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We can talk about him like a dog now he's dead - Alice Stuart, on the cantankerous nature of Jesse Fuller, Port Townsend 99

Author Topic: Willie, Furry & Gus  (Read 2550 times)

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Offline Bunker Hill

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Willie, Furry & Gus
« on: March 08, 2006, 11:14:33 AM »
What follows is extemely long but in my humble opinion speaks volumes about all manner of matter. It is from Jazz Journal May 1965:

Willie, Fury & Gus
By Jim Delehant

What is it that makes your heart go out to the blues men? It must be some sort of hero worship or a longing to live the way they do; to be in their shoes and see what it's really like. When you hear them talking and laughing, being barely able to understand what they say, you just wish you could be there (forget about making the money and bettering the job), and go their way. But you also feel the embarrassment of being an outsider, almost an intruder. That's how I felt coming into contact with these three legendary men for the first time. More than likely it was the bad start. Sam Charters introduced me all around and when I finished shaking hands with Willie B., my hand fell back against Furry Lewis' guitar and I broke a string. But it didn't seem to cause any trouble and it was repaired on the spot. The three of them, Gus Cannon, Memphis Willie B., and Furry Lewis sat in chairs tuning their instruments in a small off-stage area that served as a combination dressing room, prop department and lighting-control. The clothes they were wearing brought to mind men sitting on the Brownsville general store veranda. Willie and Furry had on winter sport jackets that didn't seem to bother them although the evening was uncomfortably warm. Gus was more conservative in his dark purple suit. Gus is in his early seventies, and his hands shake a little, but his age isn't so heavy that it intrudes on his child-like exuberance. He is shy, too, because Furry kidded him a lot about his age and his bald head, and Gus would sort of look down at the floor and smile.

A copper container sat on the edge of the stage platform and Gus kept making sneaky references to it. He'd tip it upside down and say 'It's empty boys'. It turned out to be his Sunday go-to-meeting jug, a hand-made affair with welded seams and a copper band for a handle. Specially made for concerts, I suppose.

Willie and Furry were kicking a duet back and forth and Gus jumped into a little shuffle dance looking around to see if anybody was watching him. 'Wish I could do that again', he said.

Willie got up to stretch his legs. I walked with him and we talked.

'We got a bus from Memphis, took us about three or four days. I remember back when we used to travel, be gone for a year or more, wouldn't even see home for a long time. Played in a lot of places back then. Made a lot of records, too. We still play together around Memphis. People don't go for it like they used to though, and we don't play as often. Sam called us up here and we came. I'm ready to play till mornin'. You know, I'm scared of this town don't have a place to stay yet. You have a place?' If I lived in New York I would have asked him to stay.

We headed back down the hall. Furry and Gus were watching the crowd through a crack in the curtains. 'Where's Sam? Is that him over there?'

'They all look alike to me', said Gus.

Furry was smoking a cigarette that anybody else would have put out long ago. It was so short that the ash was almost touching his lip. With his tongue, he kept moving the butt from corner to corner of his mouth. Finally he removed it, looked it over to make sure he couldn't get any more out of it and crushed it out. He put another in his mouth and while talking, twisted a match from the book as though he were winding a key. He took a few drags and Sam came in. 'Okay, it's time. You're first, Furry'. Furry squeezed the tip of the cigarette between his fingers, letting the roach fall to the floor. He moistened his finger, tapped the charred end and rested it on the edge of the platform. Sam said, 'Gus, you can sit out in the front row if you want and make faces at Furry when he gets up there. You ready, Furry?'

Sam went out to the microphone to start things off. Furry waited to go on with an impatience that almost thrust him out in the middle of Sam's introduction... 'Memphis is the crossroads ...itinerant blues historic past'... Furry wrinkled his face into a confused expression and looked back at the others, jerking his head in Sam's direction with a 'get him' gesture.

Furry walked out as though he were avoiding puddles of water, and sat in the chair. He snapped his head up and smiled at the applause. (These quick gestures were intended to be funny, and they were, but with a court-jester sadness.) He told a joke which only the people in the front row got, and when he laughed, everybody laughed.

He began to play, using a metal tube on his middle finger to press the strings. He hung his body over the notes, pushing and pulling himself with each downward strum. He placed the guitar across his lap and held the metal piece in his hand, rubbing the strings like a steel guitar. He played some very gentle tinny notes and the people in the back strained to listen, his mouth moved trying to shape the sounds. He put the guitar back under his arm and played hard, talking back to it, imitating it, his voice needing oil. His time was up. He went off with a Groucho Marx stoop raising his arms to the applause.

'How'd you like that', he said stepping through the curtains. 'Pretty good huh?' He shook hands with Willie, and Gus offered his, but Furry acted like he wouldn't shake any banjo players hand. Sam went on stage to introduce Willie who waited with little more patience than Furry did.

He pushed the curtain aside and stepped onto the stage. A burst of applause startled him and he lifted his arm to shield his eyes from the stage lights. He looked back wondering what to do. The place quieted down and he said, 'Well ? evening'! and they broke up. Willie sat down. He adjusted his harp rack so the harmonica was level with his mouth, played a guitar introduction, with tapping foot, then that beautiful thick harp sound whipped into the crowd.

Willie won them right off. His honesty and directness were overwhelming. All eyes watched the man. He moved his body gently, and then, pivoting in his chair like a rusty weather vane in an undecided wind, he let the rhythm take him. He shouldered his way into the sound, his eves closed sometimes in pain and there was an ache in his voice. He sang the things he had said to me. He held the guitar like a proud father and had some in the crowd bending with his delicacy, but the fragile whimpering notes turned into a growling harmonica and hard toot tapping. He sounded like an angry man chopping wood. Willie accepted their praise with a bow and made his exit, avoiding any showman antics. Victoria Spivey walked in and the three bards gathered around her to listen, half enviously, of her recent success, a recording session with Big Joe and a future trip to Europe.

A stage hand ran in to ask Willie something about three chairs and lighting. Lenny Kunstadt was taking pictures of Victoria holding one of Furry's albums, and Furry wanted to get in the picture. A Bronx chick wandered in from the crowd out in the hall and asked Willie what kind of guitar he played, to which he replied, 'I don't know, I borrowed it from Dave! Dave was a stage hand, and this must have disappointed her very much. A girl from a school newspaper was interviewing Sam; Gus was tuning up his banjo.

Willie asked if he might remove his jacket, but not because it was getting warm ? it made his harp rack to high. Sam went on stage to introduce Gus... 'You might have heard that Gus was the originator of Walk Right In, which surprised everyone by making the Top Ten on the Hit Parade charts. I don't think it surprised anybody as much as it did Gus though.'

Then the three of them went out to play together. They took their seats with Gus in the middle. They plunked and strummed, getting tuned up the best they could. Then off they went, Furry making horse-laugh smiles and saying funny things, Gus' head bobbing like a chicken and Willie, serious, all by himself. Furry kept eyeing Gus' head and as the instruments chugged to a stop, Furry's hand would shoot up to the top of Gus' head on the last beat and lay palm down for a split second, then zip back to his lap as if nothing happened and Gus would laugh softly with a little-boy shyness. At one point, Gus saw fit to join in on his jug and he reached down by his chair to pick it up, strumming his banjo at the same time. Well that turned out to be quite a job. Everybody watched him like it was a little part of the act. He bent forward to balance the banjo across his leg, still strumming, and with his left hand, lifted the handle to his head trying to squeeze it on. Then he realized he would have to remove his glasses. Reluctantly he put the banjo across his lap, took off the glasses and got the jug handle half way over his head. By this time Furry was anxious to have it done with, for his hand shot up to give the handle a push and it &11 in place. Gus chuckled and put his glasses, which had big lumps of tape wrapped around the ends of the ear pieces back-on. He lifted the banjo and began to strum. His lips aimed at the jug hole and he was so silly he couldn't shape his mouth properly, but finally the comical tuba sound came forth. He did it with the tongue between his lips in 'bronx cheer' fashion and I wondered if there was a spit valve on the thing.

They told down-home stories and jokes that, for the most part, went over my head and when I did laugh, along with the rest of the audience, I think it was simply that those three men had the power to make people happy.

When the trio set finished, Willie and Furry walked off, leaving Gus to do his solo spot. Gus crossed his legs and started to tell a story about his grandfather taking him hunting for possum when he was a little boy. Suddenly Furry charged out onto the stage, gave Gus' head a vigorous pat and ran back. Of course the audience was laughing and Gus looked a little ticked off. He didn't smile this time and finished the story.

'Now you see if you can pick out any mistakes in this tune,' he said. It was an instrumental and there was a little break in the song that he must have thought was pretty good. He held the banjo out in front of him with one hand, letting it sway like a pendulum then he'd catch the tambourine end with his free hand flipping it over and over plucking the tune all the while, but it seemed like his fingers never touched the strings. When his time was up he couldn't believe the applause. He loved it. A crowd gathered, some to get autographs, others just to get a closer look. Somebody handed Willie a pencil and a ticket stub but Willie said he couldn't write. He put something down anyway. Gus and Furry told him to sign their names, too, and he put something else down.

Furry was sitting like an executive who just closed a deal, and he looked up at the visitors. 'Well did you like us? You write me and we'll come up again sometime,' he said.
« Last Edit: March 08, 2006, 11:16:11 AM by Bunker Hill »

Offline outfidel

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Re: Willie, Furry & Gus
« Reply #1 on: March 09, 2006, 07:33:14 AM »
Thanks for posting this fantastic article. I love reading stories that bring to life these old-time musicians.
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