Charlie Burse

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When a musician is described by biographers as "obnoxious and abusive at times," it naturally makes the individual in question seem all the more fascinating, especially if the person was armed with a…
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When a musician is described by biographers as "obnoxious and abusive at times," it naturally makes the individual in question seem all the more fascinating, especially if the person was armed with a ukulele. Such is the case with the Uke Kid, eventually best-known by his real name, Charlie Burse. He was not an original member of the historic Memphis Jug Band, but he became part of the loose roster of players associated with this group around 1928, only a couple of years after the group had begun recording. With Memphis as hot and sticky as it is, staying close to the shade seems to be a smart idea and in the case of Burse, that meant none other than Will Shade, the fascinating Memphis multi-instrumentalist who learned about jug band music in Kentucky and then brought the new sound to Memphis where it went over like a good fireworks display. Although they were lifelong associates and continued playing together for nearly four decades, Shade and Burse were not at all alike personally. The former man was all business; indeed, he was the business manager of the Memphis Jug Band, hired all the musicians, and was one of the first Memphis players to become a full-time musician and buy his own home with the proceeds. Burse, on the other hand, seems to have established a reputation as a hell-raiser and nothing but, although the term "egotist" is sometimes tossed in for good luck. Keeping the Uke Kid in line was just another of Shade's shady responsibilities, but it doesn't seem to have caused any serious friction because the two men kept up a happy musical relationship right up until Burse's death in the mid-'60s. One of their last recording efforts together was the wonderful Beale St. Mess Around album on Rounder, although it unfortunately was not released commercially until almost ten years after Burse died. This was a gathering of Memphis country blues and jug band vets, getting together in house to frolic around with the music they loved. Other members of the Memphis Jug Band at one time or another included Hattie Hart, Charlie Polk, Walter Horton, Memphis blues scene stalwart Furry Lewis, Memphis Minnie and her husband Kansas Joe McCoy, Dewey Corley, and Vol Stevens. Burse seems to have played more instruments than all these folks combined. In the true jug band tradition, he came to a session or gig loaded for bear, handling just about every instrument with strings on it that is normally used in country or country blues music, including tenor guitar, banjo, ukulele banjo, regular guitar, and mandolin. Ironically, he may have never actually played a normal ukulele, although jug band music scholars are still engaged in fisticuffs on this subject. In addition, he was a master rhythm keeper on the spoons and an enjoyable vocalist. In 1939, Burse put together his own band, the Memphis Mudcats. The Memphis Jug Band had at that point been stuck in low gear since the mid-'30s, when the public's taste in recordings began shifting and leaving the old-time jug band music at the bottom of the hill. Perhaps in reaction to these changing trends, the new Burse project boasted what was thought to be a more modern sound than the traditional jug band. This included an actual bass replacing the jug and the more sophisticated saxophone taking the place of the whining harmonica. This group may not have lasted long, but there was at least the opportunity to cut some sides for Vocalion. Burse went at it with relish in the late '30s, coming up with an especially enjoyable set of sides that included the promise of "Good Potatoes on the Hill," the pleasure of finding a "Weed Smoking Mama," and the gut-ache of "Too Much Beef." His song "Bottle Up and Go," itself based on a long strain of traditional material, seems to have been influential in the later progress of this particular lyric, often recorded as "Step It up and Go" blues players will sometimes to be said to be doing the Charlie Burse or "Memphis" version of the song. With this and other cultural accomplishments under his belt, along with whatever else was required to be abusive and obnoxious, Burse got the solo thing out of his system and went back into partnership with Shade, the two of them continuing to find performing opportunities around Memphis, although the gigs were not always on the level they might have wanted. The two bluesmen kept busy with Memphis house parties and playing for donations on street corners. As the Memphis music scene revitalized itself in the '60s and '70s, traditional players such as this became local heroes. Shade and Burse were first rediscovered and recorded by blues researcher Samuel Charters in 1956, during a period when Memphis' reputation for murders was running far ahead of music. Unfortunately, Burse passed away before too much of this new found glory could trickle down his way.