Blues Legend Lonnie Shields Has Found His Prodigy
Since 2011, the Delaware County-based musician has mentored 20-year-old wunderkind Jesse Loewy.
Lonnie Shields (left) and Jesse Loewy. Photo by Tessa Marie Images.
Dressed in black and slinking like a panther, Lonnie Shields slowly and deliberately made his way to the stage from the back of the room. Once there, the Havertown-based guitarist let it rip. Feeding off the energy from the audience, Shields, eyes closed, twirled in place with his instrument. Jesse Loewy was mesmerized—much like everyone else who’d found their way to Azie restaurant that night for downtown Media’s annual State Street Blues Stroll.
Shields heard about 13-year-old Loewy and invited him on stage for another show. Later, the two talked. Already a surprisingly accomplished guitarist for his age, Loewy wanted to learn how to hold a crowd in the palm of his hand. Now 62, Shields was also 13 when he started to get serious. Since then, he’s toured all over Europe and Russia, played for 10,000 electric blues fans in Israel, and performed at venues across the United States.
He was thinking about retiring in 2011—for the second time. Then he met Loewy. “Come on, you have another round left in you,” Loewy told him.
As it turns out, the two were good for each other. Shields took a step back from his retirement plans, and Loewy began reading books on entertainment management. He’s now musical arranger for the Lonnie Shields Band and one half of Lonnie Shields Management. (The other half is Mike Whren, who plays bass with Shields and Loewy.) “Lonnie and I have spent a good amount of time together just talking,” says Loewy. “I’ve learned so much from him about music and about life.”
It would’ve been hard for Shields to avoid the blues growing up. His hometown of West Helena, Ark., is 70 miles west of Memphis, Tenn. A thriving port town on the Mississippi River, it was a popular stop for blues musicians from all over the South in the 1940s and 50s.
As a teenager, Shields dabbled in gospel, soul, R&B and funk. Then, in 1988, he moved 30 miles away to Clarksdale, Miss. “It’s the crossroads of culture and quirkiness, with a heavy dose of the blues,” he says.
Shields watched and learned from traditional players in their 60s, eventually performing with some of them in a band called the Jelly Roll Kings. He also began writing music, with B.B. King as his primary inspiration.
In 1993, Shields’ solo debut, Portrait, topped Living Blues magazine’s critics’ poll for Best New Blues Album. He later moved to the East Coast, where blues artists were in demand, and also spent some time in England, releasing two CDs for the London-based JSP Records. Shields first threatened retirement in 2000, after recording the CD, Midnight Delight. His band talked him out of it, though he did take a break from recording to focus on his live shows. He returned to the studio in 2008 for Keeper of the Blues, its title inspired by his nickname.
Now 20, Loewy got his first guitar at age 3 and taught himself to play watching DVDs of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. He also studied cello, performing in the orchestra at Haverford High School—when he wasn’t playing guitar with the school’s jazz band. Loewy performed at his first open-mic night at age 8, and he’s been at it ever since.
Loewy is certainly not trying to copy Shields’ raw, Delta blues-influenced guitar work, his gravelly singing or his moves on stage. But he is following his mentor’s advice—and he’s also learned a lot simply by observing how Shields interacts with the audience. In his efforts to improve as an arranger and a conductor, he also studies high-profile musical directors like Paul Shaffer.
Loewy recorded a three-song EP in 2011, and he’s finishing work on a two-song medley of two songs, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “Respect,” as a tribute to the late Aretha Franklin. To date, Shields has recorded six CDs, including 2017’s Code Blue, featuring Loewy as an arranger. Revive and keep alive—that’s precisely what Shields and Loewy want to do for the blues.
This past September, the two guitarists traveled to Shields’ hometown to perform a pair of shows at the King Biscuit Blues Festival, one of the largest events of its kind in the world. “Lonnie and I had traveled a little together, just the two of us, but this was the first time the whole band went so far away to play,” says Loewy. “It was fantastic.”
Of late, they’ve been working on a new CD, with original songs by Shields. Loewy, meanwhile, has been accepted to Berklee College of Music in Boston, but he’s postponing his studies to perform with Shields. “We’re putting a lot of energy into next year,” says Loewy.
Perhaps more than anything Shields has taught Loewy not to sweat the small stuff. “Lonnie told me, ‘No matter what’s going on in your personal life or whatever technical problems or bandmate disputes there are, you have to put it in the back of your mind, get on stage, act like you’re having a good time and give the audience the best show possible,’” he says.