SEPTEMBER 14, 1981 – Singer/songwriter/guitarist FURRY LEWIS (b. March 6, 1893 or 1899 in Greenwood, Mississippi as Walter E. Lewis) died of a heart attack in Memphis, Tennessee. He was buried in the Hollywood Cemetery, in South Memphis, where his grave bears two headstones, the second purchased by fans. Lewis, who had worked as a street sweeper for the city of Memphis in the interim, made numerous new recordings and also appeared on television shows and in motion pictures.
His family lived on Lamar Street before moving to Memphis when Lewis was a youngster.One of the first of the blues musicians active in the 1920s to be brought out of retirement and given new opportunities to record during the folk blues revival of the 1960s, Lewis’ birth year is uncertain. Many sources give 1893, the date he gave in his later years, but the researchers Bob Eagle and Eric LeBlanc suggest 1899, based on his 1900 census entry, and other sources suggest 1895 or 1898. His family moved to Memphis when he was seven. He acquired the nickname “Furry” from childhood playmates.By 1901 he was living in Memphis with his mother and siblings.
Lewis, nicknamed Furry by childhood friends, became an active musician in his teens, playing mostly by himself but sometimes teaming with other musicians. He often told stories of playing with W. C. Handy and of the “first good guitar” he owned, a gift from Handy. Lewis, who lost a leg while trying to hop a freight train in Illinois, traveled with a medicine show, played on the streets and at parties, picnics, and saloons, and offered late-night serenades in front of homes.In his travels as a musician, he was exposed to a wide variety of performers, including Bessie Smith, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Alger “Texas” Alexander. Like his contemporary Frank Stokes, he grew tired of traveling and took a permanent job in 1922. His position as a street sweeper for the city of Memphis, a job he held until his retirement in 1966, allowed him to continue performing music in Memphis.Lewis made his first recordings for Vocalion Records in Chicago in 1927. A year later he recorded for Victor Records at the Memphis Auditorium, in a session with the Memphis Jug Band, Jim Jackson, Frank Stokes, and others. He again recorded for Vocalion in Memphis in 1929. The tracks were mostly blues but included two-part versions of “Casey Jones” and “John Henry”.
He sometimes fingerpicked and sometimes played with a slide. He made many successful records in the late 1920s, including “Kassie Jones,” “Billy Lyons & Stack-O-Lee” and “Judge Harsh Blues” (later called “Good Morning Judge”).In July of 1968, Bob West recorded Furry along with Bukka White in Furry’s Memphis apartment. In 1972 West, with Bob Graf, in Seattle, released the recording on a 12 inch vinyl record In 2001 the recording was released on CD as “Furry Lewis, Bukka White & Friends, Party! at Home”, by Arcola Records.In 1969, the record producer Terry Manning recorded Lewis in his Fourth Street apartment in Memphis, near Beale Street. These recordings were released in Europe at the time by Barclay Records and again in the early 1990s by Lucky Seven Records in the United States and in 2006 by Universal Records.
Joni Mitchell’s song “Furry Sings the Blues” (on her album “Hejira”), is about her visit to Lewis’s apartment and a mostly ruined Beale Street on February 5, 1976. Lewis despised the Mitchell song and felt she should pay him royalties for being its subject.In 1972 he was the featured performer in the Memphis Blues Caravan, which included Bukka White, Sleepy John Estes, Clarence Nelson, Hammie Nixon, Memphis Piano Red, Sam Chatmon, and Mose Vinson. He opened twice for the Rolling Stones, performed on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” had a part in a Burt Reynolds movie (“W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings” 1975), and was profiled in Playboy magazine.Lewis began to lose his eyesight because of cataracts in his final years. He contracted pneumonia in 1981, which led to his death from heart failure.