The 1937 Flood Watch
The 1937 Flood Watch Podcast
"Gotta Shave 'Em Dry"

"Gotta Shave 'Em Dry"

#328 / March 22 Podcast

We know precious little about pioneer bluesman James “Boodle It” Wiggins. We don’t know when or where he was born, or even precisely when in the 1930s that he died. No pictures of him are known to exist.

Some folks say he was “discovered” in Dallas by R. L. Ashford, a scout for Paramount Records. Fellow blues artist Big Bill Broonzy always said his friend Wiggins came from Louisiana.

We do know that Wiggins ended up in Chicago, where he recorded for Paramount between 1928 and 1929, including some pretty influential tracks. A whole new generation of music fans would hear Wiggins songs, albeit usually from somebody else’s lips.

For instance, if you like Little Richard’s 1957 recording of "Keep A-Knockin'“ (and who the hell doesn’t?!), give props to Wiggins, because he recorded that song five years before Little Richard was even born.

And about that nickname, "Boodle It" appears to come from the singer’s association with a style of dance (though a coy Wikipedia entry adds, “there was also an assumed sexual connotation.” Oh? You think?)

Anyway, if you also love all those rockin’ rendition of “Corrina, Corrina” that we talked about in an earlier article, thank Wiggins. He recorded that tune too. His 1929 pressing featured a powerful boogie-woogie piano accompaniment (though precisely who was pounding those keys is disputed. It was probably Bob Call, who later accompanied Broonzy and others).

That Other Song

Boodle It’s last session was in Grafton, WI, in October 1929, the fateful month when the stock market crash was fixing to sink so many recording companies. The session produced “Corrina, Corrina,” and one other song, which would be the flip side when Paramount released the disc the following spring.

Now, anyone who studies the blues and other music of the night knows that in some of its incarnations over the years, “Shave ‘Em Dry” is a pretty risqué number.

The phrase shave ‘em dry can be interpreted, as Wikipedia notes, as referring to “any aggressive action, alternatively (as here) as meaning sexual intercourse without any preliminary 'love-making’.”

Broonzy believed that. He once explained to an interviewer, “‘Shave 'em dry’ is what you call makin' it with a woman; you ain't doin' nothin', just makin' it."

However, the first recordings of the song — Ma Rainey’s original in 1924, Papa Charlie Jackson’s take on it the following year, Wiggins’ in 1929 — made no specific reference to the phrase’s meaning or content.

Getting Down and Dirty

It was not until 1935, in fact, that “Shave ‘Em Dry” turned X-rated. That is when blues singer Lucille Bogan — one of the “big three of blues,” along with Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith — took the tune on a wild ride.

Her original recording of it (with Walter Roland on piano and Josh White on guitar) was a cleaned-up version, but a more explicit alternative cut was issued 40 years after Bogan’s death, on a compilation album called Raunchy Business: Hot Nuts & Lollypops (1991).

That unexpurgated version “has explicit sexual references, a unique record of the lyrics sung in after-hours adult clubs,” Wikipedia observes. It may have been recorded either for the amusement of the recording engineers or for clandestine distribution as a “party record.”

“Bogan seems to be unfamiliar with the lyrics,” the encyclopedia says, “reading them as she sings them, potentially surprised by them herself.”

Ever since then, most mentions of “Shave ‘Em Dry” have made winking references to the raunchier Bogan version, rather than its PG- and R-rated predecessors.

Interestingly, a year after Bogan’s recording, Lil Johnson recorded "New Shave 'Em Dry,” in which “her lightness in voice and melodic sympathy did not disguise the relation to (the) Wiggins-styled tune,” Wikipedia comments.

Our Take on the Tune

Our own love for Wiggins’ version dates back to the 1990s. That is when the late Joe Dobbs gave Charlie Bowen a set of cassette tapes with a whole slew of roots music, including lots of country and urban blues recordings from the 1920s and ’30s.

Standing out in the bunch was Wiggins’ “Gotta Shave ‘Em Dry,” which has rattled around Bowen’s brain for, oh, a quarter of a century or so. But only recently did he work up an arrangement for the band.

We guess he was just waiting for the recent arrival of that raucous new resonator guitar.

More Song Histories?

By the way, if you enjoy these backgrounders on the songs we sing and want more, there’s a whole mess of ‘em in “Song Stories” archives. Click here to go browsing.

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The 1937 Flood Watch
The 1937 Flood Watch Podcast
Each week The 1937 Flood, West Virginia's most eclectic string band, offers a free tune from a recent rehearsal, show or jam session. Music styles range from blues and jazz to folk, hokum, ballad and old-time. All the podcasts, dating back to 2008, are archived on our website; you and use the archive for free at: