Saturday, May 27, 2017

Furry Lewis Greeted Blues Revival with Smile, Wisecrack

Furry Lewis Greeted Blues Revival 
with Smile, Wisecrack 
By Roy M. Close - Minneapolis Star - Nov 13, 1974

"My right name is Walter Lewis," the elderly black man explained, "But I always go by Furry. I guess I started playing the guitar when I was just about 10 years old, and I'm 81 now. 

"I didn't call myself a professional in them days. I still don't call myself a professional, but you can put it like this: They call me a rabbit in a thicket, and it takes a good dog to catch me with a guitar." 

His face crinkled into a broad grin, and behind his thick glasses the dark eyes twinkled.

At 81 — give or take a few years — Furry Lewis is having the time of his life. Due to the revival of interest in the blues on U.S. college campuses, Lewis is financially secure for the first time in his long career. 

He's one of the stars of the Memphis Blues Caravan, a touring show that plays one-night stands in college towns and big cities, and he's sufficiently well-known to get occasional solo bookings in clubs like the University of Minnesota's Whole Coffeehouse, where he's scheduled to per-form Friday and Saturday evenings.

Lewis hates to fly, but he loves to travel. He enjoys the luxury of hotel rooms, the good whiskey he can afford these days, and the attention he receives from audiences, the press and the younger members of the blues caravan. 

Furry Lewis circa 1927
In Minneapolis recently before a blues caravan appearance in Northfield, Lewis was in an expansive mood. He spun out one anecdote after another about his early days with W. C. Handy's band and the great blues musicians with whom he's performed.

"I'm making more now than I ever made in my life," he said. "When I was growing up, you used to get two loaves of bread for a nickel, but the trouble was, where was you gonna get the nickel?"

He recalled the old days in Memphis, his home for the last 75 years, as "tough times." 

"We used to play all night for $3 apiece, plus all we could eat and drink. Now I wouldn't tune my guitar for $3." 

Lewis acknowledges that he has "a little money in the bank" as a hedge against possible future retirement. But now that he's finally earning enough to live comfortably, he takes a certain pleasure from professing poverty and regretting his failure to save any money when he was younger. 

"I could have been rich," he declared, "but 1 never did think of it till I got old and about ready to die. It was my mistake. I didn't have enough sense to know I would be down. Now I know: I been down so long it seems like up to me." 

Lewis remembers with pride his association with Handy ("he gave me the best guitar I ever had in my life") and can vividly recall the 1916 acci-dent that cost him part of his right leg. "I had $100 in my pocket, but I'm a hobo trying to save my money and hopping a freight."

Pittsburgh Post Gazette 1969.
The veteran bluesman has never married. "I don't see no need," he explained. "What do I need with a wife when the man next door got one?" 

As the senior member of the blues caravan — and the oldest practicing blues musician in the world — Lewis takes his share of kidding from his younger colleagues, who have their own nickname for him: Blind, Crippled and Crazy. 

But Minneapolis promoter Arne Brogger, who organized and manages the caravan, says Lewis is "an old fox." 

"He's sharp as a tack," Brogger declared. "He doesn't miss a thing. And he's the darling of the caravan. Every-one takes care of him, and he relishes that. He's perfectly capable of taking care of himself, of course, but he doesn't want anybody to know that." Lewis doesn't deny these things, but prefers to emphasize that he's getting along in years. 

"I'm thinking on retiring," he admitted. "But you'd be surprised how many people say, 'Don't retire! Don't retire!' By the time you been doing something 70 years, though, you get. tired. Maybe it's time to look up in-stead of looking down."

For the moment, however, Lewis doesn't intend to retire. There's no reason to slow down. "I got better health than the man at the hoard of health," he explained. 

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