By Susan Sliwicki
An old adage claims that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If that holds a grain of truth, bluesman Furry Lewis should’ve been busting his buttons that two artists who hit it big in the 1950s thought enough of his early work to, um, “sample” it.
Elvis Presley’s “Mystery Train” makes a reference to “a train I ride 16 coaches long,” a phrase plucked from Lewis’ “Good Looking Girl Blues,” said John Tefteller, owner of Tefteller’s World’s Rarest Records.
“When RCA was preparing to release and remaster the Elvis Sun records a few years ago, they requested my copies, and I sent them a CD that I made of the Elvis Sun transfers. At the end of the CD, I stuck on this song. I got a call from the Engineer in England who said ‘What in the world was this?’ ” Tefteller recalled. “They said, ‘Wow, we didn’t know anything about this; we didn’t know anything about this song,’” he said.
The guitar riff Lewis plays at the end of that same song bears a striking resemblance to the opening salvo of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” which came along decades later. (Listen to the song’s MP3 file, posted at www.goldminemag.com, along with this story, to decide for yourself.)
But that doesn’t necessarily mean Lewis was the one to break new ground.
“There was so much copying and borrowing and/or stealing of these songs among these singers,” Tefteller said. “We don’t even know for sure that these guys were saying wrote the songs did, because they’re the earliest recorded versions we have. We can only go by what exists and what is recorded, and these are the earliest recorded blues songs.”
Unlike music made by many of his contemporaries, Lewis’ song wasn’t covered by a lot of other artists. Only one cover version of “Good Looking Girl Blues,” done by Cam Waters on the album “Shoe Town,” shows up in the Allmusic.com archive listing.
Lewis was one of the lucky few blues artists of the 1920s and 1930s to be alive to enjoy the blues’ resurgence in the 1960s and 1970s. As a result, his early work draws a pretty penny among collectors of blues records. A nice, Near-Mint copy of this record would sell for about $3,000, and a lower-quality copy could bring about $1,000, Tefteller said.
“Furry Lewis records can be pretty darn expensive,” he said. “His stuff is pretty popular, and there are not very many of them around.”
Regardless of their collectible value, Tefteller says he likes Lewis’ works from the 1920s and 1930s.
“I don’t think Furry Lewis made a bad record back then,” Tefteller said.
The flip side of “Good Looking Girl Blues” is “Billy Lyons and Stack O’Lee,” (also spelled Stack-O-Lee, Stackolee and Stack O’ Lee, depending on the source), a track that is just as interesting as “Good Looking Girl Blues,” he said.
Lewis played music in and around Memphis area, and was a famous figure on Beale Street, Tefteller said.
Accounts say he was born Walter Lewis on March 6, 1893, in Greenwood, Miss., although sources differ say the year of his birth could’ve been as late as 1900, as Lewis gave differing information on the exact date more than once. Furry, it turns out, was a childhood nickname.
Lewis learned music on a homemade guitar at about age 6. He later learned to play the harmonica, as well. Somewhere between 1906 and 1908, accounts say Lewis ran away from home to follow Jim Jackson in passing medicine shows. Between 1908 and 1916, he came back to Memphis to work with the W.C. Handy Orchestra (or alone), wherever there was a gig to be had, according to “Blues Who’s Who.”
After losing a leg in a train accident in 1916, Lewis returned to Memphis, teamed up with artists including Jim Jackson, Will Shade and Gus Cannon, where they worked the club circuit. In the 1920s, he frequently worked with the likes of Memphis Minnie and Blind Lemon Jefferson in riverboats, jukes and dives throughout the south. By the end of the decade, he was recording his own songs, on the Vocalion and Victor labels, says “Blues Who’s Who.”
After the Great Depression hit, Lewis gave up music as a profession. He found work as a municipal laborer in Memphis, and continued in that capacity into the 1960s, according to Allmusic.com. He was rediscovered in the late 1950s, and ventured back into the studio — this time on the Folkways and Prestige-Bluesville labels in Memphis. He became a bit of a celebrity in the 1970s — there was a profile in Playboy magazine, appearances on “The Tonight Show” and a role as himself in the movie “W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings.” Lewis died on Sept. 14, 1981.
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