Saturday, February 23, 2008

What do you mean you've never heard of Blind Boy Fuller

When Blind Boy Fuller recorded Get Your Yas Yas Out on a Saturday in late Autumn 1938 he could have had no idea that 32 years later people would be walking into there local record stores and asking for it. Well, not quite true, they were really asking for a new live album by the Rolling Stones, which they had named after Fuller’s recording.

Born Fulton Allen in Wadesboro, North Carolina in 1908, he became partially blind in 1926 and fully blind two years later – some sources attributing this to disease, others to lye water being thrown in his face (or a combination of the two). By 1935 Fuller and his wife had settled in Durham, where he met J.B. Long. Besides scouting for record companies Long managed the local United Dollar Store, amongst the items they sold were records. Long and Fuller went to New York for his first recording session for the ARC label in July 1935. Over four days Fuller, described by Long as “a little bitty feller” recorded thirteen sides including, He also cut the wonderful Rag Mama Rag and I’m A Rattlesnakin’ Daddy, which did much to establish Fuller’s reputation. Guitarist Blind Gary Davis, and the wonderfully named washboard player, Bull City Red (George Washington), supported him on many of these first thirteen sides.

The eclectic Fuller was head to head with Big Bill Broonzy throughout the second half of the 1930s, as they became the foremost figures in the ‘urban country’ Blues scene. Fuller, who recorded some 135 sides, remained truer to his country (or folk) roots, often recording eight or ten songs in a single day. At the Columbia, South Carolina session (one of only three of Fuller’s sessions not in New York City), he cut twelve titles, including the enigmatically entitled What’s That Smells Like Fish, as well as Screaming and Crying Blues and Jitterbug Rag. Amongst his other accompanists was Sonny Terry, who played harmonica on a number of titles.

In early 1940, on a day when he recorded just five sides, he cut one of his best records, Step it Up and Go. His reduced output was perhaps the first sign of the illness that tragically claimed Blind Boy Fuller at the age of 32. By the time of his last session, three months later in June 1940, when he cut Thousand Women Blues and No Stranger Now, his kidney problems were becoming acute. Soon after he entered hospital for an operation, but contracted blood poisoning and died at his home in Durham on the day before Valentine’s, in February 1941.

Fuller has been labelled a copyist, who adapted songs he heard from friends, as well as the records that J.B. Long says he bought. Partially true, but it should not tarnish Fuller’s reputation. He was a good guitar player, with a great voice, who made many excellent records. Fuller, like his contemporaries, from Big Bill Broonzy to Robert Johnson, adapted and moulded lyrical ideas and melodies. Like the best from any era, Fuller stamped his personality and style on material that would be ordinary in the hands of others.

1 comment:

Bretwalda Edwin-Higham said...

Fuller has been labelled a copyist, who adapted songs he heard from friends, as well as the records that J.B. Long says he bought. Partially true, but it should not tarnish Fuller’s reputation.

For goodness sake - who doesn't do covers, use influences, adapt and so on? this in no way detracts if the musician is classy in the first place.