Robert Shaw was an American blues and boogie-woogie pianist….who was best known for his 1963 album, The Ma Grinder….as Shaw was born in Stafford, Texas, the son of farm owners Jesse and Hettie Shaw….who also owned a Steinway grand piano….which his sisters had lessons in playing….but Shaw’s father was against allowing his son to learn the instrument. Shaw worked with his father on the family’s ranch….and played the piano whenever his family was out….with the first song he learned being “Aggravatin’ Papa Don’t You Try to Two-Time Me.” In adolescence, Shaw travelled to Houston to listen to jazz musicians…..and at nearby roadhouses….when soon after, he then found a piano teacher and paid for lessons with his earnings from working with the family….when he learned a barrel house style of playing from musicians in the Fourth Ward, Houston.
In the 1920’s Shaw was part of the “Santa Fe Circuit”….which was named after touring musicians utilizing the Santa Fe freight trains….and although he sometimes played in Chicago….he mainly restricted himself to Texas while performing as a soloist in the clubs and roadhouses of Sugarland, Richmond, Kingsville, Houston and Dallas. In 1930, at the height of the Kilgore oil boom, Shaw played there….then two years later he traveled to Kansas City, Kansas, to perform. In 1933 he hosted a radio show in Oklahoma City before relocating back to Texas…..first to Fort Worth and then to Austin….where he settled down and took up residence….and opened and owned a grocery store known as the Stop and Swat….for which in 1962 he was named the black businessman of the year in Austin.
In 1963, Shaw recorded an album called the Texas Barrel House Piano….which was produced by Robert “Mack” McCormick and released by McCormick’s Almanac Book and Recording Company….which Arhoolie Records later reissued the LP under the title The Ma Grinder….as the album contained old favorites such as “The Ma Grinder”, “The Cows” and “Whores Is Funky”….cuz some of the songs were too risque to have been issued previously.
In 1967, seven years before his retirement from the grocery trade….Shaw recommenced concert playing… and as this created a revival of his career…..when he played at the Kerrville Folk Festival….overseas in Amsterdam, Frankfurt and at the Berlin Jazz Festival….as well as the Smithsonian Institution’s American Folk Life Festival, the World’s Fair Expo in Canada and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. He played with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band at the 1973 Austin Aqua Festival and continued to perform in the United States and in Europe intermittently in the 1970’s….appearing on Austin City Limits for this 1978 live performance.
Robert Shaw died of a heart attack in Austin, on May 16, 1985….and was interred at the Capital Memorial Gardens….when two weeks after his death….the Texas State Senate passed a resolution in honor of his contribution to the state’s musical heritage….so this video is just one more “nugget of gold” in our treasure chest of vintage memories….especially for any and all Austinites.