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Fountain of Blues

Fulson
Everyday He Has the Blues: West Coast blues master Lowell Fulson has practiced his trade for more than half a century.

Guitar legend Lowell Fulson brings more than 50 years of blues experience to Saturday's Fountain Blues Festival at SJSU

By Nicky Baxter

ALTHOUGH BLUES GREAT Lowell Fulson--one of the headliners at this Saturday's Fountain Blues Festival--hit the big time, at least by chitlin' circuit standards, 50 years ago, the guitarist, songwriter and singer can't be accused of living in the past. His aim has always been to revise and refine his music to make it speak in contemporary terms. Not for nothing is Fulson's most recent release titled Them Update Blues (Bullseye Blues). The album--indeed, Fulson's entire career--exemplifies the best of the West Coast blues.

Not that Them Update Blues offers the latest in gimmicky studio wizardry or a blow-'em-down decibel count. The updating is more subtle than that. You can hear it in the relentless bumblebee buzz of the bass laid down in the funky shuffle "Don't Lie"; in the aggressive guitar and horn interplay that introduces "Think About It"; in the high-strung guitar riffs of "My Secret Love." These variegated strands are anchored by Fulson's everyday-people's blues poesy, which transforms commonplace moments into revelations.

What Fulson does on his new album is not necessarily new or revolutionary, but the music is "fresh" in the best sense of the word. He is backed by an intelligent mix of relatively young bucks: the South Central Rhythm section augmented by the legendary Memphis Horns, famous for their backup work with Al Green, Booker T. and the MGs, Albert King, Isaac Hayes and Otis Clay.

Them Update Blues' conjunction of an indefatigable rhythm section, punchy bob-and-weave horn arrangements and laconic guitar licks is proof that citified country blues can be outfitted in modern gear and add up to more than a triumph of cosmetics over content. Although Fulson's sound is thoroughly contemporary, you've got to know a little about roots before talking about the tree, as it were.

FULSON WAS BORN on a reservation to Choctaw and African American parents in Tulsa, Okla. While a relatively commonplace occurrence in 19th- and early-20th-century Oklahoma, the notion of red and black alliances, marital or otherwise, now seems almost exotic. The miscegenation also included whitefolk, if only on the musical front.

In a rambling phone chat from his home in Southern California. Fulson is an obliging elder bluesologist. "Ev'rbody had a guitar or mandolin in the days [1920s-'30s]," he remembers. "Indians would mix with the black boys--white boys, too. Wasn't no trouble, long as we was just playin' music."

Given the sharp divisions separating genres (and people) today, the music young Fulson experienced as a youth was incredibly catholic. "I grew up on gospel music and country music," he recalls. Jimmy Rodgers' mournful yodel sidled right up next to the gospel and no one complained. "Even my grandpa [a full-blooded Choctaw] could fiddle; we played bluegrass on down."

It wasn't long before Fulson talked his folks into allowing him to fool around on their battered but treasured stringed instruments. "I learnt pretty quick from one of those 'A-B-C' [music] books,' Fulson says. "Plus, I got a lot from my grandfather and uncles." Before he entered his teens, Fulson adds proudly, he could outplay more than a few church-bred musicians.

There were, as well, those crackling, quarter-inch-thick 78s that his kin would slap onto antediluvian, hand-cranked Victrolas. From these mail-ordered records, Lowell learned what the blues were all about. "Blind Lemon [Jefferson], Peetie Wheatstraw, Blind Boy Fuller and Big Maceo--my uncles'd get all them records and start a-crankin'."

Not surprisingly, imitating Jefferson et al. was out as far as his uncles were concerned; they were, after all, respectable members of their community, and the blues was reviled by these rural church folk as the "devil's music." For them, it was an open-and-shut case: Play the blues, go to hell. Fulson, it appears, was not convinced.

While still in his mid-teens, Fulson inveigled his way into a certain Dan Wright's 16-piece (mostly) string band. Wright's ensemble included mandolin, banjo, fiddle, dobro, acoustic guitar--and tuba. After a hard day's work, members of the band would assemble down in what was then referred to as the "bottoms," i.e., the lowlands, and jam.

It was at one of these impromptu sessions that Fulson was introduced to Texas Alexander, an itinerant blues singer hailing from East Texas. Very little is known about Alexander's personal life; we do know that his blues were barely modified field hollers sung by African slaves, tangled up with chain-gang chants. Alexander never learned how to pick a guitar or any other instrument, thus his invitation to young multi-instrumentalist Fulson to join him on his Big Country rambles made perfect sense.

Some 20 years Fulson's elder, Alexander taught the youth about Texas blues, lessons the former incorporated into his own developing style. The pair played at picnics, fairs and the like. Though Fulson's on-the-job-training lasted just 12 months or so, he still praises his peripatetic mentor.

FULSON, whose frail and wispy voice fades in and out of audibility, recalls how he and the musicians he worked with would devise new material. "We'd make up songs; didn't need no titles. One guy would sing about mules or horses, somebody else would sing about his ol' lady. We'd borrow a few things from Bob Wills and His [Texas] Playboys we'd hear on the radio." Did he ever see the band in person? "Shoot, naw! Wasn't that kind of mixin' allowed in them days!" Not in Texas, in any case.

Five years later, in the mid-'40s, Fulson, found himself in Oakland, where he eventually settled and cut his first sides. By this time, like the country that spawned them, the blues were in a state of transition. Blackfolk were no longer interested in hearing those old acoustic plaints about chopping cotton in Mississippi. The Bay Area's burgeoning black population had discovered hep-cat music: Ivory Joe Hunter, Louis Jordan, T-Bone Walker. Even now, half a century later, mention T-Bone's name and Fulson's soft, quavery speaking voice assumes an authoritative tone.

"When I first heard [Walker's] 'I Got a Break, Baby,' I thought that was the guitar-playin'est man in the world," Fulson recalls. As far as he's concerned, Walker's jump-blues and jazz-inflected playing signaled the dawn of modern blues guitar.

After releasing a series of genre-defining singles, most notably "Blue Shadows," "Lonesome Blues" and "Three O'Clock In the Morning." According to Fulson, he "gave" the last-mentioned song to an unrecorded singer/guitarist who called himself the Beale Street Blues Boy, a.k.a. B.B. King, effectively kick-starting King's career. (King also popularized Fulson's jump-blues revision of Memphis Slim's "Nobody Loves Me," retitled by Lowell "Everyday I Have the Blues.")

A short list of Fulson accompanists from that era boggles the mind. Ray Charles on piano, long before he became "The Genius"; pianist/arranger Lloyd Glenn, whom Fulson regards as his favorite keyboard player; noted swing-blues bandleader/composer and pianist Jay McShann; hard-boppin' tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine and a host of other future heavyweights all paid some dues in Fulson's bands.

Still, Fulson is not one to be caught up in the past. Compare his 1948 recording of the loose-jointed swing of "Everyday I Have the Blues" to 1954's "Reconsider Baby," streamlined R&B at its best, to the saucy "Tramp," recorded a decade later in response to urban U.S.-born Africans' increasing demand for more funk in their soul. Fulson's 1965 version did remarkably well on the R&B charts. With Them Update Blues, Fulson's legacy is, indeed, brought right on up to date. "Sun Going Down" ranks up there with the best of the West Coast blues pioneer's midnight-hour grinders, while the title track percolates with the down-home soul of Memphis-cooked stew.

Fulson, who celebrated his 75th birthday a couple of months ago, may be what some folks call "old," but he's far from in the way. There are still fresh grooves to fiddle with, more uncharted soundscapes he hasn't gotten round to. Knowing Lowell Fulson, he just can't be satisfied rehashing the past. For him, it seems, the question will forever remain "What's next?"

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From the May 16-22, 1996 issue of Metro

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