When Chicago blues musician Eddie Shaw played his saxophone, the room seemed to quake.
His immense, raspy, growling sound cut through the instrumentals surrounding him. His ornate solos packed vast swaths of blues and jazz history into every roaring phrase.
Shaw parlayed those exhortations into that rarest of careers in the blues: a prominent bandleader who wasn’t primarily a guitarist, harmonica player or singer (though Shaw could shout a vocal line with power and play harmonica compellingly too). The range of Shaw’s talents and the durability of his career made him legendary among blues listeners in Chicago and around the world.
Shaw died early Tuesday morning in Chicago at age 80 of natural causes, said his son, James Jones.
“Eddie had one of those big, fat old tenor sounds, that kind of R&B sound — lots of vibrato,” said Bruce Iglauer, founder-president of the Chicago blues label Alligator Records.
“He wasn’t just a blues guy,” said Bob Koester, founder-owner of Chicago-based Delmark Records. “He was on the fringes of jazz. More creative. A lot of the blues tenor players just honked. It didn’t always make a hell of a lot of sense.
“Eddie was like a jazz musician who was in the blues field.”
Shaw’s playing, in other words, was more than just sound and fury: There was a complex musical underpinning to the solos he crafted.
Like many blues masters who made their names in Chicago, Shaw began his journey in the South. He was born on a Stringtown, Miss., plantation and grew up in Greenville, Miss., where he studied trombone and clarinet in high school before switching to saxophone. As a teenage musician, he played in bands led by Elmore James, Ike Turner and Little Milton, among others.
Blues icon Muddy Waters heard Shaw playing in Itta Bena, Miss., and urged him to come north to Chicago, which Shaw did in 1957.
When Shaw got to the city, he was stunned by the richness of the urban blues landscape.
“Back in the day, you could go to 10 or 15 blues clubs a night, all along Madison Street, Roosevelt Road, 43rd Street, King Drive (then South Park Way), 47th Street, 39th Street,” said Shaw in a 2011 Tribune interview.
“On Roosevelt Road, you could go from door to door for blocks and blocks.”
After playing for Waters, Shaw joined the band of Howlin’ Wolf and also performed with Magic Sam, Freddie King, Otis Rush and others. But Wolf remained a guiding light for Shaw, who backed him until Wolf’s death in 1976.
Shaw continued to perform with various incarnations of Wolf’s band, the Wolf Gang, for the rest of his life.
“Every show he did, he dedicated a song to Wolf,” said blues promoter Paul Benjamin. “He wore a Howlin’ Wolf pin on his saxophone strap.”
But Shaw also forged a musical identity and recording career of his own. He won attention with his first single, “Blues for the West Side,” in 1966. He was prominently featured on Alligator’s “Living Chicago Blues 1” anthology in 1978 and followed that with several albums of his own: “Movin’ and Groovin’ Man” (1982), “King of the Road” (1985) and “In the Land of the Crossroads” (1992). The titles referenced his status as a “road warrior,” constantly touring the country.
Shaw made an appearance in John Sayles’ 2007 film “Honeydripper” and was inducted into the Memphis-based Blues Hall of Fame in 2014.
Yet he grieved for the status of his beloved art form in the 21st century.
“The blues is descending rapidly — it’s coming down,” he said in the 2011 Tribune interview. “You haven’t got too many clubs with the blues. … You don’t find many black kids interested in the blues. They want hip-hop.
“I can’t blame them, because there aren’t many guys around teaching them what the blues is about.”
Shaw’s music will provide those lessons evermore.
Funeral services are being planned.