Standing alongside Will Shade and Gus Cannon as a jug band mainstay of the 1920s and ’30s, “Laughing” Charlie Burse’s exuberant vocals and bright tenor guitar work was the life of the party on numerous records by the Memphis Jug Band and his own group, the Memphis Mudcats, yet he seems not nearly as well-remembered or biograhpied as many of his peers.
Charlie Burse was born in Decatur, Alabama, on August 25, 1901, son of Robert and Emma Burse. He learned to play the banjo and guitar in his youth, earning him the nickname “Uke Kid”, and he left his family home in Sheffield, Alabama, for Memphis in the 1920s. His musicianship on the four-string tenor guitar garnered the notice of Will Shade, who invited Burse to join his Memphis Jug Band in 1928 in replacement of guitarist Will Weldon. He made his debut recordings with the Memphis Jug Band on September 13, 1928, playing guitar and backing up Shade’s vocals on “A Black Woman is Like a Black Snake” and “On the Road Again”. Burse stayed with the band—playing tenor guitar or mandolin—for the remainder of their recording career, rising to become a top-billed vocalist by their last session in 1934 and subsequent breakup. He continued to play around Memphis with Shade, and several years later organized his own band—the Memphis Mudcats—updating the out-of-style jug band instrumentation to include reeds and dispense with the jug in favor of string bass. With the Mudcats, Burse recorded again, cutting twenty sides for Vocalion on a Memphis field trip in July of 1939. All the while, he maintained a day job as a laborer in a number of trades including painting and carpentering. He did not find his way behind a recording mike again until 1950, when he waxed “Shorty the Barber” for Sam Phillips in a style not too dissimilar from his earlier records, gaining the distinction of becoming one of the earliest to record at what would soon become Sun Studio. The folk revival in the 1950s brought new fame to Burse and Shade, who recorded for Sam Charters and Alan Lomax, and he appeared on television with Shade in 1958, performing the old Memphis Jug Band version of “Jim Jackson’s Kansas City Blues”. He continued his musical partnership with Will Shade until his death from heart disease on December 20, 1965.
Vocalion 05551 was recorded in two separate sessions in 1939, the first on July 8, and the second on July 15, both in Memphis, Tennessee. The Memphis Mudcats consist of Charlie Burse on tenor guitar and vocals and otherwise unknown musicians playing alto saxophone, piano, bass, and percussion. One of the members may be Robert Carter, who provided vocals on another of the group’s songs, and it would stand to reason that the percussionist could possibly be Charlie’s brother Robert Burse.
The Mudcats first play a slow, but far from down-in-the-dumps number: “Dawn of Day Blues”.
They up the tempo on the flip for the mildly hokumesque number “You Better Watch Out”, rather reminiscent of “Bottle it Up and Go”, which Burse recorded twice with the Memphis Jug Band in 1932 and ’34.