Furry Lewis, a Gentle Giant of Blues

New York Times
September 23, 1981

Walter (Furry) Lewis, the blues singer and guitarist who died last week in Memphis at the age of 88, got used to visits from rock stars during his later years. He treated them the way he treated everyone else-honestly and with an unpredictable but always telling wit.

Among the musicians who visited him were the Rolling Stones, who hired him to open a 1978 concert in a Memphis stadium for an audience of 50,000, and Joni Mitchell, the singer and songwriter.

When a well-meaning friend brought Miss Mitchell to Mr. Lewis's cramped apartment near Beale Street, he wagged a finger at her and said, "I don't like you." She used the line as a central motif in her song "Furry Sings the Blues."

Mr. Lewis also played a character in the Burt Reynolds movie "W. W. and the Dixie Dance Kings" and appeared as a guest on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show."

Asked if he was married, he replied, "What do I need with a wife as long as the other man's got one." That was in the mid-1970's, and Mr. Lewis was well into his seventh decade as a performer.

He began singing in the streets of Memphis for tips, and running off to travel as an entertainer with the medicine shows when he was in his teens, around 1906.

He played an important role in the flowering of Beale Street as one of the hottest spots in America for black blues and jazz. During the 1920's he made several disks that have been recognized as classics of black American folk music, including definitive renditions of the ballads "John Henry" and "Casey Jones."

From the beginning of the Depression until the early 60's, he supported himself mostly by working as a street cleaner. But when young white blues enthusiasts began seeking out the music's early masters, he was one of the first ones they found.

The Folkways label recorded him in 1959, after which he made a number of albums, folk-festival and club appearances and successful tours. But he still endured hard times, when the money to pay his rent had to be scraped together and his guitar went back to the pawnshop.

To those who saw him perform, nimbly running a length of steel pipe up and down the strings of his guitar and evoking moods that ranged from the gentlest romantic notions to feisty assertions of independence to outright bitterness, Mr. Lewis was unforgettable. He influenced scores of blues, folk and rock musicians, here and abroad. He will be missed.

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