March 12, 1896|
Jonesboro, Georgia, United States
|Died||January 29, 1976
Oakland, California, United States
|Occupation(s)||Musician, singer, songwriter|
|Instruments||Guitar, vocals, harmonica, kazoo, cymbal, fotdella|
|Years active||Early 1950s–1976|
|Labels||Good Time Jazz, Arhoolie, various|
Fuller was born in Jonesboro, Georgia, near Atlanta. He was sent by his mother to live with foster parents when he was a young child, in a rural setting where he was badly mistreated. Growing up, he worked a multitude of jobs: grazing cows for ten cents a day, working in a barrel factory, a broom factory, a rock quarry, on a railroad and a streetcar company, shining shoes, and even peddling hand-carved wooden snakes. By the age of 10 he was playing guitar in two techniques, as he described it, "frailing" and "picking."
He came west and in the 1920s he lived in Southern California, where he operated a hot-dog stand and was befriended by Douglas Fairbanks. He worked briefly as a film extra in The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and East of Suez. In 1929 he settled in Oakland, California, across the bay from San Francisco, where he worked for the Southern Pacific railroad for many years as a fireman, spike driver, and maintenance-of-way worker. He married, and he and his wife Gertrude had a family. During World War II, he worked as a shipyard welder, but when the war ended he found it increasingly difficult to secure employment. Around the early 1950s, Fuller's thoughts turned toward the possibility of making a living playing music.
Start of career
Up to this point, Fuller had never worked as a full-time professional musician, but he was an accomplished guitarist and he had carried his guitar with him and busked for money by passing the hat. He had a good memory for songs and had a large repertoire of crowd-pleasers in diverse styles, including country blues, work songs, ragtime and jazz standards, ballads, spirituals, and instrumentals. For a while he operated a shoe-shine stand, where he sang and danced to entertain passersby. He began to seriously compose his own songs, many of them based on his personal life experiences on the railroads, and he also set about reworking older pieces into his own syncopated style. However, when he decided to try music as a career, he had difficulty finding reliable musicians to work with: thus his one-man band act was born, and he took on the name "The Lone Cat" or Jesse "Lone Cat" Fuller.
Starting locally, in clubs and bars in San Francisco and across the bay in Oakland and Berkeley, Fuller became more widely known when he performed on television in both the Bay Area and Los Angeles, and in 1958, at the age of 62, his recording career started with his first album on the Good Time Jazz record label. Fuller's instruments included 6-string guitar (an instrument which he had abandoned before the beginning of his one-man band career), 12-string guitar, harmonica, kazoo, cymbal (high-hat) and fotdella. He could play several instruments simultaneously, particularly with the use of a head-piece to hold the harmonica, kazoo, and a microphone. In addition, he would generally include at least one tap dance, soft-shoe, or buck and wing in his sets, accompanying himself on the 12-string guitar as he danced. His style was open and engaging, and in typical busker's fashion, he addressed his audiences as "Ladies and Gentlemen," told humorous anecdotes, and cracked jokes between pieces. However, if one listened closely, the stories were anything but cheerful, often including specific recapitulations of his tragic childhood, his mother's illness and early death, his determination to escape the segregated racial system of the South, mentions of suicide and death, and his love of his wife and family.
The British label Topic Records issued a Jesse Fuller album called Working on the Railroad in 1959 as a 10 inch vinyl LP which included San Francisco Bay Blues. The recording is included as track six on the first CD of the Topic Records 70 year anniversary boxed set Three Score and Ten.
The fotdella was a musical instrument of Fuller's own creation and construction. He built at least two of them, in slightly different patterns, as evidenced in photographs and film footage of his performances.
As a one-man band, Fuller's problem was how to supply a more substantial accompaniment than the typical high-hat (cymbal) or bass drum used by other street musicians. His solution, the fotdella, was a foot-operated percussion bass, consisting of a large upright wood box, shaped like the top of a double bass. Attached to a short neck at the top of this box were six piano bass strings, stretched down over the body. The means to play the strings consisted of six piano or organ foot pedals, each connected to a padded piano hammer which struck the string.
By removing his shoe and placing his sock-covered foot in a rotating heel-cradle, Fuller was able to play the six pedals of the fotdella like a piano, and the instrument's six notes allowed him to perform varied bass lines in several keys, though he occasionally would play without it if a song exceeded its limited range.
The name was coined by his wife, who took to calling the instrument a "foot-diller" (as in a "killer-diller" instrument played with the foot), which was shortened to fotdella. The term "foot piano" has been used by some performers and musicologists to describe this type of devise.
Fuller died in January 1976 in Oakland, California, from heart disease at the age of 79. He was interred at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland. Both his fotdella and his 1962 Silvertone Electric-Acoustic guitar (the latter purchased in Detroit at a Sears and Roebuck store to replace his Maurer guitar, which had been stolen while he was on tour) are in the possession of the Smithsonian Institution.
Influence on other musicians
Bob Dylan covered a Jesse Fuller song, "You're No Good," on his debut album in 1962. According to Dylan biographer David Dalton, Dylan borrowed the idea of using a harmonica rack from Fuller, and imitated Fuller's "gravelly vocal style."
Fuller's compositions have been covered by a number of other artists, among them:
- Grateful Dead ("The Monkey And The Engineer" and "Beat It On Down The Line")
- Hot Tuna
- Peter, Paul and Mary
- Janis Joplin ("San Francisco Bay Blues")
- Glenn Yarbrough
- Richie Havens
- Eric Clapton
- Paul McCartney
- Mungo Jerry
- Tim O'Brien & Hot Rize ("99 Years and One Dark Day")
- Punch Brothers
- Dave Rawlings Machine ("Monkey And The Engineer")
- One-man band
- List of blues musicians
- List of Country blues musicians
- List of Blues revival musicians
- List of Country blues musicians
- San Francisco Bay Blues
- List of guitarists by genre
- List of harmonicists
- Peter Siegel, liner notes to Friends of Old Time Music (Smithsonian Folkways, SFW40160) (link)
- Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books Limited. p. 112. ISBN 1-85868-255-X.
- Jesse Fuller: San Francisco Bay Blues, Good Time Jazz S10051, liner notes by Lester Koenig, October 19, 1963)
- Van Ronk, Dave and Wood, Elijah. The Mayor of Macdougal Street, ISBN 978-0-306-81479-2
- Thedeadrockstarsclub.com - accessed November 2009
- National Museum of American History: Jesse Fuller's Silvertone Electric-Acoustic Guitar
- David Dalton, Who Is That Man?: In Search of the Real Bob Dylan, 18 Hyperion, New York 2012
- Elijah Wald's article on Jesse Fuller
- A biography
- A 1971 KRON-TV documentary film about Jesse Fuller
- Illustrated Jesse Fuller discography
- Video of Jesse Fuller playing "San Francisco Bay Blues" on YouTube
- Jesse Fuller at the Internet Movie Database
- Jesse Fuller at Find a Grave