Charlie Burse - Memphis

Charlie (mandolin) & Robert Burse (washboard) and the Schlitz Jug Band
The Grave of Charlie Burse - "The Ukulele Kid"

Project Consultants/Investigators

Arlo Leach

Bill Pichette
"One night in February, 1928, Son [Brimmer] was walking along Beale Street, stopping to say hello to friends, and dropping in most of the bars to keep warm. There was another recording session scheduled with Victor the next morning, back in the studios in the McCall Building. In one of the barrooms, Yardbirds, a man was entertaining in the back room. He played a four-string tenor guitar, using the swinging rhythms of country dances, rather than the blues rhythms that the six-string guitar players like Son used. He was short and thin, dressed in loud clothes, laughing as he sang. His name was Charlie Burse, a country musician from Decatur, Alabama. Son liked his playing and his singing and he asked Burse if he wanted to record the next morning. Burse was willing; so Son took him home and they rehearsed all night, while Jennie slept in the other room. Burse gave the band an excitement and style that it had never had before. His laughter on the shouted vocal duets he and Shade did became one of the band's trademarks. They stayed together for the rest of the band's recording activity, making a tour of Chicago, and recording hundreds of songs for several record companies. Their music and their blues compositions had a raucous quality and a rich vein of country humor…"
from Samuel Charters, The Country Blues 

Charlie Burse
In American Epic (www.pbs.org/wnet/american-epic/) Will Shade and Charlie Burse are featured performing in Memphis. 

Charlie Burse was born in Decatur, Alabama on August 25, 1901 to Robert Burse, Sr. and Emma Hill. He moved to Memphis, Tennessee in the 1920s, where he met musician Will Shade (aka Son Brimmer) while playing his guitar for change on Beale Street (see above).  The two quickly formed a lifelong friendship and musical partnership--despite exhibiting salient differences in temperament. Burse was known for being somewhat of a hell-raiser.  One acquaintance even described him as "obnoxious and abusive at times."  Shade, however, lived a more stable and ordered life, acting as business manager for the band.  He managed to accrue a substantial sum from the group's recordings, and he purchased a home in Memphis.  Despite the differences in their personalities, the two musicians generated little tension in their personal and professional associations. Burse and Shade would play together often on street corners or at house parties until the former's death on December 20, 1965.

Memphis Jug Band Discography

Gus Cannon & Charlie Burse in 1956 (© S. Charters)
Though Burse is perhaps best known for his membership in the fabled Memphis Jug Band (1927-1934), in which he recorded recorded over 60 tracks as a member, he began his own short-lived band, the Memphis Mudcats, in 1939. The Memphis Mudcats attempted to modernize the traditional jug band.  Although firmly in the carefree jug band tradition, with its schmaltzy hokum and skiffle inferences, the sound is decidedly more urbanized with Burse substituting an alto sax for harmonica and a double bass for a jug, yet occasionally choosing material that makes one wonder – "Scared To Death" is pure corn, recalling jocular Yiddish music of the time, while a revamping of the Jimmie Davis country classic "It Makes No Difference Now" comes complete with honky-tonk piano.  Burse's dynamic, articulate and bracing guitar playing (particularly on cuts like "Magic Spell Blues" and "Good Potatoes on the Hill") along with his expressively exuberant singing that galvanizes affairs – especially on shake-a-leg numbers like "Oil It Up and Go" and "You Better Watch Out" (both variants of the classic "Bottle Up and Go," which some scholars believe Burse may have penned), the bawdy "Too Much Beef," an effervescent "Beale Street Holiday" and the pots-and-pans percussive "Baby You Win." Even the occasional slow blues, such as "Weed Smoking Mama," and the mystifyingly titled "Radio Blues" benefit from his outgoing, affecting vocals.

The two enjoyed a brief resurgence toward the end of their lives due to their rediscovery in 1956 by Samuel Charters, who, later in 1963, recorded their final collaboration, Beale Street Mess-Around.  This video is from the 1958 television program, "Blues Street."

Photo: Bill Pichette (May 2017)
Charlie Burse is buried in Rose Hill Cemetery in Memphis, TN. Our initial preliminary search of the burial ground was unsuccessful in locating the musician's grave. However, we did locate the grave of his mother, Emma Burse.

Born on May 20, 1874 to Lewis Hill in Alabama, Emma Burse had been living in Memphis at 589 Walnut Street and working as a “domestic” for about twelve years when she came down with a fatal case of pneumonia. A physician began attending to her on February 27, 1940, but she succumbed two days later at 12:43 p.m.  The undertaker at Southern Funeral Home handled her funeral arrangements and buried her remains in Rose Hill Cemetery on March 4, 1940.