Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Shakey Jake dies

For those of you who lived in Ann Arbor, you probably saw Shakey Jake at some point. He was the old man with the (usually) white suit and sun hat usually seen around the Main Street area strumming on that ubiquitous (although not always completely stringed) guitar or sitting at Afternoon Delight talking to the patrons. I suppose that even for town icons, there has to be an end to the run, and that came on September 17, 2007, when Shakey Jake died.

From the Ann Arbor News:

Shakey Jake Woods was a star in Ann Arbor, almost from the time he arrived here 34 years ago.

Wearing his trademark three-piece suit, hat and dark sunglasses, the man known simply as "Shakey Jake" could be seen playing his guitar on the street downtown for as long as many can remember. And when he stopped inside local stores or restaurants for breakfast or lunch, it was if a movie-star had walked in.


Woods, perhaps the city's most recognizable resident, died Sunday evening, said Felicia Epps, a property manager for the Ann Arbor Housing Commission. He was 82 years old, according to a friend and the date of birth he gave police in 2001 after he reported being punched in the stomach.

Though he played his guitar with vigor, it was often out of tune. Sometimes it had only one or two strings.

But he had a larger-than-life persona.


"He was so harmless," said Chera Tramontin, whose mother, Karen Piehutkoski, opened Kilwin's Chocolate Shoppe in 1983 on Liberty Street. Woods was one of the first to visit the new shop.

"It wasn't that he wanted the handout," said Tramontin. "He wanted to go out and work, and he thought he was working. He was out playing his music."

Woods was raised with 13 younger siblings on a farm in Little Rock, Ark. The family eventually moved to Saginaw, but Woods never went to school.

Music brought Shakey Jake to Ann Arbor from Saginaw in the early 1970s.


Reif [an accounts payable clerk at the University of Michigan who booked blues artists for shows over the years] invited Woods to play at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1973. He only played for five minutes, but he made an impression. After the show, Reif said, women and girls headed backstage to fawn over Woods, thinking he was a blues star.

"I ain't never going back to Saginaw," Reif recalled Woods saying.

And he never did. Instead, he became a street legend in Ann Arbor, Reif said.

Many mornings, Woods arrived at Afternoon Delight before the Liberty Street restaurant opened for the day. He ate breakfast for free - oatmeal and wheat toast.


At Kilwin's, an autographed poster of a much younger Woods hangs on the wall. He often stopped there to collect a bucket for busking, and when he returned it later each day, he was treated to a cup of ice cream. Employees then called a cab for him to get home; a notecard providing instructions to new employees is taped up near the phone.

"The whole town cared for him," said Carol Lopez, owner of The Peaceable Kingdom on Main Street, who managed Woods' finances and paid his bills, among other tasks.

Even though I never knew him - having been busily crossing Main St to get to campus or home, I did see him several times, either happily strumming his guitar, or chatting with passers-by. He will be missed, I am sure.

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