by Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell, Special to The New Tri-State Defender
The distinctive vocals of Preston Shannon and his skillful artistry on the electric blues guitar were stilled Monday morning when the storied bluesman lost his bout with cancer. He was 70.
Shannon’s music meant many things to many people, but for those who knew him best, a trail of early memories were shared this week in personal reflections of the gifted songwriter.
Tyrone P. Easley, a longtime freelance photographer for The New Tri-State Defender, was Shannon’s classmate when they both graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in 1966.
“Back when we were in school, I knew who Preston was, but he was such a quiet person,” Easley said. “When he became popular as a performer on Beale Street, I remembered my classmate, and I photographed him on a number of occasions. It was just surprising that he was such a great performer because he was so quiet in school.”
Naomi Moody, daughter of radio personality and educator Nat D. Williams, also remembers Shannon as “a really quiet guy and a genuinely sweet person,” — who routinely referred to her as “Nat D’s daughter.”
“In 2016, our class was planning our 50th class reunion, and Preston had never attended one,” Moody said. “I kept calling him, saying, ‘Preston, you have to come to this class reunion. It’s a big one for us, and we’d like you to come and be a part of the entertainment.’
“And after all of his success, he said to me, ‘What if they don’t even remember me? You know how quiet I was. They may not even know who I am,’” Moody continued. “But I kept calling, and he finally promised me he would be there.
Several singers from that class of 1966 tour professional with bands, and Moody was one of them. They all entertained their classmates at the big reunion party.
“I was next to the last, and I made Preston the last performer. And as soon as he started singing and playing that guitar, everybody jumped up on the dance floor,” Moody said. “The party starts every time he performs. He ended the set with ‘Purple Rain.’ It was beautiful. We had a ball, especially Preston.”
Early life and career
Shannon’s very early childhood was spent in Olive Branch, Miss. The family moved to Memphis when he was 8, but remained faithful to the home church in Olive Branch, St. Luke Church of God in Christ — now pastored by a cousin, the Rev. Earl Shannon.
“I was trying to remember at about what age Preston began to play that guitar in church,” said Joyce Black, who grew up with Shannon in St. Luke. “I don’t remember the exact age, but I can’t remember a time when he wasn’t playing that guitar.
“Even after all his success, Preston continued to play regularly at church. Not only did he play at St. Luke, he also played sometimes at Temple of Deliverance and at my dad’s church. Many people didn’t know that Preston was a church musician as well as a professional one.”
Like many bluesmen, Shannon’s career started in the church, but his Pentecostal beginnings soon led to a transition into an R&B fusion of blues and soft rock with a local group called Amnesty. But he kept his day job as a hardware salesman.
His career kicked into high gear when songstress Shirley Brown noticed Shannon’s unique vocals and styling on the guitar, bringing him on to sing and play with her band.
By the early 1990s, the Preston Shannon Band was born, landing gigs up and down Beale Street. His first album release was “Break the Ice” in 1994 on Rounder Records. Two other projects followed: “Midnight in Memphis” (1996) and “All in Time” (1999), both produced by Willie Mitchell of Stax fame. “Be With Me Tonight” was released on Title Tunes in 2006.
The family man
In true blues tradition, Shannon incorporated provocative situations and sexually suggestive lyrics into his work. But loved ones and friends say it was just his stage persona, created only for entertainment.
“Preston was married to a lovely, sweet woman, Ida Shannon, for 47 years,” said a family friend who declined to be named. “She traveled with him as he performed in Italy, on cruises, to the casinos – anywhere he was appearing, she was there with him.
“They had a very loving relationship,” the friend continued. “He was a caring husband who was devoted to his wife. That’s really who Preston Shannon was.”