John Sieger
Music

How Shonn Hinton Made Good

The Milwaukee guitarist, who performs with the band at Friday’s Gospel Jubilee, now plays with top national acts.

By - Feb 19th, 2015 04:43 pm
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Shonn Hinton

Shonn Hinton

This Friday at the Pabst Theater, the second annual Milwaukee Gospel concert will take place. It is called “The Jubilee At The Pabst” for a reason, as a long list of over-qualified quartets and musicians will raise spirits to the highest allowable limits. They will also money for Progressive Community Health Centers. By some stroke of providence, Progressive is having a ribbon-cutting ceremony on their new clinic on Lisbon and 35th that same afternoon. It has been a long time coming and this 42,000 square foot will replace the older and much smaller building next door. It’s a good day for Milwaukee.

It has been obvious to me for a long time that, on the list of institutions turning out great American musical performers, the neighborhood gospel church ranks high. Though the approach is more casual and the setting sometimes less than luxurious, nobody can argue with the legends these churches have turned out. Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke, among others, all got their start singing gospel. And one of the musicians joining the house band for Friday’s concert is a recent and proud graduate of Milwaukee’s gospel scene who in recent years has been rubbing shoulders with some of the top national performers.

Shonn Hinton, who switches between drums and guitar, is equally accomplished on either. Lately he’s finding more opportunity out there for his string bending talents. He’s been in and out of town playing guitar for people like John Legend, Jill Scott and Mary J. Blige. Take it from Greg Koch, probably the hottest guitarist from these parts since Les Paul, who is getting ready for a tour of Australia, but has time to say this about his former student: “Shonn Hinton is a stellar musician. He’s a well rounded and incendiary guitarist and heck of a nice young man.”

Shonn was just about ready for these gigs when I met him at age 13,  back in the early ‘90s. He was a member of The Young Gospel Travelers. Not only was he a funky and solid drummer, he could’ve given lessons to a lot of guitarists I knew. He may have played other instruments, but I was afraid to ask — my ego can only take so much.

Growing up in church, he tells me he was one of those little kids who sit in the front pew holding sticks and playing air drums. He got to spy on great fatback drummers like Craig Ward, the drummer from last year’s Jubilee — guys who could relax into an unhurried and authoritative groove that somehow never felt the least bit sleepy.

Shonn’s grandfather was the pastor of Johnson’s Temple, Church of the First Born and his mother was musical director and choir director. That was where he and three of his cousins took turns playing drums at the church. The DNA in this family was remarkably musical. Included in this group was Afton Johnson, the son of a very well known gospel singer, Willie Banks, known as “The Godfather of Gospel Music,” who now now tours as a bass player with Eric Benet. After a while the family decided it might be smarter to split the chores, so not every cousin was playing drums — and that’s when Shonn chose the guitar over the drums. I met him not long after that and he already had what he calls “the concept.” Whatever that little bit of magic was, he was clearly ready to stand toe to toe with more seasoned musicians.

His entry into the big time was rather sudden. Back in 2002, he was at Summerfest to catch some friends who were in a band called Jersey Ave. They were opening for the R&B singer Tweet.  Shonn spoke with Tweet’s drummer, a Chicago native named Rex Harding, asking him to keep him in mind for gigs. About a week later, Rex called and told Shonn to pack his bags, he was going out the next Monday on a big gospel tour. That gave Shonn just two days to spring into action. He quit his job, got on that bus and never looked back. It wasn’t long before he started to become everybody’s favorite guitarist.

When he started with Blige, he said he was “as nervous as a long tail cat in a room full of rocking chairs.” He had just seen her in a series on MTV called Artist Meltdowns. But she turned out to be much nicer than the whirling diva he saw on that show. In fact, he found her a great boss and wonderful person.

Shonn says pretty much the same thing about all the stars he worked with and it’s not hard too imagine why they’re so nice to him. All those years in church taught him more than music. Sure, Shonn plays a mean guitar, but to travel in close quarters for a long tour, you need more than a few tricky licks. Plenty of great musicians don’t last on tours thanks to their less-than-stellar social skills, but Shonn is what the horse people call an “easy keeper.” He travels well, always packs a smile and positive attitude. It’s something he learned in that great American institution, The Little Wooden Church House.

Shonn will be displaying his gospel roots at Milwaukee Gospel Jubilee at the Pabst. Friday, February 20th at 8:00. Doors open at 7:00 pm and tickets are available at the box office for $20.00. He also has just released his first solo instrumental recording, Happy Hour. You can find him on Facebook or at his website, shonnhintonmusic.com.

0 thoughts on “Music: How Shonn Hinton Made Good”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I’ve never been to a gospel concert (and your review certainly makes this one sound interesting!). Thank you for writing it!

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