Obituary: Lillian McMurry

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The Independent Culture
WHEN THE story of the blues' formative relationship with rock 'n' roll is one day told in full, the name of a white woman, wife of a furniture-store owner in Jackson, Mississippi, should be remembered as a seminal influence in the growth of the music.

In 1949, Lillian McMurry was helping her husband clear out a shop he had bought when she came upon a pile of old shellac 78rpm phonograph discs that had been left to gather dust upon a shelf. She put one on a turntable to find out what it was, and the wild sound she heard not only changed her life; it also set in motion a sequence of events that was to reach across the sea to influence young white boys like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page to make a new kind of music. This music was rooted in the blues, but extended far beyond it into new pastures, far from the Mississippi cotton fields that had given it birth.

The first disc she played was "All She Wants to Do is Rock", by Wynonie "Mr Blues" Harris, whose "Good Rockin' Tonight" was later to become a hit for Elvis Presley. Harris had been a professional performer since the age of 12, and had even appeared in the film Hit Parade of 1943. But to Lillian McMurry, he was completely unknown. Even more remarkable than her excitement at what she heard was the fact that, like most of the white middle-class of her generation, until then she had been completely unaware of the music being made on her doorstep by her African-American neighbours.

And while she is given credit for having "discovered" blues legends like the guitarist Elmore James and the harmonica-player Sonny Boy Williamson, the latter had been playing in his own radio show on KFFA radio in Helena, Arkansas, every lunchtime since 1941. She could have heard Sonny Boy just by turning the dial on her radio. But until then, no one had thought to put him on record. By doing so, McMurry joined the select band of record producers, like the legendary Ralph Peer, whose influence shaped the direction of the music.

Though he only cut one solo side with her, Elmore James was probably her greatest discovery. A remarkable slide guitarist who was one of the first bluesmen to electrify his instrument, James was a shy and reticent young man when she enticed him into the studio to record for her new Trumpet record label on 5 August 1951. In fact, he was so frightened of the microphone that she led him to believe it was only a rehearsal, when in fact she was recording his version of Robert Johnson's "Dust My Broom" (sometimes also known as "I Believe My Time Ain't Long"). He was so angry at the deception that he refused to record anything more for her, so the record was issued with a track by another artist on the flip side (though Sonny Boy Williamson persuaded James to play on band sides, and he also accompanied Jesse "Tiny" Kennedy when Lillian McMurry took him into Sam Phillips' Sun studio in Memphis to record songs like "Strange Kind of Feelin'" and "Have You Heard About the Farmer's Daughter").

A woman of slight stature, born in Purvis, Mississippi, in 1922, Lillian Shedd had lived all over the state as her family moved around during her childhood until she settled down in Jackson to marry Willard McMurry in 1945. Her peripatetic upbringing must have hardened her up, because when she started recording blues musicians, her toughness in the studio became legendary.

Sonny Boy Williamson (born Aleck "Rice" Miller) was a gun-and-knife-toting tough guy, and McMurry always relieved him of his weapons when he came in to perform. She would tolerate no bad language in the studio, and when he fell to cursing and swearing on one occasion, she marched him out into the street at the point of his own gun, telling him to return when he'd learned better manners, which he did two weeks later, after an apology. However, he recorded most of his most famous tunes for her before he moved on to more famous labels like Chess, such as "Eyesight to the Blind" (which Pete Townshend included in the Who's rock opera, Tommy), "Nine Below Zero", "Too Close Together", "Mr Down Child", "Mighty Long Time", "Pontiac Blues", dedicated to his producer's car, and even a song she wrote for him, "Red Hot Kisses".

When he died, she had the following legend placed upon the headstone for his grave, which she also paid for:

Aleck Miller, Better Known As "Willie" Sonny Boy Williamson, Born Mar 12 1905, Died June 23 1965, Son of Jim Miller and Millie Miller, Internationally Famous Harmonica and Vocal Blues Artist Discovered and Recorded By Trumpet Records, Jackson Miss. From 1950 To 1955.

Trumpet folded in 1955 and McMurry went back to working in her husband's shop. Last year, she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, one of the few record producers to be granted that honour.

Karl Dallas

Lillian Shedd, record producer: born Purvis, Mississippi 30 December 1921; married 1945 Willard McMurry (died 1996; one daughter); died Jackson, Mississippi 18 March 1999.