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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Payne Chapel Marker Dedication--Last Performance of Johnny Shines

In late 1990, Living Blues magazine published an article suggesting, among other things, that Johnson was buried at Payne Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Quito--about 2 miles from Mt. Zion MB Church--Morgan City. One woman, at least, remembered it that way. Known as Queen Elizabeth, Ms. Elizabeth Thomas claimed she was once Robert Johnson's girlfriend and she recalls his burial at Payne Chapel. She even pointed out the gravesite--about 30 yards from the white-frame church, near an old tree stump. "It's my gut feeling that it's at Payne," exclaimed Peter Lee, editor of Living Blues, "but I could never prove it. Who knew for sure?"

Skip Henderson wasn't sure, but he planned to erect a marker at Payne Chapel as well as install a brand new PA system--donated by Harley Peavey.  He had the PA installed inside the white-frame church, but a band from Atlanta had plans of their own for the burial ground....

"Admirers Mark Blues Musician's Grave" 
by Tiffany Tyson 

Delta blues king Robert Johnson no longer lies in an unmarked grave. A group of Johnson's admirers, musicians from Atlanta, Ga., placed a marker on his reported gravesite in the cemetery at Payne Chapel Missionary Baptist (MB) Church. They were accompanied by Johnson's boyhood friend and fellow blues singer, Johnny Shines


Stevie Tombstone, lead guitarist for the Atlanta-based band the Tombstones, said, "It's a shame that there wasn't a marker there already. (Johnson) was a big influence on our music and we just decided to do it. Once we had the opportunity, we just did it. 

When Stevie says opportunity he means money. Although the Tombstones have been playing together for about six years in clubs and colleges, they just signed their first big recording contract with Relativity Records. With their first advance check from the contract the three-sometimes four-member band bought the 125 pound marker for the grave of Robert Johnson. 


The Tombstones purchased this flat stone grave marker in honor of Robert Johnson, which sits on the spot pointed out by Queen Elizabeth.
The marker is tasteful. It says simply: 
"Robert Johnson, Born -May 8, 1911, Died - August 16, 1938, Resting in the Blues."
Rick Richards of the band Georgia Satellites was also at the service. `The way I see it, if it weren't for the blues we wouldn't have a job." 

Greenwood Commonwealth, Feb 28, 1991
Shines, who lives in Tuscaloosa, Ala., said, think he should have had a headstone a long time ago. His influence meant a lot to a lot of people and I'm glad to see this finally happening." 

While there are many rumors that blues music is associated with voodoo and Robert Johnson was reported to have made a pact with the devil, Shines said that blues is the basis of all other modern music. He explained that slaves used music to get messages across the fields to each other. This lyrical communication became a way of life that is now called the blues. I have a God given talent to play the blues," he said. "If you don't use your talents they'll be taken away from you." Shines says he has proof of that. "In 1978 I quit playing the blues, and in '80 I suffered a stroke that paralyzed my left hand. I've started playing again now and my hand is coming back." 

Greenwood Commonwealth,
Feb 28, 1991
Shines played one of the most famous Robert Johnson songs, "Crossroads," at the gravesite after the stone was laid. Stevie, Richards, folklorist Charles Locke and Tombstone manager Andrew Adler stood by silently, heads bowed, listening with the reverence usually reserved for religious services. 

And it was a religious service of sorts. While Robert Johnson has had a cult following among blues enthusiasts, the myths about his associations with the devil have kept his life and death shrouded in mystery. He was buried without a funeral service and no stone was ever placed a the gravesite. The only marker there was a small pot, rumored to be a sort of collection plate. People place money in the pot to buy Johnson's soul back from the devil. At last count, someone had contributed one penny. 

But now, 53 years after he with reportedly poisoned, he has been properly laid to rest with a marker and a service befitting the man known best as 'The King of the Delta Blues." 

Shines passed away the following year,
Greenwood Commonwealth, Apr 20, 1992.




Johnson was reportedly poisoned at a have down the road from Payne Chapel church, located a few miles from lila Bena. 'there have also been reports that he was stabbed, although the cause of death is officially pneumonia.

No one in the group wanted to speculate about his deals with the devil or the varied myths about when and where he was killed.  They just wanted to remember a man they consider a friend.

The 1992 Robert Johnson Memorial Blues
Festival (Greenwood) was dedicated to Shines. 




Click HERE for more on Johnny Shines 
Shines explained Johnson's death this way. "Robert was versatile and he was way ahead of his time. That's why he had to die and that's why someone will come back and be as great as Robert Johnson was. I don't know who it will be yet, but someone will come back." 

Johnson's music is still alive and well. Columbia Records, who has been releasing Johnson's music regularly since his death, recently put out a two CD reissue set. "Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings," has gone gold. 

The Tombstones, a band from Atlanta, had signed a record deal after several years on the road.  The band used some of its advance to purchase a flat marker for Robert Johnson and dedicate it at Payne Chapel.  Johnny Shines attended the graveside service, and despite his ill health, even performed a few songs.  The Mt. Zion Memorial Fund had already planned to commission a separate cenotaph to erect at Payne Chapel,  but the Tombstones and a retired Johnny Shines did the honors themselves.  Everyone at the time felt it in their bones that his remains were at Payne Chapel.