1999 – Lillian McMurry, co-founder and owner of Trumpet Records dies of a heart attack in Jackson, Miss. She is 78. Her label was the first to record slide guitarist Elmore James and harmonica ace Sonny Boy Williamson; Big Joe Williams, Little Milton, and B.B. King also appeared on the label.
Lillian Shedd McMurry, the founder and owner of the legendary Trumpet Records label and the Globe Music Corporation, died in Jackson, Mississippi, after suffering a heart attack, on March 18, 1999. She was 78.
McMurry’s Jackson-based label, which released blues, spirituals, country, pop, and rockabilly records, was one of the first independent labels in the South. But it was blues that Trumpet became best known for in the early 1950s. Commercially, the label didn’t rival Chess, RPM, King, Imperial, or Specialty, but Trumpet’s recordings were innovative and the label introduced several important artists to the public. Under McMurry’s supervision, Trumpet recorded Sonny Boy Williamson [Rice Miller], Elmore James, Tiny Kennedy, Big Joe Williams, Willie Love, Percy and Luther Huff, and Jerry McCain.
McMurry became involved in the record business by chance. In the late 1940s she was working as a bookkeeper in her husband’s furniture shop. Willard McMurry bought a hardware store on North Farish Street in the black part of Jackson and sent his wife there to supervise the liquidation of the remaining inventory. The shop still had some “race records,” which she enjoyed listening to and which sold very quickly. McMurry found out that such records were supplied by distributors in New Orleans and were not easy to obtain in Jackson. She visited these distributors on a trip to New Orleans and returned with a trunk full of blues and spiritual 78s. Those records also sold quickly, and before long McMurry was phoning in record orders to New Orleans and Memphis.
The McMurrys kept the North Farish location open as a combination record shop and furniture store called Record Mart-Furniture Bargains. The store attracted a lot of walk-in traffic and it also became a busy mail-order outlet through advertisements over radio station WRBC. “We had listening booths in the shop with the record player on the counter,” said McMurry in a 1984 interview. “Groups of black men would crowd into the booths and I found out they were singing spirituals along with the records. Some of them were really good. By the middle of 1950 I started thinking, ‘Why can’t I make a record?’ Gads, I didn’t know what I was getting into.”
Trumpet’s initial releases by the Andrews Gospelaires and the Southern Sons were recorded at WRBC and aimed at the spiritual market. However, McMurry wanted to record blues and auditioned Joe Hill Louis, Bo Carter, and Tommy Johnson‹but she didn’t think they were good enough to record. She had heard about an entertaining harmonica player in the Delta and went looking for him to see if he was worth recording. In December of 1950 McMurry found Sonny Boy Williamson in a Belzoni juke joint and signed him to a Trumpet Records contract. Sonny Boy would be the label’s key artist over the next five years.
“Sometimes Sonny Boy would be in the studio until two a.m., until he recorded a song right,” said McMurry. “If he said, ‘Let’s get out of here,’ or made a few boo boos while recording, that was all right as long as the feeling was in it. That’s what sold records…. I had an advantage over some producers being so close to the record shop and hearing what sold. Back then if you had the No. 1 Billboard hit, you¹d be lucky to sell 50,000. We never did that but we did well with Sonny Boy’s Nine Below Zero, Mighty Long Time, Cat Hop, and Too Close Blues.”
Sonny Boy also served as a talent scout and was responsible for bringing Elmore James to the label. James’s lone Trumpet release and recording debut, Dust My Broom, would be the label’s only R&B chart entry. Sonny Boy also recruited pianist Willie Love, whose Nelson Street Blues was a best seller in the Delta. Other artists gravitated to Jackson once they heard there was a lady there who made blues records. McMurry went as far as building a studio in the back of the record shop, in which many of the sessions were conducted.
Unfortunately, poor sales and escalating debts forced McMurry to shut Trumpet down in 1955. She sold Sonny Boy Williamson’s contract to her pressing plant and worked for several years to pay off bills the label had incurred. During the 1960s and ’70s, she worked with her husband at their store on Gallatin Street. For years she sold Trumpet 45s and 78s to visiting blues collectors for a dollar each. In 1974 she liquidated the remaining stock at a nickel a disc to a New England collector.
In the early 1980s, McMurry used reissue royalties to purchase an impressive granite marker that was placed over Williamson’s previously unmarked grave in Tutwiler, Mississippi. In 1985, she donated her written records, files, and remaining masters and rights to the University of Mississippi Music Library’s Blues Archive. McMurry is survived by a daughter, Vitrice (Willard McMurry died in 1996). She is buried at Lakewood Cemetery in Jackson.
JEFF HANNUSCH – OleMiss