Smokestack Lightnin' Home Page -- The Blues Profile Page
by Arne Brogger
Walter "Furry" Lewis was born in Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1893. He recorded his first side ever for Vocalion Records in Chicago in 1927. After some early success, he slid into obscurity and worked as a street sweeper for the Memphis Sanitation Department until he retired. Lewis was "rediscovered" in the early sixties through reissues of his original recordings and new studio sessions.
Furry and I met for the first time in 1972 when I flew him up to Minneapolis to appear at the University of Minnesota for a concert. We were close friends and associates until his death some ten years later. The following are a few of my recollections of the time we spent together.
Never A Repeat...One of the first things to strike me about Furry was the fact that he never did the same song the same way twice. In all the hundreds of Furry Lewis gigs I witnessed, never, ever, did I hear a repeat. His music was always timely and unique, reflecting how he felt or what he thought at a particular moment. Oftentimes, the changes he introduced in his repertoire were done to entertain and amuse himself. Furry was always his own best audience.
The First Time...I remember my first introduction to the blues as a 9-year-old boy listening to some old Stinson 78's in a collection titled "Negro Sinful Songs as sung by Huddie 'Leadbelly' Ledbetter." They belonged to the father of a classmate, and we almost wore them out listening to them. During recess, we would take turns reading Alan Lomax's book on Leadbelly aloud to each other.
When Furry stepped off the plane on May 3, 1972, I had never laid eyes on an authentic "country bluesman." Later that day, sitting in the living room of my house, he asked if I would like to hear a tune. As the house filled with the ringing of that open E tuned guitar and the slap of his slide on its neck, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. It activated something in the back of my head that I always knew was there but couldn't put a finger on. I was hooked.
The Caravan...When our initial visit of five days or so was over, Furry cried, I cried, my wife cried. I assured Furry that we had not seen the last of each other, and four months later I was in Memphis and began the process of meeting his contemporaries. These encounters, facilitated by Steve LaVere, a Memphis resident and musicologist, eventually resulted in the formation of the Memphis Blues Caravan, a touring entourage which included, at various times and in various combinations the likes of Bukka White, Sleepy John Estes & Hammy Nixon, Memphis Piano Red, Joe Willie Wilkins and the Bblues and Heritage Fest Boys with Houston Stackhouse, Sam Chatmon (the Mississippi Sheik), Memphis Ma Rainey, Big Sam Clark, Mose Vinson, and others. The acknowledged star of the show, however, was Furry Lewis.
Are They Standin' Up...?Furry began his career playing on the medicine show circuit selling Jack Rabbit Liniment from flatbed runways in small Southern towns. His job was to attract and entertain the crowd so that the more serious business of selling the goods could be done by the pitchman. The style which he evolved was one that did not depend on a mike to pick up the nuance of his music, but rather, one that played to the "back of the house" in a broad form, unaided by electronics. Later, after the medicine shows were history, he played for dances and picnics, where the production values were often confined to a raised stage of two feet or so.
The result was that Furry never learned how to use a microphone, and his performances relied on the physical. Dragging his left arm across the top few strings of his guitar and moving it up and down the neck while his right hand kept the beat, often resulted in live recordings of questionable quality, but they drove audiences to cheers. That was the effect he desired. Coming off stage, his vision limited by cataracts, he would ask, "Are they standin' up?" Nine times out of ten, they were.
There were other times when he forgot about the audience and played solely for himself. A live recording I have of one such show resulted in a version of "Brownsville Blues" which I think is the best recorded version of that song ever done. His voice is gentle and full of a rich vibrato, and his guitar playing is spare and haunting. A masterpiece.
The hallmark of any Furry Lewis performance was the emotionality he delivered on stage. It was not unusual for him to break down in tears when talking about his mother, and he was equally as likely to dissolve in laughter at one of his oft-told jokes or an incident which struck him as amusing. When he finished a set, a part of Furry the man, as well as Furry the performer, had been shared with his audience.
Furry Bought Me A Lunch...One afternoon, in the middle of a Memphis Blues Caravan tour, we stopped for lunch at a diner. It was always interesting to watch the local reaction to ten or twelve black blues musicians entering a small diner. This was no exception. Sitting at one table, Furry, me, Sleepy John and Hammy ate the daily special. At the end of the meal, the waitress presented the check.
Furry reached over and dropped a fifty dollar bill on top of it and announced "this one's on me." Everyone murmured their thanks. Furry collected his change and we all walked back to the tour bus. As usual, I was walking with Furry, holding his arm and giving him a running account of the terrain. As we walked, I told him I thought his generosity was very decent, but just because the bill happened to land in front of him, that I hoped he didn't feel it was his obligation. He stopped and looked at me. "Arne," he said. "The way figure it, maybe next time somebody will buy me a lunch."
Furry Lewis died in 1981.