Friday, November 13, 2009

Drop Like A Stone...

As the Caravan became better known, we would sometimes be offered dates which didn't route into our schedule but which were too good (i.e. a big slug of dough) to turn down. When this occurred., the dates had to flown. The dreaded trip on the “goddam airplane.”

None of the Caravan members were comfortable with air travel. It went against the laws of nature and common sense and, as was pointed out to me more than once, “...if the thing breaks down, it's not like a car. You can't just pull over and fix it. Damn thing drop like stone!” The sudden stop was in the back of everyone's mind. Furry often allowed as how he never “let his full weight down” when riding on an airplane. Others would nod in agreement. Despite the grumbling, they got on and off planes but it was made clear to me that ground transportation was by far the most preferred mode of travel.

One who complained louder than the rest was Clarence Nelson, guitar player in Joe Willie Wilkins' band. Joe had a special fondness for Clarence and insisted the he accompany Joe and his band on all dates. Clarence was cheerful enough, but displayed a certain instability of personality which manifested itself in outbursts and erratic behavior. While never violent or dangerous, he was problematic. Joe Willie, whose nickname was The Mule (like that of his former employer, Sonnyboy Williamson) would not hear of replacing him in the lineup. When Joe Willie made his mind up about something, the rest of the world had to deal with it. Stubborn didn't come close.

In 1975 we had an offer to play some dates on the west coast and would have to fly form Memphis to California where we would pick up ground transportation. The dates were booked, contracts signed and plane tickets purchased. The day before our intended departure, I got a call form Melvin Lee, Joe's bass player and chief local Caravan contact in Memphis. He informed me that Clarence was NOT going to make the trip and, further, that Joe Willie would not go if Clarence wasn't present. I got on a plane that afternoon and was met at the Memphis airport by Melvin and Homer Jackson, Joe's drummer. Melvin and Homer were collectively referred to, by everyone on the Caravan, as The Crows, a name given them by Furry when their rowdy antics, fueled by large amounts of bourbon, caused him to exclaim, “Careful fellas, we don't want no crows falling of the wire tonight”. They appeared in Melvin's Cadillac. As the sun set, we headed into Memphis to find Clarence.

Our first stop was his house. We knocked. We rang. We pleaded for him to open the door. There was not a sound from inside. “Guess he's not home...” Back in the Cadillac, we drove off to visit some his usual haunts.

Our next stop was a barbecue joint on Hernando. Homer announced that he would not cross the threshold, trip or no trip. I asked why. “Cause I don't wanna get killed.” Okay...I told Melvin that I'd be out in a minute. EXACTLY one minute. If I were any longer, he should call the police.

The place had no windows. Plywood had replaced any opening which might allow sunlight or outside scrutiny. The front of the building was painted a shade of light green with Bar B Q painted in white letters over the door. Walking in I was greeted with a blast of eye-watering ambrosia form the smoke pit. Writing about this adventure, I'm reminded of a line form Tarrintino's “True Romance” - “It ain't Whiteboy Day is it?” I could have been wearing a T-shirt with that legend inscribed. All head turned as I entered. The place measured probably twenty by twenty feet and was crowded. A knot of people standing by the jukebox regarded me closely. I looked around, no Clarence. I asked a young lady standing to my right if she had seen Clarence Nelson that evening. She looked at me with genuine discomfort.

“You the man?”

No, absolutely not. Just a friend trying to find him.

“No, I ain't seen him. Ain't been in here tonight.”

Back in the car, I asked Homer if there were any other places he would not venture that maybe we should check out.”No, everyplace else's cool.” Great.

Cruising the neighborhood, Melvin mentioned the name of some other establishment that might prove fruitful. Homer, sitting in the back seat, groaned. “You goin' in there Homer. Don't give me no shit” said Melvin. We pulled up in front of a REAL seedy looking joint, again with a hand painted sign, this one said Cold Beer – Dancing. Homer nipped smartly out of the car and disappeared through the open front door. He was in and out in less than thirty seconds. “You get to take a real good look in there, Rabbit?” said Melvin, sarcasm dripping from every word. Homer said nothing. We cruised around for another twenty minutes. “Hey, maybe he's over at Furry's” said Melvin. A long shot, but with Clarence, you never knew. We pointed the car toward Mosby Street and in ten minutes we were in front of 811 Mosby, the home of Furry Lewis.

We parked the car and headed up the walk. A single light burned in the front of the shotgun house where Furry lived. We were about thirty feet from the porch when Melvin stopped. It was by now almost 10:30 PM. “Maybe this ain't such a good idea,” he said. “We go knockin' at that door, we liable to get shot. Furry don't hear too good and he keeps a loaded pistol on the table in front. Last year he damn near emptied the thing at a neighbor who showed up one night. Didn't hit nothing. Cops came and just told him to be more careful.” We stood in silence. Nobody moved. “Yeah,” I said after some thought, “Clarence probably isn't in there anyway.” Climbing in the car, we headed back to Clarence's house for another try.

As we pulled up his block, there he was, walking down the sidewalk.
I got out of the car and called his name. He stopped and turned toward me. A big grin flashed across his face. “How you doin'!” he said and reached for my hand. I put my arm around his shoulder and we started to walk down the street together. Homer and Melvin followed in the Cadillac, cruising at about two miles an hour. I flashed on the scene from The Godfather where Michael is talking to Kate after his return from Sicily. Me and Michael Corleone, we both had to do a sales job.
I had an idea – I hoped it would work.

My wife and I used to visit a spot on Minnesota's North Shore of Lake Superior. The shore line is strewn with small smooth stones, the result of eons of lapping water. I carried one such in my pocket.

Clarence and I talked. I told him I didn't much like planes myself. But I that I had something that kept me safe, and I was gong to give it to him. It was a stone of great power, one that had been given to me by an Ojibwa woman I knew (total bullshit, but we signed contracts and shows to do). I pulled a round, flat and perfectly smooth stone from my pocket. I handed it to him. “Round” he said, “just like your soul.” He looked at me, obviously noting the surprised look on my face. “That's what my Grandma used to tell me, she had a bunch of 'em in a glass jar. Said they were like people long passed.” We looked at each other. “This one will keep you safe, Clarence” and I pressed it into his hand.

The next morning, we all left for California. Later, Homer and Melvin asked what I had said to Clarence. I told them I had given him something that would keep in safe. Melvin said it sounded like hoodoo to him.

As the plane took off, I looked over at Clarence. In his right hand he had his 'magic feather'. He was smiling.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Furry Lewis - and some 'religious songs'...

Walter “Furry” Lewis was born in Greenwood, MS in 1893, or so he claimed. It may have been 1900, or 1903, but who cares. He recorded his first side, ever, for Vocalion Records in Chicago in 1927. After some early success, he slid into obscurity and worked as a street sweeper for the Memphis Sanitation Department until he retired. He was 'rediscovered' in the late fifties and gained popularity in the early sixties through re-issues of his original recordings and new studio recordings.

Furry and I met for the first time, as mentioned, in 1972 when I flew him up to Minneapolis to appear at the University of Minnesota's Whole Coffeehouse for a concert. We were close friends and associates until his death some ten years later.

Furry was about as 'authentic' as you can get. He lived a life, in the classic blues tradition, of hardship and joy. He never married and had no children. His closest relative was a niece, Roberta Glover, who lived in Memphis nearby his home on Mosby Street. He lived quietly and played for friends and acquaintances whenever asked. He was able to supplement his meager income through his artistry, but, most importantly, his music gave him an opportunity to express himself in a way that few ever get a chance to do. I came to find that Furry played for himself as much as for anyone else.

One of the first things to strike me about Furry was the fact that he never did the same song the same way twice. In all the hundreds of Furry Lewis gigs I witnessed, never, ever, did I hear an exact repeat. His music was always timely and unique, reflecting how he felt or what he was thinking at a particular moment. Oftentimes, the changes he introduced in his repertoire were done solely to entertain himself. As mentioned, Furry was always his own best audience.

He began his career playing on the Medicine Show circuit selling, among other brands, Jack Rabbit Liniment from flatbed runways in small southern towns. His job was to attract and entertain a crowd so that the more serious business of selling the goods could be done by the Pitchman. The style he evolved was one that did not depend on a microphone to pick up the nuance of his performance, rather it was one that played to the 'back of the house' in broad form, unaided by electronics. Later, after the Medicine Shows were history, he played for dances and picnics where the production values were often confined to a stage, raised two feet or so above a dirt floor. The result was that Furry never learned the fine points of using a microphone and his performances relied on the physical. Dragging his left arm across the top few strings of his guitar and moving it up and down the neck while his right hand kept the beat (check out the video below to see what I'm talking about - albeit fueled by a bit too much Ten High bourbon...), oftentimes resulted live recordings of questionable quality, but drove audiences to cheers. That was the effect he desired. Coming off stage, his vision clouded by cataracts, he would ask, “Are they standin' up?” Nine times out of ten, they were.

The hallmark of any Furry Lewis performance was the emotional intensity he delivered on stage. It was not unusual for him to 'lose it' - breaking down in tears. He was equally as likely to dissolve in laughter at one of his oft-told jokes or an incident that struck him as amusing. When he finished a set, part of Furry the man, as well as Furry the performer, had been shared with his audience. I remember one incident when Furry 'lost it'. Listening to some tapes jogged my memory. We were in Texas, playing to a very enthusiastic house, when Furry, close to the end of his set, launched into “When I Lay My Burden Down”. He always liked to close with “some religious songs” and this was one of his favorites. The chorus begins with the line”I'm goin' home to be with my Jesus...” On listening to the tape, I noticed a shrill and unusual tone to his voice as he began the second chorus. Suddenly he stopped. A chocking sob rose. A second later, he called my name. My hurried footsteps can be heard as I came from the wing to down center. Following is the verbatim exchange as caught on tape. Furry: “I done broke down.” AB: “It's okay...don't worry about it. What do you want to do?” [i.e. which tune do you want to do next] Furry: “I don't know, what should I do?” AB: “Pick “Old Rugged Cross” and we'll hang it up.” I remember thinking at the time that we didn't want to risk another vocal, that it was best to take the set out with an instrumental.

Unaware of the details of this entire exchange the audience, to their credit had the good taste to applaud loudly and appreciatively. Furry picked the “The Old Rugged Cross” slowly and dramatically and, cane in hand, hobbled off stage to a standing ovation.

Furry lost his left leg below the knee in a railroad accident in the late teens or early twenties of the last century. He told me he had been in Chicago and had hopped a freight train back to Memphis. The train was rolling through southern Illinois and was about be begin a climb up a long grade. Furry was riding between cars and lost his footing. His leg slipped into the coupling just as the train started up the grade and was crushed in the mechanism. He spent four months in the Illinois Central Railroad Hospital in Carbondale, IL and was released with a wooded prosthesis which he wore until his death some sixty years later. I have often thought of Furry lying in that hospital,enduring the loss of a limb, alone and uncomforted. I think of it particularly in reference to an incident that happened in Houston, TX in the mid '70's.

I was attending a conference of music buyers from colleges and universities from across the country. As a part of this gathering, certain artists were selected to perform a thirty minute 'showcase' of their talents for the benefit these college entertainment buyers. Furry had been one of those chosen to perform. The only other traditional Blues performers so selected were Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee. Both Furry and Sonny & Brownie had been placed on the same bill, with Sonny & Brownie going on just before Furry. Evidently, the presenters of the conference thought such a pairing would result in a 'battle of the bands' among geriatric Blues performers. I thought it was idiotic. But what could we do.

I had a meeting with some folks who were interested in presenting the Memphis Blues Caravan at a group of universities and was rushing to get to the auditorium to attend to Furry. In my haste, I fell and badly sprained my ankle. I hobbled into his dressing room. He was very concerned about what had happened to my ankle. I told him it was nothing to worry about and that he should go out there and knock 'em on their ass. He smiled and repeated a line I had heard many times before. “Don't you worry, when I get to pickin', I'm like a rabbit in a takes a good dog to catch me.”

After the show Furry would not leave my side. He offered me the use of his cane. He told me to lean on his shoulder for support. He insisted that we go back to my room so I could lie down. I was in no position to argue as the ankle was beginning to look like a small balloon.

It took us thirty minutes to clear the door of the auditorium because of the huge clutch of adoring fans. Furry worked the crowd like a seasoned politician. When we finally got back to my room, he sat on a chair opposite the bed. He said, “I ain't goin' no where. I'm gonna sit right here and sing you some religious songs that's gonna get you well.” He was without his guitar, it had been brought back to his room by one of my associates.

Furry Lewis sat with me and sang, a Capella, one hymn after another. The pain in my throbbing ankle slowly lifted and I fell asleep. I awoke an hour or more later. The room was dark. Furry was still sitting in the chair across from the bed...watching over me.

I often wondered if anyone sang for him, in that hospital in Carbondale.