It’s not often that purveyors of undiluted blues make their way as far north as Montana. Missoula got an enticing taste of Mississippi blues a couple of weeks ago when guitar goddess Rory Block came to town. Not content to bring us just one blues legend, the Blue Heron has managed to lure us another.
Eddie Shaw was born in 1937 outside of Greenville, Miss., smack in the heart of the Delta. Unable to resist the swampy songs that permeate the air in those parts, Shaw was drawn into the blues world and began playing professionally when he was only 14 years old. But his is not the usual story of cigar box guitars with bailing wire strings. Early on Eddie Shaw bypassed the traditional axe for the horn. He plays a tenor sax, an instrument more commonly associated with jazz than blues—at least until he picked it up.
Shaw started playing trombone in the sixth or seventh grade in a school band under the direction of Winchester Davis, who became a huge influence on the boy. In the ninth grade Shaw switched to saxophone. In those days students didn’t have a whole lot of choice. They got to play whatever instrument was available. Soon Shaw was playing after school and on weekends with local swing bands at bars and social functions, and eventually started sitting in with blues artists like Charlie Booker and Ike Turner. In ’58, Muddy Waters toured through the area and Shaw got a chance to sit in with him. Muddy was so impressed that he asked Shaw to join them and—as he was about to be kicked out of Mississippi Valley State College due to his lack of tuition funds—he signed on and returned to Chicago with the band.
After a couple of years with Muddy Waters Shaw spent some time as a freelance horn player back and forth between Mississippi and Chicago, playing with musicians such as Magic Sam, Otis Rush and Willie Dixon, among others. He ended up playing with Muddy Waters for another year or so before he finally grew fed up with the heavy drinking going on in the band. One night he packed up and left right in the middle of a set and walked down the street to where Howlin’ Wolf—regarded by many as the most galvanizing figure in post-war Chicago blues—was playing. He joined Howlin’ Wolf’s band that night.
Shaw played with Howlin’ Wolf off and on for years. Eventually, Shaw bought the “1815 Club” on Chicago’s West Side, which he owned and ran while touring with the band. After Howlin’ Wolf had a heart attack and stopped traveling, he would play at Shaw’s club every weekend. When the blues luminary died in 1975, Shaw took over as band leader, which has since come to be known as “Eddie Shaw and the Wolf Gang Band” and has toured in virtually every state and more than a dozen foreign countries. Today Shaw leads the three other musicians—his son Vaan on guitar, Shorty Gilbert playing bass and drummer Tim Taylor—that make up one of the hardest working blues bands around. Shaw’s extensive experience make him an intuitive and able leader who not only plays and sings but also does the majority of the arrangements and handles some elements of production as well.
Shaw likens his horn playing to the sermon of a Baptist preacher and it’s hard to imagine a more appropriate analogy. In 1996 he was awarded the Living Blues Most Outstanding Musician Award.
The “crossroads” plays an important part in ancient Delta blues lore and also in the life of Eddie Shaw. He considers himself a country boy who splits his time between preaching the blues and hanging out near his home, fishing and planting tomatoes. His music is a sort of crossroads as well, mixing Delta blues tradition with the electric, urban style developed in Chicago.
“You know, in the blues you just keep on goin’ man. You’re looking for the end of the rainbow, which we blues guys never catch up with.” This week his search will lead his tour bus to the secluded crossroads of Pine and Higgins where he’ll unpack his saxophone and deliver another sermon to a lucky Missoula crowd.