Charlie Burse And his Memphis Mudcats – Memphis Highway Stomp
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Charlie Burse, probably best known for his membership of the Memphis Jug Band [1928-1930], remains a somewhat shadowy member of the blues fraternity despite a recording career that was revived in the 1950s. He had a long-term partnership with the Jug Band’s leader, Will Shade, the pair recording together until Burse’s death in 1965 – Shade died the following year.
Possibly the lack of a clear picture of Burse, the man, has something to do with his character, which colleagues reported was the opposite of Shade’s. While the latter was described as being straightforward, orderly and businesslike, Burse was said to range from being a raucous hellraiser to an unapproachable curmudgeon. Indeed, he was once described as “obnoxious and abusive”, although the veracity of this derogatory assessment cannot be guaranteed because its author seems to have maintained anonymity.
Beale Street Holiday is an engaging up-tempo performance that reflects the carefree atmosphere intimated by its title, with Burse fairly fizzing in his outgoing vocal. The other notable “voice” on this side is the unidentified alto-saxist, who at first sounds like a 1920s dance band player but then picks up inspiration moving into ebullient Charlie Holmes territory, at one point almost verging on the bravura approach of Sidney Bechet. The drummer, too, adds to the carnival atmosphere, rattling around on his diverse kit with unbridled glee. The proficiency of the saxist on Baby You Win is underscored here, bubbling along with verve, if occasionally a little added corn, in a tune closely related to “Dr. Jazz”. Burse again is in jovial good form, while the drummer runs through his “kitchen” percussion arsenal with irrepressible agility employing a washboard and various implements that sound for all the world like pots and pans. This is a fairly inoffensive song of seduction of “a little girl” who is “built up like a frog” and who yells “hot dog”. She is enjoined to “give a little skin”. Oil It Up And Go, a near-relative of “Bottle Up And Go” (which Burse is often credited with writing) is taken at another jolly up-tempo, with the unidentified pianist coming to the fore for the first time, matching the saxist in effervescence if not technique. His slightly ramshackle romp has a bouncy appeal. What’s The Matter With The Well? is another familiar blues theme, revived with revised lyrics in the early 1970s by Muddy Waters as “Can’t Get No Grindin’ (What’s The Matter With The Meal?)”. This is the only track in which Burse assays a call-and-response form with a second vocalist, allegedly the aforementioned Robert Knight. Robert Knight is also claimed by Dixon, Godrich and Rye to be a second singer on I’m In Buddy’s Wagon but this listener cannot detect his presence, unless he is the author of what sound like involuntary ejaculations of encouragement from a band member. A neatly picked intro on Good Potatoes On The Hill from Burse’s guitar makes one wish that the instrument is farther forward in the recording mix elsewhere. All too often its felicities are buried in the ensemble sound. The tune is another close relative of “What’s The Matter With The Well”. The first slow blues of the session, Weed Smoking Mama provides a welcome change of pace. Burse sings with feeling about a lady who comes “reelin’ and rockin’” after getting high on “tea”. Dawn Of Day Blues is taken at a slow, almost ponderous tempo, with inappropriately sweet alto from the saxist. But two-thirds of the way through the band suddenly up their game and get stuck in to take the number out in more vigorous style. Goldie May is possibly a distant antecedent to “Caldonia” (Louis Jordan/Woody Herman, et al) but taken at a much more leisurely pace. It features pleasantly melodic piano and a plaintive vocal from the leader. Scared To Death has no connection with the blues, but is pure corn, reminiscent of humorous Yiddish music popular in America at the time, complete with tongue-in-cheek sax. Aaargh! You Better Watch Out has echoes, again, of “Bottle Up And Go”, but none the worse for that. It features a declamatory Burse in a highly personable vocal. Initially, I thought there was a clue on Too Much Beef to the identity of the pianist when Burse shouts what at first sounds like “take it Mr. Beehar”. But repeated listening reveals that he is actually calling out “take it Mr. Piano”. The song is a plea to the singer’s baby not to feed him too much beef – but whether this is a culinary reference is a moot point. Magic Spell Blues has great guitar by Burse, propulsive, crisp and articulate, wonderfully complementary to this up-tempo piece’s inventive and colourful lyrics. It Makes No Difference Now is a real maverick performance of a maudlin C&W ditty with accompaniment to match, complete with bar-room honky-tonk piano. This would not be out of place in a redneck Texas saloon. Radio Blues has a rather gentle charm, lolloping along at an easy pace with piano, guitar and sax almost cosily complementing Burse’s easy-going vocal about his absent “good gal”. He looks at her pictures on the wall, the radio failing to provide an effective distraction. A strikingly plangent Burse guitar intro to Hell’s Highway is sadly all too short. He really was a fine player whose rationed contributions are to be cherished. Tunewise It’s Against The Rule echoes again of “What’s The Matter With The Well?” But the very different and amusing lyrics set it far enough apart to give it an individual appeal. Ain’t Gonna Be No Doggone Afterwhile is a little reminiscent of “Mama Don’t Allow” in treatment and sentiment, featuring a bass solo of verve if not invention.The irrepressible percussionist gets on his pots and pans again, thrashing good-humouredly with pizazz. The title Memphis Highway Stomp is mystifyingly inappropriate, for the performance is almost sedate, as far removed as can be from a stomp. But there is wonderful melodic guitar from Burse that suggests he may well have listened to Lonnie Johnson. A slow reflective piece Brand New Day is out of step with the rest of the band’s output, but most attractive, featuring an affecting vocal by Burse, its appeal heightened by comparatively sensitive sax playing.