Considered by many to be the personification of Memphis blues, Walter “Furry” Lewis was born in Greenville, Mississippi in 1893. His mother relocated Furry and his two sisters to the bustling metropolis of Memphis, where she could find work. The city’s cotton trading-based economy attracted many from the region’s rural communities.
In Memphis, the burgeoning sounds of black America – ragtime, blues, and jazz – collided with gospel and the work songs of former slaves, creating a soundtrack for life in the southern United States. Furry’s story was unfortunately similar to that of many poor, black youth of the day. In primary school, he chose to surrender his education to help his mother provide for the family. He worked around Memphis doing odd jobs and as a delivery boy.
Around 1907, Furry debuted on Beale Street, the black community’s marketplace, business hub, and social center in Memphis. Many artists passed through the clubs along the strip to find fame. Furry cut his teeth on these performances, along with shows at local fish fries, dances, and house parties. His innate storytelling ability and laid back simplicity spoke to every audience, charming both black and white audiences.
As a young man eager to see the world, Lewis joined Dr. Willie Lewis’ (no relation) Medicine Show as a comedian and sideman. During his time on the road, he encountered the playing of guitarists such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Memphis Minnie and built on his signature technique of playing the blues. Furry often played slide guitar, but it was his distinct finger-style picking that would be emulated by blues purists for decades to come.
The road was a dangerous place for a young black man, finding room and board along the way and living on less than $2 a show. This was a time when the subjugation of segregation limited dining and lodging options, and the law wasn’t a friend to the average black man, much less a black musician. In 1917, Furry jumped a train, a popular mode of travel for black musicians, and was swept under the powerful machinery. The experience landed him with a month in a hospital and a peg leg to enhance his blues mystique. After returning to Memphis, he could be found playing street corners or performing with friends Will Shade, Gus Cannon, and their Memphis Jug Band.
In 1927, Furry relocated to Chicago to record for the Vocalion label as part of their celebrated *Race* series that was directed towards African American consumers. In six months, he recorded 12 songs including “Rock Island Blues”, “Mr. Furry’s blues” and “Billy Lyons and Stack O’Lee”.
The following year in Memphis, he cut tracks for the Victor label with “Judge Harsh Blues”, “I Will Turn Your Money Green,” and the famous “Kassie Jones Part 1” and “Kassie Jones Part 2.” Subsequent live recordings at the Peabody hotel resulted in “John Henry (The Steel Driving Man)” and “Black Gypsy Blues.” All of these songs were staples of his live set until his death.
As blues gigs dried up with the great depression, Furry Lewis took a steady job as a street sweeper in Memphis in 1930. Irony saw him sweeping the very streets he helped make popular. He retained the job until his retirement.
Furry Lewis was one of the many artists rediscovered during the blues folk revival of the 1960s by noted music historians Sam and Ann Charters as they researched the history of the blues in 1959. The result was the 1959 Folkways album “Furry Lewis.” Furry was featured in Charters’ film, “The Blues.” Sam said that Furry’s finger picking style inspired the short film, which was recorded in 1961 and 1962. He explained that Furry’s finger movements prompted him to capture visual elements of the blues that couldn’t be grasped in just phonographic recordings.
The interest garnered from Charters’ work reignited Furry’s recording career. He logged a number of albums of country blues under the Folkways, Prestige, and Fantasy labels. Noted producer and blues historian George Mitchell recorded Lewis in Memphis in 1962 and later released the sessions as the CD “Good Morning Judge” on the North Mississippi label Fat Possum. In 1969, nascent Memphis producer Terry Manning captured Furry, sick and in bed, playing guitar for the critically acclaimed album “Fourth and Beale.”
Music journalist Stanley Booth gave fans a snapshot of Furry Lewis’ life when he penned the story “Furry’s Blues” for Playboy magazine in 1970. Once again living in obscurity in a boarding house, Furry witnessed the next round of interest in his music.
His endearing personality was a magnet for the media. He appeared on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” and in Burt Reynolds’ box office sizzler “W.W. and The Dixie Dance Queens.” A popular hippie counterculture novelist Richard Farina even named his 1996 book “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me” after Furry’s lyrics. Furry wooed audiences with funny anecdotes and poignant takes on life as a bluesman before launching into his timeless music.
Furry was able to hit the road again, playing blues and folk festivals. He appeared on a highly regarded package tour called “Memphis Blues Caravan” in 1972 that included contemporaries Bukka White and Sleepy John Estes. He performed as a headliner with the cross-genre rock ensemble The Alabama State Troopers and opened for an array of rockers from Leon Russell to The Rolling Stones.
In 1973, Furry was named Honorary Colonel of the State of Tennessee (these state distinctions are the American equivalent of being knighted). He was the first African American to be bestowed with the honor in the Volunteer State.
Furry Lewis passed away in 1981 from pneumonia. He had lost his eyesight to cataracts long before. He is buried in Hollywood cemetery. As a testament to his iconic stature, he has two headstones. The much larger one, which was purchased by his fans, simply reads...