Robert Shaw (August 9, 1908 – May 18,
1985) was an American blues and boogie-woogie pianist, best known for his
1963 album, The Ma Grinder.
Shaw was born in Stafford, Texas, the son of farm owners Jesse and Hettie
Shaw. The Shaws had a Steinway grand piano and his sisters had lessons in
playing, but Shaw's father was against his son learning the instrument.
Shaw worked with his father on the family's ranch, and played the piano
whenever his family was out; the first song he learned being 'Aggravatin'
Papa Don't You Try to Two-Time Me.' In his adolescence, Shaw travelled to
Houston to listen to jazz musicians, and at nearby roadhouses. He then found
a piano teacher and with his earnings paid for lessons.
He learned his barrelhouse style of playing from musicians in the Fourth
Ward, Houston. In the 1920s Shaw was part of the 'Santa Fe Circuit', named
after touring musicians utilising the Santa Fe freight trains. Although he
played in Chicago, Shaw mainly restricted himself to Texas, and performed 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, and two years on traveled to Kansas City, Kansas, to perform.
In 1933 he hosted a radio show in Oklahoma City. He relocated to Texas,
first to Fort Worth and then to Austin. Here he settled down and took up
residence, owning a grocery store known as the 'Stop and Swat'.
Shaw married Martha Landrum in December 1939, but they had no children.
However, Shaw had previously been married, and had a daughter, Verna Mae,
and a son, William. For many years Shaw ran his grocery business in Austin
in partnership with Martha, and in 1962 was named the black businessman of
the year in Austin.
In 1963, Shaw recorded an album, originally called Texas Barrelhouse Piano,
produced by Robert 'Mack' McCormick. It was originally released by
McCormick's Almanac Book and Recording Company, and Chris Strachwitz's
Arhoolie Records later reissued the LP, re-titled as The Ma Grinder. The
album contained old favourites such as 'The Ma Grinder', 'The Cows' and
'Whores Is Funky', some of them too risque to have been issued previously.
In 1967, seven years before his retirement from the grocery trade, Shaw
recommenced concert playing. With the revival of his career, 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 Stateside and in Europe
intermittently during the 1970s, turning up unexpectedly in California in
1981 to help Strachwitz celebrate Arhoolie's 20th anniversary.
Shaw died of a heart attack in Austin, on May 16, 1985, and was interred at
the Capital Memorial Gardens. Two weeks after his death, the Texas State
Senate passed a resolution in honor of Shaw's contribution to the state's