Robert Shaw was a favorite on the barrelhouse circuit – named for the barrels of booze at speakeasies during Prohibition – but he retired from performing in the 1930s to open a grocery store/barbecue joint in Austin.

Before it was called boogie woogie after Alabama piano thumper Pine Top Smith’s 1928 recording “Pine Top Boogie Woogie,” the style was known as “Fast Texas.” But in Houston they called it “that Santa Fe thing,” in reference to the Santa Fe Railroad that shot through Fourth Ward as free passage to points beyond.

Houston-based music historian Mack McCormick was so intrigued by the piano tradition of that one neighborhood that he took a job there as a 1960 census taker. Besides the usual questions, McCormick would ask about the hot piano players. Many of the greats had passed on, but McCormick heard that Fud Shaw was living in Austin. Shaw moved here in 1935, playing piano and running numbers. A nudge from a judge and a 1939 marriage to second wife Martha got Shaw into more legitimate pursuits. His first market was at 1000 West Lynn St. in Clarksville. In the ’50s he moved to the building at 1917 Manor Road that now houses Salty Sow.

Shaw kept an old upright piano at his grocery store and practiced every day. But he had been retired from the music biz for almost 30 years when McCormick tracked him down in 1963, which wasn’t hard to do. Shaw’s store was not only a hub of the black community, but also a favorite of collegians and politicos.

“When my grandfather would drive around, he’d know every single person on the street,” said Lea Walker-Clark.

Folks knew Shaw played piano, but they didn’t know that he was keeping alive an African American musical tradition, if only in the back room at Shaw’s Food Market, which everyone called the Stop ‘n’ Swat. When McCormick produced Shaw’s “Texas Barrelhouse Piano” album (later retitled “The Ma Grinder” and reissued by the Arhoolie label), he marveled at how the 55-year-old’s playing was as crisp as the white dress shirts he favored. Because Shaw hadn’t burnt out in clubs, where there’s pressure to chase the trends, his original barrelhouse style, which mixed elements of ragtime and jazz and slow blues with boogie woogie, was wonderfully preserved.

He could still play “The Cows”, “The Fives” and “The Clinton,” signature Santa Fe tunes, as if the old gang were still playing hot piano in the sportin’ houses in the Fourth Ward and in the Brazos bottoms towns.

Newly rediscovered, Shaw performed with Janis Joplin at a blues concert on the University of Texas campus in April 1966. The great blues singer Victoria Spivey sang Fud’s praises in Record Research magazine that same year, calling the pianist a “true representative of the wonderful Texas blues tradition.” Rod Kennedy booked the piano pioneer at the Kerrville Folk Festival for 14 straight years.

The folkies and the hippies embraced the original blues musicians, but unlike most of the others, the description “itinerant bluesman” didn’t apply to Shaw. The player got his entrepreneurial gene from a father who not only raised cattle and hogs, but owned a barbecue joint and market.

The family owned a Steinway baby grand piano that Shaw, a skilled calf roper and bronco tamer, had to play on the sly because his father didn’t want him to get any notions about becoming a musician. But the kid discovered talent early on and paid for his own lessons. “I could sit there and throw my hands down and make them gals do anything,” Shaw said in the liner notes of his 1963 recording debut. “I told ’em when to shake it and when to hold back. That’s what this music is for.”

When they laid Robert Shaw to rest at Capital Memorial Gardens in May 1985, a heart attack victim at age 76, they buried the man, but not the tradition he helped keep alive.

Content + Photo: Michael Corcoran