By Mike Greenblatt
By all accounts, Walter Lewis was one hell of a character. He was revered by The Rolling Stones, who chose him as their opening act when they hit Memphis, Tenn. He was loved by actor Burt Reynolds, who put him in his 1975 movie “W.W. & The Dixie Dancekings.” He was interviewed by Playboy magazine, featured by Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show” and performed and recorded new music right up to his death on Sept. 14, 1981, at the ripe old age of 88.
But he had his share of bad times, too. Reportedly born March 6, 1893, in Greenwood, Miss., to sharecropper parents, Lewis began to learn music on a homemade guitar at age 6. He was still a child when he ran away from home to work in a traveling medicine show. He lost a leg in a train accident. And he definitely paid his blues dues performing on the club/street/party/dance/fish fry circuit.
Lewis’ recording career began in 1927 at the age of 34; “Good Looking Girl Blues” (Vocalion 1132) was one of his first songs he recorded on Oct. 9 of that year. Unlike many of his peers, Lewis kept his day job as a municipal laborer in Memphis. By the mid-1930s, he quit music entirely.
It was 1961 when folk and blues historian Sam Charters rediscovered Lewis and convinced him to record again for the Prestige/Bluesville label. With most of his contemporaries from the ’20s dead and gone, Lewis became the living personification of rural blues realness. He was 68, his voice in fine form, his nimble guitar playing still complex, intricate and totally dazzling. As the ’60s folk and blues boom was in ascension, Furry Lewis became a star for the first time in his life. He finally was able to quit his day job and record and tour and live the life most only dream of. Reporters fell over themselves trying to interview him. People who never even listened to blues music became enraptured with his personality and flair for storytelling. It would be an understatement to say he took to his celebrity status well. A natural he was; an endearingly charming man, the world finally was his. So many similarly talented bluesmen had never got to appreciate the level of fame that Furry Lewis did, and Furry wore fame well.
“Good Looking Girl Blues” is one rare record. It originally was recorded as the B-side to Lewis’ classic “Billy Lyons And Stack-O-Lee,” according to John Tefteller of Tefteller’s World’s Rarest Records. “If you can find a decent copy that isn’t all banged up, you’d have to shell out about $3,000 for it,” Tefteller says.
In the song, which starts with some clever acoustic guitar picking, Lewis asks, “Don’t you wish your good girl was long and tall like mine? Lord, she ain’t good lookin’,” he admits, “but I swear she takes her time.” This being the blues, though, you just know there’s a catch. “Then my good girl said she didn’t want me no more! Lord, the train I ride is 16 coaches long, and she don’t want nothin’ but chocolate to the bone!” And you know ol’ Furry ain’t talkin’ ’bout Hershey’s Kisses.
There seems to be some historical confusion about the line “Lord, the train I ride is 16 coaches long.” Elvis Presley recorded a song called “Mystery Train” in Memphis 28 years after Lewis recorded “Good Looking Girl Blues” in Chicago with that same phrase. Yet blues singer Junior Parker recorded “Mystery Train” two years before Elvis. Did both versions swipe that line from Furry Lewis? No one will ever know for sure. Tefteller feels “Mystery Train” is, indeed, a rewrite of the Furry Lewis song, but he admits it’s only a theory. When he helped RCA with the re-release and remastering of “The Sun Sessions” by Elvis Presley, he mentioned his theory to RCA’s experts, going so far as to tape the tune for them. They concurred. It wasn’t the first time artists from one generation used the lyrics (or riffs) of earlier artists. And it certainly won’t be the last. GM