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September 2023
Vol. 22, No. 12

Recordially, Lou Curtiss

It Started with Sam

by Lou CurtissAugust 2017

Sam Chatmon, who played in the Jackson, Mississippi area in the 1920s as part of the Mississippi Sheiks with his brothers Bo, Lonnie, Harry, Bert, and others (there were 12 brothers in all), was first brought to San Diego by record collector Ken Swerilas in about 1967. I had opened Folk Arts Rare Records about that time and helped Ken get Sam around to the coffee houses (primarily the Heritage in Mission Beach, The End in Pacific Beach, and then put him in contact with Ed Pearl at the Ash Grove in LA). It was about a year later that a Texas man came into the store looking for guitar picks. He was from Brenham, Texas, across the river from Navasota in the east Texas bottoms. This was Thomas E. Shaw. (“just call me ‘Shaw’ everyone calls me Shaw”). It turned out he had learned to play guitar from famous Texas bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson and in the ’20s and ’30s palled around with Texas bluesmen like Willard “Ramblin’” Thomas, Texas Alexander, Little Hat Jones, and J.T. “Funny Papa”Smith. He played in contests and playdowns and won a fare amount of them. He beat fellow Navasotan Mance Lipscomb in a 12-hour playdown.

Shaw came out to San Diego in 1935 and opened a junk yard. He also opened a couple of after-hours joints in the ’40s. He hired as his piano man Bob Jeffery who was from Oklahoma and a first cousin to the famous bluesman T Bone Walker. Bob worked from the mid-’30s to the ’50s at Camp Pendleton as a tank mechanic. Bob would work all day on tanks and play piano all night.

Bob and Shaw led the house band and occasionally artists like King David, Little Willie Littlefield, and others would sit in. On weekends they became the “Little Harlem Chicken Shacks” but the music went on and on until they got shut down in the late ’50s. Then it became music jams on weekends until they found me and I put them in touch with Sam. Shaw put me in touch with blues lady Bonnie Jefferson, who was from Arkansas, out in the rural area between Little Rock and Fort Smith; she came to the jams regularly.

I got them all involved in the concerts I was doing at Folk Arts Rare Records and ultimately at the San Diego State Folk Festivals. And although it was small, there was a San Diego country blues revival. Soon afterward that led to Tomcat Courtney and his first partner Henry Ford Thompson as well as Fred Heath, Louis Major, and a whole bunch of revival blues artists like Dave Campbell, Steve Von Lutes, Roger Belloni, Del Rey, Andy Gallaher, Chris Jones, and folks who listened to the blues.

This past month the Blues Hall of Fame took that first album that Thomas E Shaw made for Frank Scott’s Advent Records and gave it the Album of the Year award. A special tribute to a junk yard and chicken shack owner. And a hell of a nice guy to boot.

Jeffrey Joe
I first met Jeffery Joe in Imperial Beach sometime in the early ’60s and he always said I had something to do with turning him on to music (maybe I invited him out to a Hoot Night at the Heritage or a concert at the Sign of the Sun I just don’t remember). If that is so I’m glad I did because he’s sure given a lot to the San Diego Music scene and made a lot of people musically happy. RIP Joe.

Lou Curtiss

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