Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Squabbles...

Like any extended family, not everyone got along. The major friction in the group lay between Furry Lewis and Bukka White. These two had known each other for years and lived just a few blocks apart. Their paths had crossed professionally and socially countless times and they had been booked on selected dates together before the Caravan was organized.

After one of these dates, the two were at an airline ticket counter somewhere in Colorado preparing to fly home to Memphis. Furry recounted the following story to me. Furry kept his wallet in his hip pocket, wrapped in a thick rubber band. Evidently he had to open it at the counter for some reason. After his business was transacted, he left. Bukka was in back of him, next in line. A few feet from the counter, Furry realized that he had left the wallet and returned for it. According to Furry, when he got his wallet back there was $100 missing.

Ever since that day, Furry had 'a problem' with Bukka. Whether there was any truth to the story, I find hard to believe. Bukka may have been many things, but he was not a thief. Cataracts had laid claim to Furry's eyesight and a mis-count was entirely possible. The true source of the problem lay more in the realm of professional jealousy and Furry's covetousness of the spot light than any overt larceny.

One afternoon on the bus the rancor came to a head. Furry was sitting about two seats in front of Bukka. Evidently, there were some words exchanged between the tow of them. All of a sudden I heard someone shout my name. “You better get back here quick!”

I turned and headed up the aisle. There was Furry, standing by his seat with his back to me. His broad-brimmed fedora was on his heard and his cane in his left hand. In his right hand was a knife. I rushed up to him and asked what the hell was going on. Furry turned to me and said, “I ain't gonna say a word to that motherfucker, I'm just gonna cut his goddam head off!”

Bukka was smiling. “You just a silly old man” he said to Furry. I took Furry by the shoulder and asked him to sit down. He did so immediately. “Nobody gonna talk to me like that sombitch does” he said. I asked him to pocket the knife. He did so, slowly. Silence. Finally, Hammy Nixon, sitting across the aisle broke the ice. “No place here for that kinda shit. 'Sides, I hear Bukka be jealous of you cause you so good lookin'” everyone laughed. Including Furry. Bukka stared out the window.


Later, I would talk to Bukka to find out what was going on. He said he had told Furry that he thought it wasn't such a good idea that he (Furry) bother other performers while they were on stage. Furry had a bad habit of suddenly appearing from the wings sometimes during someone else's performance. He would wave his hat in the air and do a little dance. Audiences generally went nuts. That was all Furry needed. Any encouragement from an audience would cause him to run a routine into the ground.

I and others had discussions with him about this in the past. He always countered that he was “just trying to help the show.” Try as we might to explain the situation to him, he was like a bottle rocket backstage. Unpredictable. But fortunately not very fast. Eventually, someone from Joe Willie's band was assigned “Furry duty” during the show so that incidents could be kept to a minimum.

By far the most frequent victim of Furry's attention-grabbing was Memphis Ma Rainey (Lily Mae Glover). Ma's performance was theatrical and florid and always got a great response. Furry, however, had no respect for her, either as a person or as a performer. “She just an ol' barrelhouse woman. Never cut no records. Made more money on her back than standing on a stage...” After a show one night when Furry had (again) interrupted her performance with his 'hat dance' she let him have it. Back in the dressing room, she threatened to “knock you on your goddam ass if you ever try that again!” And she was more than capable of following through. In her younger days, both before and after traveling with the original Ma Rainey, she would occasionally supplement her income rolling drunks on Beale Street. A sweet person at heart – but more about her in a later post.

The squabbles. Rock stars or country Blues performers, everyone had an ego. It came with the territory.

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