Detroit music tastemaker Jim Shaw dies

December 3, 2010
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Jim Shaw died this morning. He was 54 and had fiercely, bravely, elegantly fought a nasty cancer of the liver for nearly two years. To the end, he was with family and friends in his Hamtramck home, where he wanted to be.

Jim was a humble giant on the Detroit music scene for a solid 30 years — maybe longer. I learned today from his wife, Sandra Kramer, that his deep excursions into sound began in the early 1970s, when he saw Sun Ra in Ann Arbor. That “Space is the Place” era — when interplanetary jazz and acid garage rock blues were setting all us kids free in Detroit — left an imprint on the teenage Shaw that he never lost.

He was not a frontman; Shaw found comfort working behind the curtain, where spotlights weren’t necessary, where the authentic, the real shit, the real magic gets done.

He had a knack for spotting talent. When no one thought anything was going on in the 1980s and early 1990s, Jim and his brother Steve Shaw begged to differ. That period of basement and garage incubation begat the Gories, Detroit Cobras, White Stripes, countless others — and brought worldwide attention to the “Detroit sound.” But these guys were living and breathing it long before, and after, British journalists declared we were the “next Seattle.”

Jim Shaw cared only about the music. The glamor and glory, not at all. He had remarkable taste. He knew what was good; and he called it out if it sucked. He listened with devotion. Back when we talked of such things, he could tell you whether the A side or B side of the Stones’ December’s Children was better; or spot the production flaws (or clarify the misunderstanding) in Bowie’s treatment of the Stooges’ Raw Power.

We crossed paths, without knowing it in the late ’70s, when we were drawn to the local scene at Bookie’s 870. It was here that east side, west side, Hamtramck and suburban punks came together. There seemed to be a lot of west siders, I recall, and Jim was one of them, though we didn’t actually meet until he co-founded a pioneering vintage clothing and accessories business called Cinderella’s Attic a few years later.

He and I talked recently about the same shows we attended, though independently: Captain Beefheart, the Jam, Talking Heads, Lou Reed — when Ian Dury and the Blockheads opened and were mercilessly abused by Reed fans — the Clash, PIL, the Dead Boys. Venues we haunted: the Motor City Roller Rink, Punch & Judy, the Second Chance. He was only slightly envious when I admitted I saw Aerosmith and Kiss in their first ever Detroit appearances, though I did get him pretty good when I said I saw the New York Dolls in ’74 at the Michigan Palace.

Jim will be missed by my mom, whose neighborhood beauty shop underwent an extraordinary conversion via his skillful hands in 2002 and became Kramer’s Barberella, a gorgeous business in the front of our house. His laughter, which filled the salon and warmed any room he entered, will be missed.

He will be missed by all whose lives he touched with his heart, his passion, his generosity. Detroit is a better place for his having lived in it, for shaping its music, for keeping it real. Thank you, brother Shaw, for showing us the way it’s done.

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  • Jason Schusterbauer

    This is sad news. RIP Jim.

  • christopher mcnamara

    Sad news indeed. I first met Jim at the Coronation Tavern in Windsor – when we were both younger and full of spark. His spark will live on in the lives he touched. RIP Jim.

    Chris McNamara

  • Tom Lynch

    I will always see Jim’s happy mug & hear his singular laugh for rest of my life. Thanks, Jim.

  • Ron Dagwell

    Record Jeff introduced me to him when he worked unofficially at Record Graveyard, and I used to marvel at his concert stories. His house was full of cool artifacts.

  • Paul Watt

    R.I.P. Jim ! A great guy from Warrendale ! He was always so happy go lucky guy !

  • Mary Patterson and family

    Love and all our support to Jim’s wonderful wife Sandy.

  • Keith Howarth

    Jim sure was an inspiration to all. Just on his exuberance & excitement Jim could pack a venue, for us to see a rising band. Jim always was on & he sure could pick Music & Fashion.

  • Mgross112511

    Jim was a sweet human being. I loved chewing the fat with him about old blues vinyl, he knew everything about it, and then some. He’ll be missed

  • Pollyffriend

    Jim and Sandy–the coolest and sweetest people I know. They even made pit bulls sweet.

  • Greasy Carlisi

    Jim was a Wonderful person who was always good for a laugh when I saw him. He was always looking for new local acts to support here in town. He lived life to the fullest from what I saw, and could kick some ass as I watched him pound on a local Famous drummer several years ago at Paychecks for hassling a female in this all girl band. I was out of the Country when he passed, and I just found out tonight. I feel cheated he was taken from us so young. His wife Sandy is one the greatest people also, and together they made such a perfect couple. My Love goes out to her and All of Jim’s Family. He will be sorely missed….Greasy Carlisi