Shirley Ratisseau’s Last Blues

Pioneering Texan dies at 84

A snapshot of Shirley Ratisseau courtesy of Shirley Ratisseau. 
Date and place unknown.
A snapshot of Shirley Ratisseau courtesy of Shirley Ratisseau. Date and place unknown.

Shirley Ratisseau, 84, died Friday, April 12. With her passed a largely undocumented piece of Texas music history that began at her birth. She was inducted into the Austin Music Awards’ Hall of Fame in March.

“Shirley was the first white lady blues singer I knew – maybe the first in Austin,” local blues guitarist W.C. Clark affirmed of her veteran participation in Texas music scene for the Chronicle in 2011.

Indeed, the story on her was titled “The Girl Who Met Robert Johnson,” an almost fanciful-sounding tale that prompted Robert Johnson scholar and author Elijah Wald to post, “I believe it.”

She blazed trails by blurring the distinctions between black and white music communities, not just in Austin, but coast to coast. In her careers from singer and songwriter to journalist and author, 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 survived unbearable tragedy; nearly 200 died in the Galveston flood of 1903. At her birth, she was driven to the hospital by the man who would become seminal Texan guitar great T-Bone Walker. Her parents ran one of the few racially integrated fishing camps, near Rockport, a place where musicians like Walker and Johnson would relax and recoup and fish.

That’s where she and Johnson composed the little fishing ditty that may be his 32nd known song.

Shirley’s sage experience led her to a teenage guitarist named Stevie Vaughan, whom she recorded and mentored in the early Seventies. She was still a figure on the local scene when I was new to Austin in 1973, often glimpsed at the One Knite, Soap Creek Saloon, and sometimes the Armadillo, always keeping an eye on the blues. When Rolling Stone frothed about Austin’s country music scene in a May 1974 feature story, Shirley cracked her whip in a letter to the editor for ignoring the emerging blues underground:

“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 [as] 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.”

I regret I didn’t interview her as thoroughly as I would have liked. Any bio on her might have run into two volumes, so faceted was her life. At Christmas, she sent me some jewelry, costume pieces with fun earrings she’d designed. For the Home is Where the Music Is CD release party at Antone’s last Wednesday, I wore one of the pearl bracelets in her honor and wrote her an email. She died the following day.

Most of Shirley Ratisseau’s stories and secrets died with her, but the loss I most regret is that I never got her to sing the fishing song she wrote with Robert Johnson.

Only Shirley knew that tune.

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