Born: March 6, 1893 in Greenwood MS
Died: September 14, 1981 in Memphis TN
Bridging the gap between the early acoustic blues of the Mississippi Delta of the 1920s and the rediscovery of so-called "folk" or country blues by white audiences in the '60s, Furry Lewis was both a unique stylist and a throwback to the sound of an earlier era. Equally capable of playing guitar with an original fingerpicked style as well as delivering a mean slide-guitar sound, Lewis was a charismatic storyteller and a flamboyant showman that performed naturally with skill and humor.
Furry's Early Years
Born Walter Lewis in Greenwood, Mississippi in the Delta, the exact year of his birth remains in question, and Furry himself was known to purposely confuse the issue. His family moved to Memphis when Lewis was around seven years old, and he made the city his home until his death in 1981. He picked up his "Furry" nickname as a child. Lewis is said to have fashioned his first guitar from pieces that he found around the family home, and taught himself to play the instrument with an unusual fingerpicked technique.
Lewis left home as a teen, traveling with medicine and minstrel shows, where his natural storytelling ability and innate charisma allowed him to charm audiences. An accident with a train in 1917 cost Lewis his leg, and he would wear a peg leg for the rest of his life. Lewis came to the attention of Vocalion Records, which brought the country bluesman to Chicago in April 1927 to cut six sides with guitarist Landers Walton (ne Waller).
Furry would return to Chicago in October to record seven more songs unaccompanied. Among this baker's dozen were enduring country blues classics like "Rock Island Line," "Mr. Furry's Blues," and "Casey Jones Blues." None of the records sold particularly well at the time, and Furry would return home to Memphis. He would subsequently record a number of sides for RCA Victor in 1928, including "John Henry," "Kassie Jones," "Judge Harsh Blues," and "I Will Turn Your Money Green," all long-time staples of Furry's live performances.
The Folk Revival
When the Depression came along and performance opportunities for blues artists dried up, Lewis took a job with the Memphis Sanitation Department, sweeping up the refuse on Beale Street where he once performed. Although he would work for the city for over 30 years, Lewis continued to play on street corners and parks, sometimes accompanying friends like Memphis bluesmen Will Shade and Gus Cannon. Lewis also performed with the Memphis Jug Band at house parties.
When the late-1950s/early-60s "folk revival" occurred, Lewis was "rediscovered" by blues historian Sam Charters in 1959. With many of his contemporaries from the '20s having passed on, Lewis was quite a find for Charters. Furry possessed a wealth of knowledge of traditional songs and styles, coupled with a unique guitar style and no little amount of personality. Charters recorded Furry in Memphis for the Folkways label, releasing the self-titled Furry Lewis album in late 1959.
The George Mitchell Sessions
Lewis would become an in-demand performer at blues and folk festivals during the 1960s and '70s, and he recorded a number of albums of country blues for labels like Folkways, Prestige/Bluesville, and Fantasy throughout the decade. In 1962, noted producer and blues historian George Mitchell recorded Lewis in Memphis, the sessions later released on CD by the Mississippi label Fat Possum as Good Morning Judge.
Lewis performed at the Memphis Country Blues Festival in July 1968, appearing alongside artists like Bukka White and Joe Callicott. Lewis had songs appear on a number of popular country blues compilation albums at the time, and was featured in Sam Charter's documentary film The Blues along with Pink Anderson and Sleepy John Estes. In 1969, young Memphis producer Terry Manning recorded an ill Lewis at home, playing guitar while sitting in bed. The resulting album, alternately known as Beale Street Blues and Fourth And Beale, is considered one of Furry's best.
The Alabama State Troupers
During the 1970s, Lewis became the Memphis "ambassador of the blues," increasing his popularity (and that of the country blues) through recordings, performances, and a series of appearances in films like the Burt Reynolds box office hit W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings and on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Playboy magazine ran a feature on Lewis, Joni Mitchell wrote the song "Furry Sings The Blues" about him, and hippie novelist Richard Farina named his 1960s-era novel Been Down So Long, Looks Like Up To Me for a line in Furry's song "I Will Turn Your Money Green."
In 1971 Lewis toured as part of The Alabama State Troupers Road Show, headlining with Memphis songwriter Don Nix and singer Jeanie Greene. One entire side of the resulting two-disc live album featured Lewis classics like "Furry's Blues" and "A Chicken Ain't Nothin' But A Bird." Lewis would continue to work with Nix, making appearances on several of the artist's albums. In 1972, Lewis toured as part of the Memphis Blues Caravan with Bukka White and Sleepy John Estes, among others, and would later also open for the Rolling Stones.
Lewis died of pneumonia in 1981 but, benefiting from consistent reissues and re-packaging of his recordings, the music of Furry Lewis continues to reach generation after generation of blues fans.
Recommended Albums: Lewis albums and compilations go in and out of print with some regularity, but the cornerstones' of the artist's legacy are the recordings represented by Shout! Factory's The Very Best Of and Fat Possum's Good Morning Judge. The often repackaged Fourth And Beale is also a great choice if you can find a copy.
Furry Lewis - Select Discography
(Click on album titles to compare prices on Price Grabber)
- Furry Lewis (Folkways, 1959)
(Link to digital download page on Smithsonian Folkways)
- Back On My Feet Again (Prestige/Bluesville, 1961)
- Done Changed My Mind (Prestige/Bluesville, 1961)
- presenting the country blues (Blue Horizon, 1969)
- On The Road Again w/Bukka White & Gus Cannon (Adelphi, 1969)
- When I Lay My Burden Down - split w/Mississippi Fred McDowell (Biograph, 1970)
- Live At The Gaslight At The Au Go Go (Ampex, 1971)
- Beale Street Blues a/k/a Fourth And Beale (Barclay, 1971)
- At Home With Friends - split w/Bukka White (Arcola, 1972)
- The Alabama State Troupers Road Show w/Don Nix & Jeanie Greene (Elektra Records, 1972)
- The Fabulous Furry Lewis (Southland Records, 1973)
- In His Prime 1927-1929 (Yazoo Records, 1975)
- Furry Lewis 1927-1929: Complete Recorded Works (Document Records, 1991)
- Take Your Time w/Lee Baker (Genes, 1999)
- Blues Magician (Lucky Seven Records, 1999)
- Good Morning Judge (Fat Possum Records, 2003)
- The Very Best Of Furry Lewis (Shout! Factory Records, 2003)