Memphis Jug Band
Memphis Jug Band
The Memphis Jug Band was the first good-time band of the blues era. Putting on one of their records is still like unleashing a slightly tipsy, slightly unruly party in your living room. Some bluesmen had better technique; some had greater intensity, or more fanatic fans. But for sheer pleasure it is difficult to outdo the Memphis Jug Band at its best. The grunt of the jug, the honk of the kazoo, the half-drunk sounding harmonies, the alternately plaintive or rollicking harmonica—all these improbable elements add up to music that is unique and magical.
The Memphis Jug Band created the jug band craze in the late 1920s, and for a few years it had incredibly broad appeal. Black audiences bought their records and listened to them play on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee. Well-to-do white residents of the city often hired them to play at their parties and social events. Memphis’s Mayor Crump, the boss of the city’s political machine, used them at his rallies. And the Jug Band just kept getting better—only the Great Depression and the fickle taste of the public finally spelled its end.
The Memphis Jug Band was the brainchild of Will Shade. Shade founded the group, wrote and arranged its songs, found gigs, prepared it for recording sessions, and played harmonica and banjo. He was the one constant through the Jug Band’s many incarnations. Shade was born in Memphis, TN on February 5, 1898 The son of Will Shade Sr. and Mary Brimmer, he was raised by his maternal grandmother, and her friends and neighbors took to calling him Son Brimmer. The moniker stuck and Shade’s friends knew him as Son. Shade spent his youth in and around Beale Street, the center of the Memphis music scene. As a teenager, he started following a street musician named Tee-Wee Blackman around, trying to figure out how he fingered his guitar. After a while Blackman took Shade aside and gave him lessons. He showed Shade how to play “Newport News Blues,” a song the Jug Band would later record, in the keys of E and A. In his book The Bluesmen, Samuel Charters relates that Shade figured he knew enough and ended the lessons—until he realized he could not figure out other key positions on the guitar on his own.
Once he had a few licks down, Shade started playing guitar in the streets of Memphis. Within a few years he had joined a medicine show, a traveling variety show that toured the countryside entertaining and selling patent medicine to country folk. Shade learned how to play harmonica with the medicine shows, and probably other pick-up instruments like washtub bass and washboard.
He was back in Memphis with his wife Jennie, Shade told Charters, and they were performing in a bar when a man named Roundhouse came in. He asked if he could play along with them. They agreed. Roundhouse produced a large bottle and started blowing it. The crowd went wild, shouting “Jug band! Jug band!” The next day Shade made up his mind to organize his own jug band. The idea had been brewing in his mind for sometime, ever since he had first heard the Louisville, Kentucky group, Clifford Haye’s Jug Blowers. Despite their name, however, the Jug Blowers’ was a jazz band. Shade’s group would end up defining what we today consider jug band music, folksy music played by a group using instruments like guitar, harmonica, kazoo, washboard, banjo, violin, and mandolin. And of course jug, which one doesn’t really “blow” but buzzes into with the lips.
The Jug Band would change line-up at virtually every performance and recording session. The first Shade put together was with himself on guitar and harmonica, Ben Ramey on kazoo, Will Weldon on guitar, and Charlie Polk on jug, with each taking turns singing. While they were playing in Beale Street, the Jug Band caught the attention of Ralph Peer, who ran Victor Records in Memphis. After an audition, Peer told them to prepare four songs for a recording session.
The session was held on February 24, 1927. Charters relates that they were nervous after rehearsing all night the night before. But undoubtedly being poor blacks entering the domain of Southern white businessmen also
Members include Charlie Burse (born August 25, 1901 in Decatur, Alabama; parents Robert Burse and Emma Hill; fourteen brothers and sisters; wife Birdie; died December 20, 1965) guitar, vocals; Will Shade (born February 5, 1898 in Memphis, TN; parents Will Shade Sr. and Mary Brimmer; wife blues singer Jennie Mae Clayton; died September 18, 1966) harmonica, guitar, vocals; occasional members included Tee-Wee Blackman, guitar; Robert Burse, washboard; Hattie Hart, vocals; Jab Jones, piano, jug, vocals; Hambone Lewis, jug; Charlie Nickerson, piano; Charlie Pierce, violin; Milton Robie, violin; Vol Stevens, mandolin, banjo.
Band formed by Will Shade around 1926-27; played streets in Memphis before being signed to a contract with the Victor company; recorded regularly for Victor, 1927-1930; performed regularly at Memphis social events and political rallies, 1927-1934, recorded for Champion Records, 1932; recorded for OKeh, 1934; Shade and Burse recorded together on Folkways album, 1956; Shade and Burse appeared on Memphis TV tribute to W.C. Handy, 1958.
contributed to their case of nerves. Peer applied the standard remedy of the times, a bottle of whiskey, and soon they were relaxed and ready to play. Maybe whiskey was all they needed though—Tony Russell in The Blues—From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray quotes a Jug Band contemporary “When they don’t get drunk there’s not much pep in them.”
Victor liked the sides the band cut and called them back to the studio in June of 1927. The session was held in Chicago, Illinois. While there they played the Grand Central Theater and made such an impression that Ma Rainey, probably the most famous blues artist of the day, asked them to appear at her show in Gary, Indiana. Unfortunately their performance ended disastrously when a snake they used escaped and the terrified audience bolted for the exits. In the end, the serpent was captured and no one was hurt. But Ma Rainey was upset—she had leapt atop the piano—and wasn’t likely to hire the Jug Band again soon.
In October of 1927, the band had its third Victor session, this time in Atlanta, Georgia. Sometime after that, Will Shade met Charlie Burse. Burse was born on August 25, 1901 in Decatur, Alabama, one of Robert and Emma Burse’s fifteen children. He learned music as a boy playing a banjo he made himself. When Shade met him he was playing guitar, however, on Beale Street. Shade was impressed and asked him to join the Jug Band. He did. It was the beginning of a deep friendship that would endure for the rest of both men’s lives.
“The heart of the Memphis Jug Band,” Charters wrote in The Country Blues, “was the musicianship and the enthusiasm of Son [Shade] and Burse.” Shade’s harmonica was one hallmark of the Jug Band’s music. “He embroidered the texture of the band’s blues numbers with poignant passages that provided a musical counterpoint to the lead vocal’s lines,” wrote William Barlow in Looking Up At Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture, “[there was] a gentle and melodic quality to his sound.” Burse didn’t record with the Jug Band until September 1928. What he contributed, in addition to his musicianship, was an unrestrained exuberance. Engineers reportedly had problems recording him—he tapped his foot too loudly. Exuberance fairly drips from the numbers Burse sang, pieces like “Insane Crazy Blues” and he always swept the rest of the band up along with him.
By February of 1928 the band, in Charter’s words, “had style, a sense of professionalism... the band that Charlie Burse came into was a tight musical group with a uniqueness and raw musicality in everything they did.” They had developed a broad repertoire that included dance tunes, rags, sentimental ballads, minstrel songs, and blues. They even recorded two instrumental waltzes. Their superb vocal harmony was showcased on two of their most popular tunes “Stealin’ Stealin’” and “K.C. Moan.” The constantly changing personnel virtually guaranteed that no two Jug Band sessions would sound alike. In the seven years the band was together it used at least fifteen different musicians. The musicians who played with the Memphis Jug Band at one time or another formed a who’s who of Memphis talent: Walter “Shakey” Horton (harmonica), Furry Lewis (guitar), Memphis Minnie (guitar), Bo Carter (guitar), Charlie Nickerson (piano), Milton Robie (violin), Hambone Lewis (jug), Hattie Hart (vocals), Vol Stevens (mandolin/banjo), Jab Jones (piano/jug), Charlie Pierce (violin), Robert Burse, Charlie’s brother, (washboard), and even Shade’s first guitar teacher, Blackman.
The Jug Band’s style was largely the result of Will Shade’s dedication and attention to detail. Peer would contact him about two months before a recording session had been scheduled. Shade wold then line up the material and musicians, arranging the music, and rehearsing the band. He practiced every song 10 to 15 times, until the band had the song and the timing down—the length of the song was determined by what could fit on a 78-rpm record. The remarkable thing is that Shade never rehearsed the chaotic energy out of the band. They almost always sound like they’ve just been dragged off Beale Street into a party.
Once Shade had proven his reliability, Ralph Peer started paying him a regular weekly 25 dollar advance on his composer royalties. Those royalties could be as high as six cents per record. Shade was flush with cash, bought a house, and let Peer persuade him to invest in Victor common stock. The band received $50 per side, which was divided among the musicians. The Jug Band unleashed a jug band craze in Memphis. Within a year a plethora of other bands, like Cannon’s Jug Stompers, the South Memphis Jug Band and the Beale Street Jug Band, were formed. The Memphis Jug Band was so popular, according to William Barlow, that for a time it split into two units in order to handle all the bookings. They were in constant demand to entertain at white parties and at Mayor Crump’s political rallies. They played Mardi Gras in New Orleans every year.
As the Great Depression dragged on from 1929 into the 1930s recording dates in Memphis became fewer and fewer. At first the Memphis Jug Band seemed immune—they had nine sessions in 1930, far more than any other jug band, and released so many records that Victor saw fit to issue some under other names, such as “Carolina Peanut Boys” and “Memphis Sheiks.” On November 28, 1930 Victor pulled the plug on music in Memphis. Ralph Peer held the last recording sessions, in rented studios because Victor’s own had already been closed. The Memphis Jug Band, in four years, had recorded 54 songs for the company.
After losing their Victor contract, Shade and Burse carried on as musicians. They had to, they didn’t know how to do anything else! In 1932, with Vol Stevens and Jab Jones, they cut five sides for the Champion label, which went under shortly afterwards. They had to scrounge by with club and party dates and by playing in the street until their last record session in 1934 for OKeh. The session produced some of the Memphis Jug Band’s finest music, including “Gator Wobble,” a virtuoso harmonica piece, and “Little Green Slippers,” a virtuoso jug blowing performance.
Afterwards it was downhill. The Depression had ruined investments everywhere and Shade was forced to sell his Victor stock for a fraction of what he had paid. He and Jennie lost their house. With no demand for jug band music and no other profession to fall back on, Shade fell deeper and deeper into poverty. When Charters tracked him down in 1956 he was living in a slum tenement near Beale Street, not far from Burse. Shade was working only intermittently but nonetheless planning his musical comeback. Burse had been a little more fortunate, continuing to work as a musician until into the 1940s.
In 1956, thanks to Charters, Burse and Shade recorded a few pieces for the Folkways label. In 1958 they appeared together on a TV special about W.C. Handy that aired locally in Memphis. They died within a year of each other, Burse on December 20, 1965, Shade on September 18, 1966. Their long slide into oblivion calls to mind the words of an early Memphis Jug Band song, “What’s The Matter:” “My mother taught me, my father taught me too/Son, that thing in Memphis gonna be the death of you.”
Memphis Jug Band, Yazoo 1067
Memphis Jug Band, The Complete Recordings in Chronological Order, Volumes 1-3, Document Records.
Barlow, William. Looking Up At Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1989.
Charters, Samuel. The Country Blues, Da Capo, New York, 1975.
Charters, Samuel, Sweeter Than The Showers Of Rain, Oak Publications, New York, 1977.
Cohn, Lawrence, editor, Nothing But The Blues, Abbeville Press, New York, 1993.
Davis, Francis, The History of the Blues, New York, 1995.
Harris, Sheldon, Blues Who’s Who, Arlington House, New Rochelle, NY, 1979.
—Gerald E. Brennan
More From encyclopedia.com
Squirrel Nut Zippers , Squirrel Nut Zippers Squirrel Nut Zippers Jazz, blues, swing ensemble The Squirrel Nut Zippers, a seven-piece jazz-blues-rock ensemble with the empha… Band , band, in music, a group of musicians playing principally on wind and percussion instruments, usually outdoors. Prior to the 18th cent., the term band… Brass Band , brass bands are wind bands comprising brass instruments, sometimes with percussion, as opposed to military bands which mix brass and woodwind. The st… Robbie Robertson , "They brought us in touch with the place where we all had to live," Greil Marcus wrote in Mystery Train. Thirty years after The Band's first appearan… Guy Lombardo , Guy Lombardo Guy Lombardo Canadian-born musician Guy Lombardo (1912-1977) was known for his festive approach to New Years' Eve, and his band's perfor… Franz Ferdinand , Franz Ferdinand Rock group In the late 1990s, the world of mainstream pop was dominated by teen-pop groups like the Backstreet Boys and N∗Sync, as we…
About this article
Memphis Jug Band
Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article
You Might Also Like
Memphis Jug Band