Lillian McMurry: Godmother of the Blues

These days it’s difficult enough to think about a turntable at all, much less to think about one as a piece of furniture. But in the middle decades of the 20th century, vinyl record players had become mammoths. These record players (for that’s essentially what they were, hi-fi or stereo) came in all sorts of styles to match your other furniture, too: Mediterranean, French provincial, Queen Ann, you name it. Furniture stores sold these primitive behemoths as well as recordings themselves, and it’s through the furniture business that Lillian Shedd McMurry, a former secretary and law student, fell down a rabbit hole and into the land of the blues.

According to her nephew, recording artist John Webb (“Wilder”) McMurry, “My Uncle Willard, Lillian’s husband, and his family weren’t real musical folks. They all had furniture stores. Willard and a furniture store, my dad, Webb, had a furniture store, and my uncle Carl had Super Furniture Market in Jackson. Willard’s niche was used furniture stores and he would buy the pre-existing stock out of a bankrupt store and get it going again. So there was some stock in a hardware store Willard had bought on Farish Street that included 78s of black music, what would have been called “race music” at the time. Lillian had a lot of get-up-and-go, had played the piano early in her life and was interested in music. But she knew nothing about blues or secular music.” Lillian selected a record and put it on the turntable The record she chose was Wynnie “Mr. Blues” Harris’s “All She Wants to Do Is Rock”, and according to an interview with Living Blues magazine in 1986, what she heard changed her life. “It was the most unusual, sincere and solid sound I’d ever heard,” she said. “I’d never heard anything with such rhythm and freedom.”

“So Lillian,” Webb continued, “being enterprising, set the rest of the records out on the counter and they sold like hot cakes. And she began to get more involved.” Lillian acquired more records and began selling them on a full-time basis. She made trips to New Orleans and Memphis to bring in more recordings and eventually the couple converted the hardware store into a record/furniture store called Record Mart-Furniture Bargains. The store specialized in blues, gospel and what was then called “hillbilly” music. Between walk-ins and mail orders the business began to thrive. “The Record Mart became a very big mail-order business,” Webb said. “I didn’t know until recently how big a deal that was.” It wasn’t long before Lillian got the idea to record her own material using local talent. Lillian and Willard McMurry became the founders and owners of the Diamond Record Company, which released records on the Trumpet label. “God, I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Lillian said later.

What she was getting into was a pioneering position in the roots music recording industry. The label’s first releases were gospel recordings by the St. Andrews Gospelaires, a 3-piece jubilee group from the Enoch Grove Baptist Church, and the Southern Sons, who were the most popular and influential gospel groups performing during the early 50s in the Mississippi Delta. McMurry made many trips to the Delta to sign up talent, and on one she signed up a “harp” player who called himself Sonny Boy Williamson. Sonny Boy Had garnered a devoted following through his appearances on “King Biscuit Time” over station WFFA in Helena, Arkansas. McMurry signed Sonny Boy to a contract in December, 1950. She did not learn until years later that his real name was Alex “Rice” Miller. Miller had appropriated the name of another highly-regarded harmonica-playing blues singer because he had once been convicted of stealing a mule from a neighbor. He had whitewashed the mule, which was a sure disguise for the animal until the next inevitable Delta downpour. With McMurry riding herd on him, Sonny Boy Williamson (II) turned out a string of blues standards, including “Eyesight to the Blind”, “Nine Below Zero” and “Red Hot Kisses”, written by Lillian herself. Sonny Boy also wrote a tribute to McMurry’s car, which was recorded as “Pontiac Blues”.

Edward Komara, former head of the Blues Archive at the University of Mississippi, said, “The main thing I remember about Lillian McMurry is her toughness, which was a combination of a low tolerance for bullshit and a lion-taming instinct. This toughness was not something she had to develop while running Trumpet. She may have well had it since birth. She was also born with a pageant-quality beauty, as evidenced by the published photos of her in her 50s, taken during the Trumpet years. But musicians and record industry people alike learned she was much more than a pretty face.”

However she came by it, Lillian McMurry’s toughness became a key asset in the rough-and-tumble world of the independent record business. Sonny Boy Williamson, her biggest star, was hard-drinking, cantankerous and prone to drunken brawling. Williamson also carried a knife and a gun and freely used profane language, but only once around Lillian. Legend has it that when Williamson began cursing in the studio one day, Lillian told him to leave. When he refused, McMurry took his own gun, which she had taken the precaution to relieve him of, marched him outside and sent him on his way. A much-humbled Williamson returned a couple of weeks later, and McMurry took him back in.

According to Webb, McMurry had problems with other artists as well. “She had Elmore James under contract, but Elmore had problems sticking to it. At one point, she got a tip-off and had to go to Canton to bust up a recording session that Elmore had no right to do. There’s actually a tape recording of a telephone conversation between Elmore and Lillian where he’s asking about coming back, and she said, ‘Well, Elmore, would you stand hitched?’ meaning would he honor a contract. But he never followed up on it.” Elmore James’s only Trumpet recording, “Dust My Broom”, became a nation-wide hit and a classic in the blues repertoire. “She and Willard were visiting with my parents when I was in high school or junior high, and she was sitting there in the front room and I was dashing out the door with a vinyl copy of “Tommy” by The Who. And she said something like, ‘Oh, I thought the rock opera was an abortion,’ or an abomination or something like that. And I left thinking, ‘Well what does she know?’ but later I realized they recorded HER song wrong. She cut the original ‘Eyesight for the Blind’ but they did it in a minor key with a whole different feel and melody.”

But the Trumpet label was short-lived. Even with such brilliant talent stock as Jerry McCain, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup and Willie Love, competition with labels having deeper pockets eventually proved to be too much. According to blues aficionado Dr. Woody Sistrunk, “One of the biggest reasons Trumpet ended was that a large record distributor in Texas went broke. And back then, it was not cash for sale. A lot of business was on credit, especially as records became hits. If a record became a hit, you had to get it to a pressing plant, and no one had a pressing plant except for the big labels. You had to have it pressed, and if you didn’t get paid by your distributors, or one-stops as it were for stocking juke boxes at the time, you simply didn’t have any money to pay them off,” Sistrunk explained. “At the very end of Trumpet, Sonny Boy Williamson was the biggest artist that the label had. His contract was traded to Buster Williams’ Plastic Products in Memphis as a trade for some of the label’s debts,” Sistrunk said. “Williams then turned over Sonny Boy’s contract to the Chess Brothers with options, who in turn picked up Sonny Boy and ran with him.”

After only five years (1951-56) in the business, this was Trumpet’s last note. “That was it, except for another $50,000 that Lillian and Willard had to absorb, which they did strictly through hard work,” Sistrunk said. “A lot of people don’t realize how important their studio was. Many of the records were cut at the old State Furniture Company at 211 State Street on the corner of State and Pearl. For a long time, they would cut records in the back room on Sunday afternoons with someone else’s equipment. But by 1954, they had a studio at 309 Farish Street where they were cutting a number of things. That was another big expense during 1953-54, and that set them back some as well.” Lillian McMurry was a scrupulous businesswoman, a meticulous bookkeeper and obsessive when it came to royalties. “For eight years, I maintained her Trumpet papers at the Blues Archive,” Komara said, “and she never let a single detail slip by. She fought hard and successfully for the artists whose financial estates she assisted. She continued until her death to assist her Trumpet recording artists, scoundrels though they sometimes were. She demanded honesty and got honesty and delivery of contracted promises from them during the recording sessions, and in return she made sure they received what was due.”

Vitrice, Williard and Lillian McMurry in the 1980s (image via “Trumpet Records: Diamonds on Farish Street”, Marc W. Ryan)

“She knew about artists’ egos and she protected them, plus she knew about artists’ sufferings and made sure they all got paid,” Sistrunk said. Vitrice McMurry Rankin, Lillian and Willard’s daughter, said, “Mom was always a strong-willed and fierce person who fought for what was right, treated the musicians with a great deal of dignity and fought for their rights. She was incredibly cagey, and could deal with copyright lawyers on a level of legal think so that she was able to win most of the suits she brought. “She was actually close to graduating from Jackson School of Law when she met my Dad and got married, which seems untypical of her that she wouldn’t have gone ahead and finished school,” Rankin said. “She had that kind of steel clamp of a mind that could handle thousands and thousands of legal ramifications and technicalities and argue to the death. I think some of the settlements she got were just to get her off their backs because she was so utterly relentless in her pursuing of these people who did so much bold-faced thievery. She would tend to spend $10,000 to make $10,000. Who knows ultimately if financially it was worth it, but ethically it was, because so many people were vindicated.”

But McMurry’s upstanding business ethics were often sorely lacking in other recording business personalities of the 50s. And the demise of the Trumpet label may have been in part to unscrupulous machinations on the part of other record labels. “Lillian told me that there were some people who wanted to press her out of the business,” Sistrunk said. “And one big label allegedly said, ‘If you stock her labels, we won’t let you stock ours.’ This was a big label, and every jukebox carried this label, and it seemed pretty ugly.” After McMurry got out of the music business, she still maintained a studio. According to Sistrunk, “’From the Bottom’ and a lot of the later Sonny Boy Williamson songs were recorded there, and she was the one ‘at the knobs’ when Earl King did ‘Those Lonely, Lonely Nights’ for Ace Records. ‘Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woofie Flu’ could very well have been recorded there as well.”

The impact of the Trumpet label on American music has been profound and lasting. “You can’t describe Trumpet’s contribution to music history strictly within a blues niche,” Sistrunk said. “You’d have to describe it in terms of the music of Mississippi that was not being recorded, that being gospel with the Southern Sons Gospel Quartet, that being Lucky Joe Almond, Jimmy Swan and all the other hillbilly artists and that being Sonny Boy Williamson and Willie Love with the blues. Because all of those folded together are basically what made rock-and-roll as we know it. It’s all incredible.”

Saving Trumpet Records

309 Farish Street, the home of Trumpet Records, is a ruin.

Trumpet Records was the first record company in Mississippi to achieve national stature. The premiere releases by Mississippi blues legends Sonny Boy Williamson II, Elmore James and Willie Love appeared on Trumpet in 1951. Early Mississippi gospel and country artists also appeared on the Trumpet label.

The impact of Trumpet Records on American music has been profound and lasting, but the site of the studio is rapidly decaying. The building that housed this jewel in the crown of Mississippi music has not only lost its luster, but it’s become a dilapidated shell. While the roof and walls are intact, they’re barren and pitted, covered with patches of peeling paint and without windows, open to the erosive elements of weather.

Musician Sherman Lee Dillon is the driving force behind a group of people who seek to preserve and restore the building with an eye to commemorating Trumpet Records and its music. “What we’re trying to do is ensure that the old building where these legends laid down some the most famous tracks in Mississippi music is preserved. Maybe we can even to get some momentum going towards the restoration of Farish Street itself.”

Dillon notes that the 30-year efforts to restore the Farish Street District by massive infusions of public funding have stalled. “We think it’s worthwhile to give private initiative a chance.”

To that end, Dillon and his group have secured a lease on 309 North Farish Street, one of the few privately-owned properties in the Farish Street Historical District. Dillon said that he asked the owners not to lease or sell 309 Farish until he had an opportunity to restore it.

Sherman Lee Dillon
Sherman Lee Dillon

“They have stuck to their word for three years and not seriously entertained any other offers,” he said. “But I have not been able to find any pockets to get money from, and I am in not in a situation for matching funds. The city does nothing to support the project, even though the mayor drops by from time to time.  I can’t wait any longer. If I can’t get the money to restore it, Trumpet Records goes on the block.”

Dillon said that once the building is secured, he will work on creating a nonprofit business, a museum and a recording studio. “I am personal friends with musicians who have played with several Mississippi blues people, Johnny Taylor, Milton, Bobby Rush, Dorothy Moore, BB King and Albert King.” Dillon points out that while Trumpet had some national recognition, their recordings of local celebrities might be one of the most interesting aspects of the proposed museum.

“There are collections of ‘The Hillbilly Sides’, spirituals recordings, rock-a-billy recordings as well as blues recordings that connect to people still living in the area,” he said. “The singers and artists that didn’t quite have the combination to go national, are often the most fun,” he said. “These songs would be on a jukebox for people to sample and pictures of them people would be on the wall.”

“The problem is that there’s no money for restoration,” Dillon said. “The agreement I have with the owners is for two years’ rent, $48,000, paid in advance within 30 days. That money will be used exclusively for the restoration of 309. Any money that comes from the operation of 309 for the next two years will be to further the services of the restoration.

“All I can say is that if this doesn’t work, a golden opportunity has been missed.”

Details available at Save Trumpet Records

Paying Our Dues to the Blues

The blues have shaped American music for over a century, and many people the world over consider blues music Mississippi’s greatest contribution to global culture.

In recognition of this distinction, the state created the Mississippi Blues Commission (MBC) in 2005. Its original charter established a statewide Blues Trail, but it soon became clear that more was needed than just historical sites and signs. As Rep. Willie Bailey explains, “When the Blues Commission started putting up Trail markers across the state we discovered that many grassroots blues pioneers, artists and musicians were experiencing hardships due to misfortune and poverty.”

“The markers allowed the state to profit on tourism from an art form kept alive by these faithful souls,” Bailey said. “But as the Commission carried on its work, there were requests from destitute artists for a little help to get through hard times.” Bailey pointed out that back then there was no legal way for the Blues Commission to respond to their needs, but the Legislature passed the necessary legislation allowing the Commission to act. In 2010, the Mississippi Blues Commission was authorized “to raise and expend grant funds to provide assistance to any blues musician in need.” The Blues Benevolent Committee was created to oversee the distribution of these funds. Now any established blues musician in need can apply for up to $1,000 in a 12-month period.

Dr. Edgar Smith, chairman of the Blues Benevolent Committee, said, “As a son of the Delta, I am keenly aware of the challenges that confront these artists on a daily basis. Many blues musicians, especially the older ones, have no health insurance and no other source of income other than what they get from blues gigs. It’s appropriate for Mississippi to have some mechanism for assisting the people from whom the blues derived. The Benevolence Fund represents the effort of on the part of the Mississippi Blues Commission to address this issue. I envision a future in which this effort will become the major focus of the MBC to the extent that it will approach the scale of the Music Maker Relief Foundation of Hillsborough, NC.”

The Music Maker Relief Foundation, founded in 1994, helps support elder blues and Appalachian artists. Their Musician Sustenance Program provides monthly stipends (typically $50 – $200), grants for emergencies and periodic needs for health care as well as other services. In 2012-13, Music Maker’s budget exceeded $630,000.

The Mississippi Blues Foundation, the fundraising arm of the MBC, spearheads efforts to secure money for the Blues Benevolent Committee’s separate grants fund. Most funds come from private donations, but the sale of car tags and donations from the annual Mississippi Blues Marathon also contribute to the fund. John Noblin, director of the marathon, said that the marathon is on the fast track to help.

 “We have included a specific donation option for participants on the registration form because we want to generate money earmarked for the Benevolent Committee,” Noblin said. “In years we’ve made a $10,000 donation to the Mississippi Blues Commission in general. But contributing directly to the Benevolent Committee was the perfect way to tie in with the wellness component and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Mississippi’s involvement because it covers financial shortfalls with health-related issues.”

To date, the Mississippi Blues Benevolent Committee has awarded grants totaling $16,000to 18 artists, including James “T-Model” Ford; “Cadillac” John Nolden; Tommie “T-Bone” Pruitt; Bill “Howlin’ Madd” Perry; Jim O’Neal, producer and a co-founder of Living Blues magazine; Duff Dorrough, founding member of The Tangents; and Eddie “Chank” Willis, winner of the 2013 Mississippi Governor’s Arts Award for excellence in music.

Malcolm White, former director of the Mississippi Arts Commission, said, “The blues is based on hard times, and for many years the cultural and heritage movements in Mississippi have sought to honor these artists and support them when hard times come back around. Now that the Benevolent Committee has been established under Dr. Smith’s leadership and persistence, we have finally put our money where our mouths are.”

“Helping our native sons and daughters is the right thing to do,” Bailey said. “To come to the aid of suffering blues artists and musicians expresses Mississippi’s appreciation and recognition of their contributions to this native art form. We don’t want them standing on a corner with a cup begging, ‘Brother, can you spare a dime?’”

“People talk about keeping the blues alive,” Smith said, “but we need to keep these people alive, too.”

(For more information about the Mississippi Blues Benevolent Fund, contact Dr. Edgar Smith at: 601-713-2756)