Guitarist, singer and songwriter Mem Shannon is one of young lions of blues who believes in expanding the parameters of the music. His two albums for Rykodisc, A Cab Driver's Blues (his 1995 debut) and Mem Shannon's 2nd Blues Album (1997), are both worth seeking out in record stores. Shannon brilliantly combines elements of funk, jazz and rock & roll into his guitar playing, and his soulful vocals are not your run-of-the-mill stylings. In fact, most things about Shannon are exceptional: the way he write songs, the way he sings them, and the way he presents them. He's a rock & roll kid who played in a variety of cover bands in high school in his native New Orleans, but he always had a healthy appreciation for blues and gospel music.
Shannon was born in New Orleans and began playing clarinet at age 9. By the time he was 15, he was playing guitar, inspired by his father's blues record collection, but it wasn't until he saw B.B. King that he got serious about it and began practicing in earnest. He began playing in Top 40 and wedding bands around the Crescent City. His first band after high school, the Ebony Brothers Hot Band, played dances, parties and neighborhood bars. His second group, Free Enterprize, found work doing covers. However, his father passed away unexpectedly in 1981, and as the oldest son in a close-knit family, he began driving a cab to help the family pay bills. He also played guitar in the Dedicators, a gospel group, but there was no money whatsoever in that.
He put his music aside for awhile, but began playing again in 1990 after being encouraged to do so by Peter Carter, his old bassist from Free Enterprize. Shannon began working out lyrics and song ideas and working with Carter again. His songs were inspired partly by his life and experiences driving a cab. Regular club gigs followed at a few clubs in the French Quarter. In 1991, he spotted an ad in the local newspaper advertising a talent contest. Shannon and the Membership won the contest, ensuring them a spot at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, plus $1,000 and a television commercial. Later in 1991, Shannon and the Membership went to the Long Beach Blues Festival's talent contest, but lost out in the finals and didn't get to play the festival.
After making a demo tape of his material, he got some interest from JSP, a London-based blues label, but an area producer offered his services to re-record some of the songs on Shannon's demo. The producer, Mark Bingham, brought Shannon's music to the attention of Joe Boyd of Hannibal Records in 1994. Boyd was impressed, and on Oct. 15, 1995, Shannon's debut, A Cab Driver's Blues, was released.
The album drew critical praise from far and wide, but it also got him an extraordinary amount of publicity. Because of the interesting nature of the recording, which includes snippets of conversation with passengers from his cab interspersed with the music, Shannon's story attracted the attention of producers at PBS-TV, CBS-TV's Sunday Morning and editors at the New York Times.
By April of 1996, at the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Shannon announced from the stage that he was giving up his job as a cab driver to play blues full-time. He hasn't looked back and thanks to good booking agents and his own work ethic, he's already toured extensively around the U.S., Europe and Canada. Shannon is the first major new talent to come out of New Orleans in some time, and since thousands of foreigners visit New Orleans every spring for JazzFest, Shannon forged his reputation as an international touring musician easily.
Shannon's music isn't stuck in a jump-shuffle mode. He takes a broader view, incorporating elements of funk, jazz, swamp-rock and classic rock into the Membership's blues-based sound. The band funks it up with varying shuffle drum backbeats, throbbing bass lines, a wailing saxophone and feathery keyboard treatments. And there is room in Shannon's view of himself as a bluesman for political and social commentary in songs like "Wrong People In Charge," "Charity," and "Down Broke." Richard Skelly