Walter Lewis, better known as Furry, was a Mississippi-born bluesman who followed the music north to Memphis. A dexterous guitar-player with a unique voice, he fell in quick with the jug-bands that ruled Beale Street. Lewis played with both Cannon’s Jug Stompers and the Memphis Jug Band.
Furry first recorded solo in 1927. Something of a bad luck time. Over the next two years, the great depression brought most blues careers to a halt. His, too. He spent the next three decades sweeping the street and playing for change in the local park.
But when the blues revival hit in the sixties, interest in Furry Lewis was rekindled. He began to tour again, record again, landed a movie role. Joni Mitchell even wrote a song called Furry Sings the Blues. But Furry hated the song, said Joni was capitalizing on his good name. He was bitter about it ‘til the day he died.
But those of us who love him don’t care about all that. We love him for the music he made. Like this track. The ballad of an old folk hero. You Dead-heads know this one. Furry Lewis with “Kassie Jones.”
Furry Lewis was born Walter E. Lewis on March 6, 1893, in Greenwood, Mississippi. He moved to Memphis, Tennessee at the age of seven, where he lived the rest of his life.
Furry picked up the guitar at a young age, under the guidance of a man known only as “Blind Joe.” By 1908 he was playing parties around town and racking up gigs with W.C. Handy’s orchestra. Lewis hopped trains and traveled for gigs, until he lost his leg in a 1917 railroad accident. He returned to Memphis for a brief respite, playing with both the Memphis Jug Band and Gus Cannon in the meantime, before returning to the road as a part of the Dr. Willie Lewis Medicine Show. Eventually Furry tired of the uncertainty of life as an itinerant musician. In 1922, he took a job as a street sweeper in Memphis, Tennessee, a position he held until his retirement in 1966.
Furry cut a few records in the late twenties, most notably, his versions of the ballads “Kassie Jones” (the second earliest recording in existence, the first is a vaudeville number on an Edison cylinder,) and “Billy Lyons & Stack-O-Lee.” Though both were rather successful, they came just the depression put a halt on record sales. Furry didn’t have the chance to get back in the studio for almost 40 years, when his career was set back in motion by the folk blues revival.
Furry played Beale street throughout the 30’s and 40’s. In the 60’s, his rediscovery led to film and television appearances, opening for the Rolling Stones, and a profile in Playboy magazine. Furry Lewis died on September 14, 1981.