For nearly 30 years, Memphis musician Preston Shannon plied his craft on Beale Street. A top-notch guitar player and entertainer, Shannon's ability to combine raspy, soulful vocals, stinging guitar riffs on his hollow-bodied Gibson 335, and a sense of showmanship that was equal parts T-Bone Walker and Prince, earned him the sobriquet King of Beale Street. His presence there was only outshone by his reputation as a musician who always paid attention to younger talent and seemed more than willing to lend a helping hand.
Diagnosed with cancer last summer, Shannon quit performing before the holidays and passed away on Monday, January 22nd, at the age of 70. At his funeral last Saturday, he was eulogized as "an ambassador of Memphis who was comfortable anywhere in the world."
Shannon was born October 23, 1947, on the outskirts of Memphis in Olive Branch, Mississippi. Interviewed for a 2016 Living Blues cover story, Shannon recalled picking cotton as a youth in Olive Branch and tuning into music by Albert King, B.B. King, and Bobby "Blue" Bland over a transistor radio. "At nine, I could go to the field and play in the cotton, but when I turned 10, they gave me my own personal sack," Shannon recalled. "We could only listen to music when we'd go to sleep at night."
His family settled in the southwest Memphis community known as Boxtown when Shannon was 11, and he soon began performing music in the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). By the 1960s, he was guitarist for a group called the Memphians, who recorded a seldom-heard LP at Royal Studios and released three sought-after singles, including a funk instrumental called "Breakdown." In the 1970s, he played in a bar band called Amnesty and backed R&B singer Shirley Brown on the chitlin' circuit before striking out on his own.
If you talk to Shannon's bandmates and peers, three words dominate the conversation: Talent. Generosity. Support. Bassist John Williams, who backed Shannon at Rum Boogie in the late 1980s, remembers the guitarist as "a great entertainer who had the total package — the chops and the vocals. Maybe he could've had more success out of town, but Preston wanted to make noise for Memphis, to stay here and make it happen," Williams says. "He always took care of his band here. If he went to Europe by himself, he always made sure we had plenty of work while he was gone. Even when he had to quit playing for good, he made sure that Tommy [Peters, manager of B.B. King's] kept the band on. They're still there every Sunday and Wednesday."
Trumpeter Marc Franklin, who gigged with Shannon for years, says that Shannon brought authentic blues back to Beale Street. "Preston was that performer who really wanted to make people happy. He was so good at reading audiences and interacting with them. Modern blues has lost some of that. Now, it's a lot of guitar shredding and screaming. Preston taught me how to put on a good show over and over again, whether it was for 20 people or 2,000 people."
Jackie Clark played bass behind Shannon from 1999 until 2012, and produced his last album, 2014's Dust My Broom. During his tenure with Shannon, Clark recalls a veritable who's who of special guests who sat in with the group, including Tom Jones, Darius Rucker, and Buddy Miles.
"The funny thing about Preston is that he was successful in his own way, even though he never achieved mainstream success," says Clark. "He wasn't affiliated with a label, and he handled his own business. Sometimes it seemed like he preferred to protect his own band rather than become famous. He was happy when he was onstage, and everything he did was authentic. It was all about the feeling. He knew how to captivate a crowd with his energy, and even though I didn't have the best stage presence when I started out with him, my energy was always high because of his energy. That was the draw."
Dropping in on one of Shannon's gigs, "was like walking into a party," guitarist Joe Restivo says, noting that Shannon was constantly employing young up-and-comers to keep his band fresh — and making the rounds to other clubs after his own gig ended for the night.
"He was legitimately interested in what guys like me were doing," Restivo says. "He'd see me on the street and ask, 'Where ya going, how ya been?' It wasn't just small talk — I'd tell him about a gig John Williams and I were going to have, and he'd actually show up. Some artists of his stature might not do that. He'd say something like, 'I like you, young man. Keep it up!' Maybe he'd sit in with us, or I'd end up doing some pick-up gigs with him. It meant a lot."