Will Shade

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Apparently almost as important a part of the Memphis scene as the Mississippi river, Will Shade was born near the end of the 19th century and was one of the founders of a particularly 20th century music…
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Apparently almost as important a part of the Memphis scene as the Mississippi river, Will Shade was born near the end of the 19th century and was one of the founders of a particularly 20th century music combo, the Memphis Jug Band. The original lineup of this important group consisted of Shade on vocals, guitar, and harmonica, plus Ben Ramey, Will Weldon, and a man simply known as Roundhouse in some accounts and Lionhouse in others. Either way, he sounds like he would be an asset to any band when the going gets rough. Shade was also known as Son Brimmer, a nickname he had gotten from his grandmother, Annie Brimmer, who had raised him. The name stuck after it became apparent that bright sunlight bothered the lad; the brim of a hat kept the sun out. Perhaps the fear of sunlight was a warning of the musicians' lifestyle that was to come, complete with many a late night. Shade first heard what would eventually be known as jug band music on records by a Louisville group called the Dixieland Jug Blowers in 1925. It was his vision that this kind of thing might go down smoothly in Memphis and it was he who had to convince the reluctant local musicians to make the appropriate changes. Lionhouse, for example, was coached to switch from blowing an empty whiskey bottle to a gallon jug by Shade, who apparently could hear the subtle difference in tone and pitch without it even having to be demonstrated, just like Stravinsky if he had led a jug band. Shade himself played guitar; harmonica; and a "bullfiddle," a standup bass concocted from a garbage can, a broom handle, and a string. Critics tend to say harmonica was his best instrument, perhaps just to be unpredictable. He did play harmonica in a pure country blues style that served as the foundation for the playing of later bluesmen such as Big Walter Horton and both of the Sonny Boy Williamson harmonica monsters, yet Shade's real importance was not as an instrumentalist, but as the foundation of the Memphis Jug Band group itself as its membership changed and then changed again and again over the years. Vocalist and tenor guitarist Charlie Burse was one of the members who joined on in 1928, and he was still a happy playing partner of Shade's some 45 years later when the pair were lively participants on the fantastic Beale St. Mess Around album. 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. It was Shade who kept track of all these players, lined up a quorum for a given gig, and ran all the business affairs. He seemed to know what he was doing in the latter department, the first Memphis musician to not only provide a full-time living for himself with his activities but to put a down payment on his own home as well. The group was closely associated with the Beale Street scene and first signed with Victor in 1927. Until the mid-'30s, the group recorded regularly, producing some 60 sides and scoring great success with such classic songs as "Memphis Jug-Blues," "Sometimes I Think I Love You," "In the Jailhouse Now," and "Stealin'." Shade was personally responsible for some of the group's best material, either by adopting traditional material with his own touches or coming up with entirely new ditties. He made sure his copyright wound up on certain songs if at all possible, although not everyone agrees with the result. The jug band classic "Stealin'" is case in point; it is likely to appear with a Shade credit, but many blues scholars say this is a case of stealing "Stealin'." If he had heard the cover version of this song eventually done by British art rock band Uriah Heep, perhaps Shade would have left his name off the song after all. Shade's "Dirty Dozens" song routine was a good one for making straight-laced college blues fans blush with embarrassment. This was a pleasure the group had to wait until the '60s to enjoy, when a revival of classic folk music made the Memphis Jug Band and Shade regain their popularity. His death in 1966 ended the group, however, as they apparently needed his personality at the center in order to continue.