London-based JSP Records that has brought
Shields and band over for several European tours.
Shields’ father, a wood craftsman who died in 1997, was around long
enough to see his son become a reasonably successful touring musician.
His mother was a housewife. "My mom would do odd work when she
could, and I’m not ashamed to tell you, we chopped and picked cotton
in Arkansas," he says. "As a young boy, maybe four or five,
I remember my mom would take me along in the field and carry me along
with the cotton sack."
He also grew up among musicians. "My grandfather on my father’s
side used to play fiddle. I can recall going to his house and we’d
build a bonfire and dance around it," he says. "I think I
was about five or six when I found out about alcohol. I remember just
tasting corn liquor, and man, it was nasty. That’s why, to this day,
I don’t drink hard alcohol, I just drink water and beer."
Asked about how one makes the transition from the south to the faster
pace of life in the northeast, Shields notes this July 18th marks
his sixth year of living in suburban Philadelphia. Shields left behind
two houses, in West Helena and in Memphis, about 70 miles away, to
move north with his wife, who is originally from this area.
"I was rebuilding and rehabbing houses and helping to clean up
areas where there was lots of drugs. And I was living in Helena and
working in Memphis and doing music on the weekends."
"I always wanted to come to Philadelphia and learn more about
William Penn and Thomas Jefferson. It was a pleasure for me to come
here, because I always wanted to see where they were talking about
when they freed the slaves," he adds.
"By the time I finished high school, I had it resolved in my mind
that I was gonna leave Helena, but I was stuck there for another few
years," he explains. Shields continued to work at shoe repair,
managing an inn, carpentry, and construction work, and playing his
music on weekends. "When I got ready to leave there, I resolved
that I was putting everything else aside and that I would do my music
from the heart."
Nevertheless, Shields almost gave up playing blues for
a living on several occasions, the last time in 1997. Given the economics
of touring with a band, Shields was tempted to throw in the towel
because he knew he could be making more money in construction.
Fortunately for blues fans, when Shields was ready to quit playing
blues, longtime Garden State guitarist Bill Baltera was there. Baltera,
formerly of Hopewell, now living in Flemington, played in a variety
of rock ‘n’ roll bands through the 1970s and ’80s, and with bluesmen
Sonny Rhodes and Frankie Lee. He convinced Shields that what he was
doing in music was too valid and ground-breaking to scrap for the
lure of more money.
They were on a van ride back from a date in Detroit where they had
played with a pick-up band from Washington, D.C., when Baltera changed
"I told Billy I was tired of musicians just half-playing behind
me. I told him, `Sometimes musicians play for themselves, they don’t
really play for the person they’re backing. When you’re playing your
own music, I think the musicians should follow you, because you wrote
this, it’s your feeling.’ In other words, I feel I can’t deliver my
message to the people as effectively, because they’re not as motivated
about the music as I am."
"I said, `if I can’t deliver the music right, then I don’t want
to do it. I’m giving up the blues because I can’t find musicians that
want to play my music the right way. All they want to know is how
much is the money and when does the second set end? They’re not in
here from the heart.’
"Billy told me, `I will find you some musicians, because you are
not gonna quit! I’m not gonna let you quit!’ So I told him, `You do
that, and I will stick and stay.’ And that was three years ago."
Shields’ approach to performing is his own. "I don’t want to necessarily
be called a bluesman, I want to be thought of instead as a musician
who plays his music and wants to be heard. When there’s not a message
in a song I think, most times, it’s a lot of junk," he argues.
To be able to preach his own version of the gospel in song is a gift,
he says, and he likes to write songs about everyday life.
"I haven’t used a cover tune on any of my albums to get myself
noticed," he points out, "and I think people can understand
songs about everyday life. When I feel that my audience is not paying
attention, I’ll pull something else out, maybe a gospel tune. I think
I reach back to people like Z.Z. Hill, Johnnie Taylor, Al Green, and
B.B. King, and I feel like I’ve rolled all of them into one —
Lonnie. And when you roll that up, it’s a good smoke."
At the Old Bay and on most area dates, Shields is accompanied by Baltera
on lead and rhythm guitar, Jimmy Pritchett on bass, and Chris Sherlock
on drums. Shields continues the preaching tradition laid down by his
grandfather and his uncles by continuing to write songs with messages.
And always, the messages are hopeful.
"My heart is into this music. I can’t give it up," he says.
— Richard J. Skelly
Street, New Brunswick, 732-246-3111. Saturday, July 1, 10 p.m.
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