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The Girl Who Met Robert Johnson

Shirley Ratisseau, living history

By Margaret Moser, Fri., Aug. 3, 2012

Shirley Ratisseau ignored the social mores of the day and crossed racial boundaries to sing the blues in a life that seemed fated for it.
Shirley Ratisseau ignored the social mores of the day and crossed racial boundaries to sing the blues in a life that seemed fated for it.

Memory and history. Both have a way of being skewed by, and into, context, especially when delivered orally. Oral history has been overwhelmed by Internet history, and it's easy to get lost in cyberspace.

Ask Shirley Ratisseau, 82, in failing health with heart problems, living in California, and wanting to move home to Texas.

"Texas doesn't want me!" she cries.

It probably feels true to Shirley, but it's not. Shirley Ratisseau is more than living Texas music history with eye-popping stories to tell. She blazed trails by blurring the distinctions between black and white music communities, and not just in Austin, but everywhere she lived.

"Shirley was the first white lady blues singer I knew, maybe the first in Austin," recalls local blues great W.C. Clark, powerful affirmation of Ratisseau's almost unbelievable life.

She crossed paths with Duke Ellington, the Rolling Stones, T-Bone Walker, Mance Lipscomb, Billy Eckstine, Albert Collins, Count Basie, and countless blues and jazz legends. Her family was built out of tragedy and flouted racial mores of the day on the South Texas coast. Her sage experience in the early Seventies led her to a teenage guitarist named Stevie Vaughan, whom she recorded and mentored.

Even so, her name has slipped through time's back pages.

"If Shirley says so, it's true," states W.C. Clark unequivocally.

That the venerated guitarist adds no questionable ifs, expository ands, or qualifying buts to his statement echoes corroborations by Austin author Joe Nick Patoski (Willie Nelson: An Epic Life), Texas Music Office director Casey Monahan, and numerous blues musicians. That's important because memory can be tricky, and among the buried treasures of Shirley Ratisseau resides a bit of history to send music scholars scrambling to their computers.

When she was a little girl, Shirley Ratisseau met Robert Johnson.

Kind Hearted Woman Blues

Mississippi-born Robert Johnson (1911-1938) remains a touchstone for the blues, a call to arms for Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones, among many other British Invasion acts who discovered his handful of recordings through Columbia Records' landmark collections. Only two known photos of the guitarist exist to illustrate a grand total of 29 songs.

On the way to Shirley's tale of a 30th song, understand what it meant to be a Ratisseau. Look no further than the Galves­ton hurricane of 1900, a natural disaster that wiped out one-fifth of the island's population overnight. The Ratisseaus lost more family members than any other; according to lore, more than 200 in all. George Ratisseau – Shirley's father, age 12 at the time – survived only because he'd ventured downtown with the laundry and was stranded there when a wall of water and wailing winds wiped out most of his family.

Ratisseau resilience extended also to mother Thelma. When Shirley's arrival into the world appeared imminent, her grandmother and aunt couldn't get Thelma to the hospital until a young black man in a truck offered to transport the three white women. They arrived in the nick of time – Shirley was born on the lobby floor to an audience – but in their haste, they left their purses and suitcases in the truck.

"Shirley, you were born to great applause," recalled the driver years later.

Aaron Walker had waited through the birth to return the women's belongings. As T-Bone Walker, he went on to electrify the blues on six strings, primarily playing Texas and the Gulf Coast. The bars and clubs around Hous­ton in the early Thirties were linchpins in the development of blues, and George Ratisseau owned two, the Barn and the Cave.

"Many of the young guys who worked there became well-known musicians," writes Shirley in an email. "My dad said he spent many times getting Lightnin' Hopkins' guitar out of hock so he could keep the boy's mind on washing dishes or whatever his job was."

When Shirley was 5, the Ratisseaus weathered the Depression summer in a tent near Rockport, Texas. They owned the Jolly Roger Hunting and Fishing Club. Nothing out of the ordinary, but it was known as a place where blacks could frequent and vacation. Musicians, too, since Rockport was a Gulf Coast town accessible from both Houston and San Antonio.

"I thought he was just a boy, so I took him fishing on the pier," recalls Shirley more than 75 years later. "Johnson and I wrote a song about it. The words only exist because my mother wrote them down. She said later, 'That boy insisted I write down the words! Who was that boy? He was so ill.' And my mother never did realize who he was, but she wouldn't have known B flat from C sharp, either.

"In my memory, it was fall; my mother was getting Thanksgiving together. He sat at the table, but was so sick he nearly fainted. He jumped up and ran to the door. He'd never sat at the table with a white family. My mother said, 'I've got to feed you, you're very sick. And I'm going to put you to bed.'"

The life of Robert Johnson is among the most mythologized in all of music. From his largely undocumented 27 years springs rock & roll's infamous supposition of selling one's soul to the devil for musical stardom. What is known is that during that same year Ratisseau cites, 1936 – in Novem­ber – Johnson made his best-known recordings in San Antonio at the Gunter Hotel. The following June in Dallas, he completed a second batch. Also cataloged from this period is that Johnson was arrested in San Antonio for vagrancy and beaten. Don Law, who produced the Gunter Hotel sessions, sprang him from jail and rented a room in a boarding house for him while the songs were recorded.

What did Robert Johnson do between November 1936 and June 1937?

Shirley's account of meeting a young musician her family described as "ill," "sickly" – one in a state of physical disrepair as though he'd been roughed up – is beyond tantalizing. Given the Ratisseaus' reputation for tolerance and welcome at the Jolly Roger camp, it's entirely possible Johnson got advice that a few hours south of San Antonio on the coast, he could rest and recuperate. And fish.

During the Depression, fishing was eating. To eat was to live.

I Say Me for a Parable

Born to applause, life and music are synonymous to Shirley Ratis­seau. In fact, T-Bone Walker brought her onstage in Houston when she was 11. She met guitar great Albert Collins at "about 12, 13, or 14, when we would run down the block on West Gray Street to the Bar-B-Que Stand and play and sing for nickels, dimes, and quarters." His was another enduring friendship. In Austin at Antone's, "The Ice Man" would often mutter, "Where Shirley?" into the microphone.

In one Gulf Coast band, she subbed for a girl singer who'd left to try her hand at singing in Hollywood Westerns (and had some luck after changing her name to Dale Evans). Singing made it into Ratisseau's formal education as well; she was inducted into the national honorary band sorority Tau Beta Sigma at Texas Tech University in 1947. At college, she married saxophonist Mickie Sweeney, which opened a new chapter for the young singer.

That's where Shirley Denise Ratisseau starts slipping between the cracks, actually. On the East Coast in the late Forties, her last name was Sweeney. When she married a second time the following decade, she used her married name, Dim­mick, professionally and in bylines is often quoted as such. Googling any of her names offers little return, but what does appear is enticing.

For this show, Mance Lipscomb crashed on Shirley's couch.
For this show, Mance Lipscomb crashed on Shirley's couch.

Detailing Navasota bluesman Mance Lipscomb's autobiography I Say Me for a Parable, author/compiler Glen Alyn documented the friendship between Shirley Dimmick and Lipscomb.

"In 1951, Shirley was in New York, talking to one of the members of Count Basie's orchestra. After learning she'd spent time in Texas, he told her if she really wanted to hear what the blues was all about, go listen to a guy named Mance Lipscomb. She could find him in Navasota. She surely did. On several occasions, all before Mance packed up and moved to Houston."

More than two decades later, booked for Armadillo gigs with Freddie King in 1975, Mance Lipscomb slept on the couch at Shirley's house.

"Even then, it wasn't accepted for a black man to stay over at a white woman's house," sighs Shirley on the telephone.

Can I Get a Witness

In 1954, Shirley and her family moved to Austin, where she worked with future States­man music columnist Townsend Miller at Texas Game & Fish magazine as one of the first female editors. She dabbled in politics, typed and edited for Fred Gipson as he wrote his Old Yeller sequel, and became a toast of the politico-literary set onstage and off.

"I remember [writer] J. Frank Dobie and those men – all out at Barton Springs swimming or sunning – and Mr. Dobie voicing the opinion that one of them should go tell the mayor that I was also the champion caller of ducks and geese in Travis County and if angered, I might decoy said birds to land on City Hall!"

Her second wedding was branded by scandal in Austin because her black friend, W.C. Clark's sister Lois, attended. Her running buddy on the circuit, Cactus Pryor, reported that the mayor shouted, "Shirley did what!? It's already a scandal! She sings at clubs on 12th Street now!"

Shirley sang anywhere she could: 12th Street, Congress Avenue hotels, supper clubs, and nightspots, alongside such players of the day as the Patterson brothers.

"I could sing. I could hit the highs and the notes, but I was no Doris Day."

Still, the invitations to sit in – with Stan Kenton and Billy Eckstine and Count Basie – came at a steady clip. Near the mid-Sixties, Shirley was also writing for The San Antonio Express and Evening News, penning an account of the Galveston flood when Hurri­cane Hilda hit the Texas coast in 1964. That year, Shirley's press pass landed her backstage at Teen Fair, starring England's newest hitmakers.

"I 'watched over' [the Rolling Stones] in the way I told them if a wild horse or cow or bull ran their way to back up quick. I explained who the famous western star was [George Jones], etc., etc. And they would look at me with wide eyes. One of them, and to this day I wish I knew which one he was because he kept looking at me quizzically, finally said, 'Your name, Shirley ... were you ever a singer?'

"I just answered yes, and went to do other business. They were clean-cut and so polite – one of them flirted with me – and were scared of the cattle."

I Say Me for a Parable sets the mind reeling once again:

"In the early Sixties, [Shirley] gave a longhaired white girl voice and blues lessons in Austin, and likely got her together with Mance Lipscomb. Her name was Janis Joplin."

Caught in the Crossfire

One matter Shirley would like to clear up is her role in Stevie Ray Vaughan's career. When the guitarist arrived here from Dallas in 1972, he was simply Little Stevie. Bill Crawford and Joe Nick Patoski's Caught in the Crossfire remains the definitive SRV biography, and in it, Shirley receives important credit.

"Stevie was under contract with ZZ Top's management," she recalled over the phone, "who refused to let Stevie play because he would have taken away the thunder of ZZ Top. I wanted to spring Stevie from ZZ Top's management. My friend the late attorney Gray Byron Jolink said, 'What do you want us to do?' And I said to [Blue Norther partner] David Harte, 'I want to buy Stevie out of ZZ Top.' It cost us a lot of money and my company Blue Norther went down after that."

"'I will always know what you did for me, Shirley,' swore Stevie. 'I don't understand it, but I'm free to play.'

"The world needed to hear him play. I really believe that.

"He was just a boy when he would ask questions, 17 or 18," Shirley's voice quavers over the phone. "He called me every Christmas Eve until he died."

She also put the world on notice that Austin was a burgeoning blues haven. In April 1974, Rolling Stone predictably gushed over cosmic cowboys in a piece that prompted Shirley to fire back a letter to the magazine, May 9, 1974:

In Defense of Austin Blues

Chet Flippo's "Austin: The Hucksters Are Coming" failed to mention that Austin boasts the finest blues and R&B guitarists anywhere – Jimmie and Stevie Vaughan, Mark Pollock, Denny Freeman, W.C. Clark, and Matthew Robinson have such talent it is beyond words. It may be that if, as your article phrases it, Austin's "claim to national prominence has come. ... to be a center of a musical movement usually referred to as 'progressive country,'" [then maybe] we need some high-grade hucksters who can see the entire picture here. It is true that progressive country is on records, and most of the bluesmen are so broke that a pickpocket going through their pockets would get nothing but practice.

So please don't ignore the other half of Austin's music! Makes us feel as unwanted as those for whom Bert Williams sang, "Come After Breakfast, Bring Along Lunch, And Leave Before Suppertime."

Shirley R. Dimmick

Austin, Texas

Shirley Ratisseau left Austin for California around 1979, a few years before Stevie's career broke. She'd done her part and there wasn't any need to look back with regret.

"Tell me, am I as good as Jimmie?" asked Stevie earnestly one day early on.

Robert Johnson
Robert Johnson

"No," she told him. "You can't chord right. Yet."

"He looked me full in the face and he said, 'You're never going to lie to me, are you?'"

"I won't, Stevie," Shirley Ratisseau assured him. "Am I supposed to?"

"No," said the future guitar hero shaking his head. "I think I would like to know one musician in the world that won't."

Fishin'

Written in 1936 and transcribed by Thelma Ratisseau at the request of Robert Johnson

Fishin'

We're goin' fishin'

Way out on the pier

We're goin' fishin', fishin' fishin'

Gonna fish right here!

Going bait-catching first

'Ta see what we get

With a swing-net – throw-net

(Say CAST-Net!) (Shirley)

(What'll we get!?) (Robert)

Jes' a little old fish (Robert)

Shiny, silver fishie (Shirley)

SPOKEN:

Ah, small fish

SUNG:

Are you blue like me?

Are you blue as can be?

If you need a friend, I will be one (Robert)

If you need another friend, it's me! (Shirley)

All together ... we are three!

Shirley, Robert, and the little fishie

SPOKEN (by Robert):

Friends as long as I live

An' I remember these days

Permission granted by Shirley Ratisseau to Margaret Moser for reprinting “Fishing” lyrics.

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