Sun 30 Nov 2008
Unlike blues artists like Big Bill or Memphis Minnie who recorded extensively over three or four decades, Blind Boy Fuller recorded his substantial body of work over a short, six-year span. Nevertheless, he was one of the most recorded artists of his time and by far the most popular and influential Piedmont blues player of all time. Fuller could play in multiple styles: slide, ragtime, pop, and blues were all enhanced by his National steel guitar. Fuller worked with some fine sidemen, including Gary Davis, Floyd Council, Sonny Jones, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee and washboard player Bull City Red. Initially discovered and promoted by Carolina entrepreneur J. B. Long, Fuller recorded for ARC and Decca. He also served as a conduit to recording sessions, steering fellow blues musicians to the studio.
What follows is a sketch of Fuller and some background on today's featured artists. For an in-depth look at Fuller and the Piedmont blues I recommend Bruce Bastin's exhaustive study Red River Blues. Bastin was assisted greatly by the efforts of Pete Lowry who was featured on the program recently.
Fulton Allen was born in Wadesboro, North Carolina to Calvin Allen and Mary Jane Walker. As a boy he learned to play the guitar and also learned from older singers the field hollers, country rags, and traditional songs and blues popular in poor, rural areas. He married Cora Allen young and worked as a laborer, but began to lose his eyesight in his mid-teens. By 1928 he was completely blind, and turned to whatever employment he could find as a singer and entertainer, often playing in the streets. By studying the records of blues players like Blind Blake and the "live" playing of Gary Davis, he became a formidable guitarist, and played on street corners and at house parties in Winston-Salem, Danville, and then Durham, North Carolina. In Durham, playing around the tobacco warehouses, he developed a local following which included guitarists Floyd Council and Richard Trice, as well as harmonica player Sonny Terry and washboard player/guitarist George Washington. In 1935, Burlington record store manager and talent scout James Baxter Long secured him a recording session with the American Recording Company (ARC). Allen, Davis and Washington recorded several tracks in New York City, including the traditional "Rag, Mama, Rag". To promote the material, Long decided to rename Allen as "Blind Boy Fuller", and also named Washington "Bull City Red." Over the next five years Fuller made over 120 sides. In April 1936, Fuller recorded ten solo performances, and also recorded with guitarist Floyd Council. The following year, having auditioning for J. Mayo Williams, he recorded for the Decca label, but then reverted to ARC. Later in 1937, he made his first recordings with Sonny Terry. In 1938 Fuller was imprisoned for shooting a pistol at his wife, wounding her in the leg, causing him to miss out on John Hammond's "Spirituals to Swing" concert in NYC that year. While Fuller was eventually released, it was Sonny Terry who went in his stead, the beginning of a long "folk music" career.Fuller was criticized by some as a derivative musician, but his ability to fuse together elements of other traditional and contemporary songs and reformulate them into his own performances, attracted a broad audience. He was an expressive vocalist and a masterful guitar player; best remembered for his up-tempo ragtime hits including "Step It Up and Go." At the same time he was capable of deeper material. Fuller died in 1941 at the age of 33, of blood poisoning that resulted in kidney failure, popularly ascribed to his heavy drinking.
Floyd Council was born on the 2nd of September 1911 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and began his career playing in the streets of Chapel Hill in the mid-‘20s with musical brothers Leo and Thomas Strowd. Floyd occasionally worked with Blind Boy Fuller in the ‘30s, which may have led to his first recording sessions. In late January 1937 ACR Records scout John Baxter Long heard him, playing alone on a street in Chapel Hill. It was Long who had first brought Fuller to NYC to record in July 1935. Long invited Floyd to join Fuller on his third trip to New York. Floyd agreed, and a week later the three traveled to the city. During his second visit to New York in December, Floyd was used as a second guitar only. His solo tracks were later issued under the name ‘Blind Boy Fuller’s buddy’. In all he cut six sides under his own name and seven backing Fuller. Floyd performed around Chapel Hill through the ‘40s and ‘50s, both with Thomas Strowd and on his own. In the late ‘60s, a stroke partially paralyzed his throat muscles and slowed his motor skills. Floyd moved to Sanford, North Carolina, where he died in June 1976. His final recordings, made in August 1970, did not, apparently, merit release.
|Rev. gary Davis|
Willie Trice and his brother Richard became close friends with Blind Boy Fuller and Fuller took them up to New York where they cut six sides together (two unissued) for Decca in 1937. Richard Trice recorded after the war for Savoy in 1946 as Little Boy Fuller as well as a couple of sides in 1948 and 1952/53. Richard Trice was later recorded by Pete Lowry but those recordings remain unreleased. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that Willie Trice recorded again. Blue And Rag’d , his sole album, was released on Lowry's Trix label in 1973.
Gary Davis was a major influence on Blind Boy Fuller. In the late 1920's he was one of the most renowned practitioners of the East Coast school of ragtime guitar. He backed Fuller on second guitar at a 1935 session. Davis moved to Durham in the mid-'20s, by which time he was a full-time street musician. Davis went into the recording studio for the first time in the 1930's with the backing of a local businessman. Davis cut a mixture of blues and spirituals for the American Record Company label, but there was never an agreement about payment for the recordings, and following these sessions, it was 19 years before he entered the studio again.
Sonny Terry was born Saunders Terrell on October 24, 1911, in Greensboro, NC. He began traveling to nearby Raleigh and Durham, performing on street corners for tips. In 1934, he befriended the popular guitarist Blind Boy Fuller. Fuller convinced Terry to move to Durham, where the two immediately gained a strong local following. By 1937, they were offered an opportunity to go to New York and record for the Vocalion label. Between 1937 and 1940 he backed Fuller on over two-dozen sides. A year later, Terry would be back in New York taking part in John Hammond's legendary Spirituals to Swing concert. Upon returning to Durham, Terry continued playing regularly with Fuller and also met his future partner, guitarist Brownie McGhee, who would accompany Terry off and on for the next two decades. McGhee was initially sent to look after Terry by Blind Boy's manager, J.B. Long. Long figured McGhee might get a chance to play some of the same shows as Terry. A friendship developed between the two men and following Fuller's death in 1941, Terry and McGhee moved to New York.
In the late 1940 McGhee came into contact with washboard player Bull City Red who in turn introduced McGhee to talent scout J.B. Long. Long got him a recording contract with OKeh/Columbia in 1940; his debut session in Chicago produced a dozen tracks over two days. Long's principal blues artist, Blind Boy Fuller, died in 1941, precipitating Okeh to issue some of McGhee's early efforts under the alias of Blind Boy Fuller No. 2. McGhee cut a moving tribute song, "Death of Blind Boy Fuller," shortly after the passing. McGhee's third marathon session for OKeh in 1941 paired him for the first time with Sonny Terry. McGhee claimed to have never recorded with Fuller but in later years when someone played him "Precious Lord" he recalled that it was him singing with Fuller on guitar.
Bull City Red, whose real name was George Washington, is best known as a sometimes sideman on washboard to the likes of Blind Boy Fuller, Sonny Terry, and Blind Gary Davis. Red led an otherwise blind group that included Fuller, Sonny Terry and, for a time, Blind Gary Davis as well, and with help from their manager, department store owner J.B. Long, landed a contract with Vocalion. At one point in their history, Red, Fuller, Terry, and guitarist Sonny Jones performed together as "Brother George and His Sanctified Singers," and made several recordings of gospel-themed material. Red was later responsible for hooking Terry up with Brownie McGhee, whom he met while on a trip to Burlington. McGhee was partnered with a blues harpist and one-man band named Jordan Webb at the time, and Red introduced the two to Fuller and Terry as well as their manager. Red cut more than a dozen sides showing off his skills as a singer and guitarist as well as on the washboard, between 1935 and 1939.