Walter “Furry Lewis” was born sometime in the 1890s in Greenwood, Mississippi, and moved to Memphis when he was a child. Circa 1908 he began playing music professionally throughout the South, touring with the likes of W.C. Handy’s band and interacting with contemporaries like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Bessie Smith. He legendarily lost his leg while trying to hop a freight train; after that he had to settle down some. In 1922 he took a permanent job as a street sweeper in Memphis, a position he held for 44 years, while continuing to perform and record within the city limits. He made his first recordings with labels like Vocalion and Victor starting in the late 1920s. His style of playing involved both fingerpicking and bottleneck slide, and sometimes incorporated non-blues classics like “Casey Jones”, “John Henry” and “Stack-O-Lee”.
Lewis’s professional Renaissance began with the folk and blues revival of the late ’50s and ’60s. He released the albums Furry Lewis (1959), Back on My Feet Again (1961), Done Changed My Mind (1962), Fourth and Beale (1969) and Live at the Gaslight au-Go-Go (1971). Home recordings he made with Bukka White in 1968 were later released in 2001 as Furry Lewis, Bukka White & Friends, Party! at Home”, by Arcola Records.
In 1962 he appeared in Sam Charters documentary The Blues. He was in the 1970 tv special Leon Russell – Homewood Session. In 1972 he returned to touring with the Memphis Blues Caravan, which also featured Bukka White, Sleepy John Estes, and others. He also opened for the Rolling Stones a few times, appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and played himself as “Uncle Furry” in the Burt Reynolds’ comedy W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings (1975). In 1976, Joni Mitchell made a pilgrimage to Lewis’s Memphis apartment, and wrote the tune “Furry Sings the Blues” on her Hajira album.
Archival footage of Lewis was used in the documentaries All You Need is Love (1977), This is Elvis (1981), and Stranded in Canton (2005). Furry Lewis passed away in 1981.
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