MEMPHIS JUG BAND

Will Shade
 

 

 

 

 

 

Various members of the band including Will Shade
on jug and Walter Horton on harp.

 

The Memphis Jug Band varied in composition but always included Will Shade, also known as Son Brimmer, a nickname he had gotten from his grandmother, Annie Brimmer, who had raised him. Shade was not only a proficient guitarist but also a harmonica and jug player of some stature. He was born in Memphis, February 5, 1898, and worked with fellow Memphis musician Furry Lewis as early as 1917.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The band was formed in the mid 1920's to play parties, clubs, and dances. Shade first heard what would eventually be known as jug band music on records by a Louisville group called the Dixieland Jug Blowers. The appeal of the Memphis Jug Band spread across diverse groups; they played for tips in Church's Park (now W.C.Handy Park) on Beale Street, posh affairs at Country Clubs, and for conventions at the Peabody Hotel, Memphis. The original line up of the band consisted of Shade, who played guitar; harmonica and a "bullfiddle", on vocals. A "bullfiddle" was a stand up bass made from a garbage can, a broom handle, and a string, reminiscent of the tea chest bass, popular with skiffle groups in the 1960's. Supporting were Ben Ramey, Will Weldon, and a man simply known as Roundhouse in some accounts and Lionhouse in others. The band played the park not only for tips but also to learn new songs from other jug bands, such as Jack Kelly's Jug Busters (featuring Frank Stokes), the Three "J's" (featuring Sleepy John Estes), Robert Wilkins four-piece outfit, and solo performers Gus Cannon (of Cannon's Jug Stompers) and Jim Jackson. In testament to their virtuosity, the Memphis Jug Band obtained the most lucrative gigs, including political rallies and private parties for E.H. Crump, Memphis' notorious mayor of the time .

Various musicians recorded with the band from its first session in February 1927 to its final session in November 1934. These performers included Ramey on kazoo, Weldon on guitar and mandolin, Furry Lewis, "Shakey Walter" Horton on harmonica, Charlie Polk on jug, Vol Stevens on banjo-mandolin (a banjo with a mandolin head), Jab Jones on jug,   and vocalist Charlie Nickerson. In 1928, Charlie Burse joined the band as a permanent fixture on guitar and mandolin. The Memphis Jug Band frequently recorded with female singer Hattie Hart, and with singer/guitarist Memphis Minnie on one occasion. It was Shade who kept track of all these players, lined up a band for a given gig, and ran all the business affairs. Some sources claim that at their peak there were two Memphis Jug Band line up's playing simultaneously in Memphis so that they could cover two gigs at once!. The band's first record was "Sun Brimmer's Blues," whose title played a pun on Shade's nickname derived from the distinctive hat that he wore. It was the first of more than seventy tunes to be recorded over the next seven years. Shade was one of Memphis's best songwriters and most of the Memphis Jug Band's songs were original compositions.

In addition to recordings listed as being by the Memphis Jug Band, most serious writing on the blues seems to agree that "the attributed names of the groups led by Will Shade on various recording labels (Victor, Champion, Okeh etc) vary quite a bit, but recent scholarly consensus has led writers to compile all of these works under the over-arching rubric of The Memphis Jug Band."  Alternative names found on record labels but thought to be essentially the Memphis Jug Band include The Picaninny Jug Band, Memphis Sanctified Singers, The Carolina Peanut Boys, The Dallas Jug Band, The Memphis Sheiks and The Jolly Jug Band. In addition there are many recordings credited to individual performers such as Hattie Hart, Bill Weldon, Vol Stevens, Charlie Burse, Jab Jones, as well as Will Shade, but all actually performed with other Memphis Jug Band members.

The Great Depression, coupled with a concerted police crackdown on gambling in 1930, caused hard times on previously wide-open Beale Street. The jug band craze also subsided in the 1930s, bringing fewer recording opportunities and smaller tips. The band tried to update to a jazzier sound for their final recording date, but commercial success had passed. The Memphis Jug Band's best records epitomize the Roaring Twenties in Memphis. Although the band kept going, and even enjoyed a a renaissance during the folk/blues revival in the 1960's, the band broke up following the death of Will Shade in Memphis, on September 18, 1966. The central pillar of the band, it couldn't survive without him.

 

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