Recordially, Lou Curtiss

Thomas Shaw

Tom Shaw walked into Folk Arts Rare Records, back in 1970 looking for guitar strings (which I didn’t carry). Now I’d already had experience at that time with bringing Sam Chatmon to San Diego in 1965. I should say record collector Ken Swerilas brought him but I helped him get gigs; I’d also put on concerts with Mance Lipscomb and Bukka White, but this time the blues came to me. Tom Shaw had lived in San Diego since 1934 and he was a walking encyclopedia of east Texas blues. He had learned to play the guitar in the early 1920s and one of his teachers was the great Paramount recording artists and supreme Texas bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson. Throughout the twenties and early 1930s he played the Texas blues circuit of clubs, carnivals, juke joints, and shimmy shi wobbles (his name for after hours parties) in addition to working with artists like Williard Ramblin’ Thomas, Texas Alexander, J.T. “Funny Papa” Smith (the original Howlin’ Wolf), and others. Most all of those guys got to record but while Tom Shaw often beat those guys in guitar contests, he was still passed over by the recording companies and in the 1930s drifted out to San Diego, where he went into the junk business with occasional sprints as a club owner. His Little Harlem Chicken Shack was pretty well known in the late ’30s and early ’40s for good food and great music. Among the folks who played at his club were Little Willie Littlefield, Joe and Jimmie Liggens, and T Bone Walker. Shaw also did a radio show for a time in the late 1930s on XELO in Tijuana, playing his old time Texas blues. It was at that station where he met long time partner and friend Robert Jeffery (a first cousin of T Bone Walker) who played piano. When I met Tom In 1970 he and Bob were still playing together at weekly jam sessions in a small downhome blues style. I introduced them to Sam Chatmon’s Jackson, Mississippi blues, and they introduced me to Bonnie Jefferson from West Arkansas who had come to San Diego in the fifties. Bob Jeffery came out here from Oklahoma in the late ’30s.

For the next ten years or so I sort of acted as unofficial manager of these San Diego roots musicians. Tom Shaw made LPs on Advent, Blue Goose, and a Dutch label (I forget the title), and also had sides issued on Rounder Records. Sam Chatmon had recorded for Arhoolie, Blue Goose, an Italian label, a French label, and Flying Fish; Robert Jeffery and Bonnie Jefferson both recorded for Advent. They recorded for Blue Goose as well, but the sides were never issued. Robert Jeffery represented San Diego roots music, in 1976, the bicentennial year, at the 13-week Smithsonian celebration in Washington DC. It was about 1973 that Tom “Tomcat” Countney and his then partner Henry Ford Thompson joined the local scene as did Louis Major from the Bahamas. All of these artists were featured on an Advent LP called San Diego Blues Jam (all the Advent stuff was later reissued on CD on the Testament label). Thomas Shaw toured in Europe, working as part of one of those old time blues packages. When he came back to San Diego and told some people about it they didn’t believe him and had him committed. I had to take posters from Germany and France down and show the folks before they’d let him go. We had a musical treasure here (in fact many of them) but this city mostly ignored them. It was their loss, believe me. I met, worked with, and listened to some of the most amazing musicians I’d ever heard and they found me!

Recordially,
Lou Curtiss

  • July 2013

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