Every record producer dreams that the music he or she helps create will become timeless. But very few producers can claim to have made ‘Classic’ records. In the blues world, no one can surpass the music produced by Lillian Shedd McMurry in the few short years she operated Trumpet Records during the early 1950s.
Her recordings ranged from Gospel to Country to proto-Rockabilly, but it was for her Blues records that she is famed – records by artists like Willie Love, Big Joe Williams and Jerry McCain. But above all stand her masterpieces – the original version of ‘Dust My Broom’ by Elmore James and ‘Eyesight to the Blind,’ ‘Mighty Long Time,’ ‘Pontiac Blues,’ ‘Nine Below Zero,’ ‘Mr. Down Child,’ ‘Too Close Together,’ and ‘Red Hot Kisses’ by Sonny Boy Williamson.
Lillian’s track record is all the more amazing because she was a woman operating a label at the beginning of the 1950s in a business totally dominated by men. Plus, she was still in her 20’s when she founded Trumpet Records. Miraculously, she had not grown up surrounded by Black music, but had only been exposed to Blues, Gospel and R&B for a couple of years. Yet she formed a personal bond with Trumpet artists, winning their friendship and trust by dealing with each one honestly, treating black and white musicians equally (during the era of institutionalized segregation) and maintaining scrupulous business practices to make sure Trumpet artists received fair and correct payment for their services.
Lillian Shedd was an unlikely candidate to become a producer of immortal Blues records. She was born in 1921 and raised in small towns in Mississippi. Her family were strict Baptists, and her first musical experiences were singing hymns and playing piano with her parents and cousins. When her family’s finances were destroyed by the Depression, (‘we didn’t have a pot or a window to throw it out,’ she recalls), Lillian was plunged into poverty, working from the age of 13. She moved to Jackson in the early 1940s, where she found a good job in a state government office. While shopping for a piano, she met a young furniture store owner named Willard McMurry, and romance flourished. Lillian and Willard were married in 1945, and were an inseparable couple until his death in 1997.
In 1949, Lillian committed to the second love of her life -Black music. While cleaning out an old hardware store that Willard had taken over for his furniture business, she came across a supply of black artists’ 78s, left behind by the hardware dealer, who had maintained a small record department. A jump Blues by Wynonie Harris changed her life. ‘It was the most unusual, sincere and solid sound I’d ever heard,’ she remembers. ‘I’d never heard a black record before. I’d never heard anything with such rhythm and freedom.’ Realizing that there was a whole world of unknown music to discover (and a potential profit to be made), Lillian opened a record department in the furniture store, bringing in the latest Blues, Gospel and R&B hits from New Orleans. Business flourished, and the new enterprise, dubbed the Record Mart, became a hub for black record buyers.
In the less than year, inspired by the records she was selling, Lillian McMurry was ready to make records of her own. She began Trumpet by recording a well customers. Soon she heard stories about a great Blues harmonica player working between movies at theaters in the Delta. Intrigued, she scoured the countryside and located Sonny Boy Williamson in Belzoni, signing him in December of 1950.
Sonny Boy became the ‘star’ of Trumpet, cutting great 78s that won radio and juke box play as well as plenty of sales across the South and eventually nationwide. Lillian became Sonny Boy’s manager and friend. His wife Mattie worked at the Record Mart, and Lillian even let him go to the occasional gig in her car, the same one he immortalized in ‘Pontiac Blues.’ With Sonny Boy as Trumpet’s calling card, 1951 alone, Lillian signed some of the finest talent in the Delta, like Greenville Bluesman Willie Love, the young Clayton Love (who later made his mark with Ike Turner), Big Joe Williams and or course the slide master Elmore James. Almost every Trumpet session was carefully produced by Lillian herself, who refused to accept anything less than a perfect take and would demand dozens of performances before being satisfied. She insisted on the finest sideman, too; Joe Willie Wilkins, Little Milton Campbell and B.B. King all appeared on Trumpet Records. Lillian didn’t just supervise the recording sessions. She brought her own creativity to them, with brilliant ideas like using Cliff Givens’ bass voice instead of a standard bass in ‘Mighty Long Time,’ and replacing the drums with a broom brushed across the floor. She wrote songs for her artists, too including Sonny Boy’s ‘Red Hot Kisses.’
She was not only a tough producer; she was a tough businesswoman. She fought with the Jackson Musicians Union over their racist policies. She battled the powerful Bihari Brothers of RPM and Modern Records, in and out of court, when they tried to steal her artists. She feuded with Leonard Chess. Her artists were scared of her too; it was well known that she kept a pistol in her office. Lillian was a person of her word and expected the artists to be the same. Contracts were written in stone, not to be broken or bent. She paid the artists every cent a contract called for (and plenty of advance), and she expected and loyalty in return. Plus she had no truck with foul language, as Sonny Boy found out the hard way!
Besides her Blues records, Lillian produced brilliant Gospel recordings by The Southern Sons, The Carolina Kings of Harmony and others, and mixed Country music with R&B to produce what was later to be called Rockabilly, with artists like Lucky Joe Almond. Typically, She put black and white musicians in the studio together, even in the era when the couldn’t eat in the same restaurant.
The battle for survival in the independence record business was hard, and hard although Lillian continued to record brilliant talent like Jerry McCain and Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup, the labels with deeper pockets eventually were too much competition for Trumpet. By 1955 Lillian was forced to close the label. Her legacy lives on, in some of the finest Blues and Gospel records ever recorded. And to this day, she maintains meticulous royalty accountings, even for long-disappeared artists who never had a hit. She is an inspiration to every Blues producer and label owner who has followed in her giant footsteps.
— (Blues Foundation press release, 1998.)