Robert Shaw, blues pianist, was born on August 9, 1908, in Stafford, Texas, the son of Jesse and Hettie Shaw. His parents owned a 200-acre farm. The Shaws had a Steinway grand piano and provided music lessons for his sisters, but Shaw was not permitted to take piano lessons because his father was opposed to the idea. Years later he told an interviewer that he would "crawl under the house" to catch the musical strains coming from one of his sisters' piano lessons.
Shaw obeyed his father and worked alongside him in the family's cattle and hog business. He played piano when the rest of the family was away from home and practiced the songs he heard on errands into town. Reportedly, the first song he learned was "Aggravatin' Papa Don't You Try to Two-Time Me." By the time he was a teenager, Shaw would slip away to hear jazz musicians in Houston and at the roadhouses in the nearby countryside. As soon as he was able, he sought out a piano teacher to take lessons and paid for them from his own earnings. In time, despite his father's opposition, he decided to pursue his dream of becoming a jazz musician.
In addition to ragtime elements such as syncopation, the "barrelhouse" piano style that Shaw played employs a heavy, hard-hitting touch with fast release. The style was named for the barrelhouses, where it was performed-sheds with walls lined with beer and whiskey, an open floor, and a piano on a raised platform in a corner of the room. The back of the barrelhouse was also used as a bawdy house.
Shaw learned his distinct brand of piano playing from other musicians in the Fourth Ward, Houston, the center of black entertainment in the city. Clubs there hosted such important blues stylists as Sam (Lightnin') Hopkins. Famous dance bands of the era also appeared at the El Dorado and the Emancipation Park Dance Pavilion, two of the best dance halls in the Fourth Ward.
In the 1920s Shaw became part of an itinerant band loosely referred to as the "Santa Fe Circuit" because the musicians hopped aboard Santa Fe freight trains to do their tours. Shaw played as far north as Chicago, but he mostly confined himself to Texas. He appeared as a soloist in the clubs and roadhouses of such Southeast Texas towns as Sugar Land and Richmond, the South Texas town of Kingsville during the cotton harvest, and the big cities of Houston and Dallas. When the Kilgore oil boom occurred in 1930, Shaw went there to play, and in 1932 he headed to Kansas City, Kansas, to perform at the Black Orange Cafe. In 1933 he had a radio show in Oklahoma City before returning to Texas, first to Fort Worth and then to Austin, where he took up permanent residence and opened a barbecue business. He later owned and operated a grocery store called the Stop and Swat in the predominantly black east side.
Shaw met Martha Landrum in Austin in 1936, and they married on December 22, 1939. They had no children. He had previously been married to a woman named Blanche, with whom he had a daughter, Verna Mae, and a son, William. For several decades after his marriage, Shaw ran his business in partnership with Martha. He was named the black businessman of the year in Austin in 1962.
He also continued to play his music privately and for people who dropped by the Stop and Swat. In 1967, seven years before his retirement from the grocery business, he returned to public musical performance, this time with a younger generation of followers and growing fame. With the revival of his career, as one of the few remaining "virtuoso" barrelhouse blues pianists of his period, Shaw played often in Austin and at the Kerrville Folk Festival. Over the following years he also performed in Amsterdam, in Frankfurt, and at the Berlin Jazz Festival. In addition he played at the Smithsonian Institute's American Folk Life Festival, the World's Fair Expo in Canada, the Border Folk Festival in El Paso, and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Shaw also made at least one album, called Texas Barrelhouse Piano, recorded in Austin by Mack McCormick over a three-month period in 1963. It was originally released by McCormick's Almanac Book and Recording Company. Arhoolie Records, one of the country's best-known folk recording companies, later reissued the album. Shaw was also featured with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band during its appearance at the 1973 annual Austin Aqua Fest, and his fame spread widely enough in the next decade to earn him an invitation to participate in the Texas Commission on the Arts touring arts program between 1981 and 1983.
He was scheduled to take part in the Texas Music Tour in honor of the Texas Sesquicentennial in 1986, but died of a heart attack in Austin on May 16, 1985. After a funeral service at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Austin, he was buried at the Capital Memorial Gardens.
Some jazz critics have noted that Shaw's repertoire remained fresh throughout his career because he continued to practice his unique barrelhouse style during his thirty-year hiatus, unaffected by newer or more popular blues styles. Moreover, his commitment to his technique ensured that a unique black musical tradition remained intact. On May 27, 1985, two weeks after his death, the state Senate adopted a resolution to honor Shaw's many contributions to the state's musical heritage. In 2009 Shaw was inducted into the Austin Music Memorial.