Various members of the band including Will
on jug and Walter Horton on harp.
The Memphis Jug Band varied in composition but always included
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.
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
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.