Blues Bytes


October 2020

Furry Lewis
Shake 'Em On Down

Fantasy Records

Furry LewisOne of my favorite music authors is Stanley Booth, and one of his favorite musical subjects over the years was Furry Lewis. Lewis was one of those old blues guys that I'd always heard about (he was even in a Burt Reynolds movie), but I'd never actually heard his music until a few years ago. Booth wrote a couple of great articles about him and really captured Lewis' personality well. After reading them, you can’t help but feel that you know Lewis almost as well as Booth did.

Lewis recorded a number of tracks in the late '20s for the Vocalion and Victor labels, which were excellent. He had a wry sense of humor and a great story-telling style, meshing well with his slashing slide guitar accompaniment (he sometimes, tongue-in-cheek, claimed to have invented bottleneck guitar). Unfortunately, his recordings didn't sell particularly well at the time, even though a couple of his tunes ("John Henry" and "Kassie Jones") rank as some of the finest of the era. He dropped out of music in the '30s, tired of the endless travel and the waning fortunes of blues music during the Depression era.

Lewis had been an employee of the City of Memphis since the '20s and continued to work for the City into the '60s. Though he didn't try to revive his musical career, he continued to play around town for his friends and kin. He was rediscovered in the late '50s by the blues scholar Sam Charters, who convinced him to resurrect his career. He recorded two albums for Prestige/Bluesville in 1961, Back On My Feet Again and Done Changed My Mind. Some years later, the albums were collected by Fantasy Records into a two-record set and, later, a single CD, called Shake 'Em On Down.

Though I'd heard several Lewis sides over the years on various collections, and online via YouTube, I never picked up a collection that was strictly devoted to his music. During the summer, while visiting a used record store, I happened upon a gently used copy of Shake 'Em On Down and eagerly snatched it up.

When listening to the '60s recordings of "rediscovered" blues men, nearly all of them retain their passion and enthusiasm for the music. However, often their skills, either vocally or instrumentally, and sometimes maybe both, had declined somewhat usually because of advanced age, illness, or years of inactivity. These shortcomings were often overlooked by fans at the time due to the sheer delight of hearing their musical heroes perform their repertoire once again.

Be advised that Furry Lewis suffered none of those shortcomings. His voice and delivery was as strong as it had been some 30 to 35 years earlier, and his fretwork was as deft and nimble as if it were still the late '20s. He recreates several songs that he originally recorded in the ’20s, “John Henry” and “Casey Jones” among them, and the newer performances are as strong, if not stronger, than the originals. It’s remarkable that he doesn’t seem to have lost anything off of his fastball in the ensuing years. Blues fans will recognize a lot of these tunes --- the title track, W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” “Frankie and Johnny,” “Roberta,” “Goin’ To Kansas City,” etc.

The best thing that can be said about these tracks is that they capture a blues artist who finally seems to be unleashing all the music that had been inside him for over 30 years. It has to be a maddening experience when you have a gift and are unable to share it with everyone. With this pair of albums (now collected as one), Furry Lewis was doing what he was born to do, sharing his musical gift with music lovers everywhere. He became one of the most adored of those rediscovered blues men and he embraced his newfound fame, proving to be a great storyteller and performer for a long time. He recorded several more albums before his death in 1981 at age 88, but the two albums collected on Shake ‘Em On Down represent his best recordings of those “rediscovery” years.

--- Graham Clarke



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