Internationally known harmonica player and vocalist Willie Foster played with blues greats Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, and others during the 1950s and early 1960s. Despite health problems later in his life, he toured often and performed in many countries. Foster always returned to his roots in Mississippi’s Delta region, though, where he was known as the “Godfather of the Blues.”
The son of sharecroppers, William James Foster was born on September 19, 1921, on a cotton sack in a field outside Leland, Mississippi. In interviews, he often told the story of his mother’s labor during the late-summer harvest, when the plantation owner told her to keep picking cotton. “She couldn’t get to the house when the pain started,” Foster said in an interview with Stand on the Ocean Records. “Some people run across there and put down a sack—and boom, there I were.” After Foster was born, his mother was unable to have more children. He helped his family farm and sharecrop from ages seven to 17. The family earned about $100 a year, and Foster often wore sacks tied to his feet instead of shoes. After the fourth grade, he attended school only sporadically, when rain kept him from working in the fields.
Foster was seven when he bought his first harmonica for 25 cents on lay-away at the Rexall Drug Store in Leland. With only a dime to put toward the first payment, the boy pumped water to earn the rest of the money, he told Stand on the Ocean Records: “I left there, got on the railroad track and walked home blowin’ my harmonica…’wonka, wonka, wonka ’. I didn’t know nothin’ to blow, but that was my inspiration.” “I was lonely and what really satisfied me was my music,” he recalled in U.S. News and World Report. Before he knew how to play tunes, Foster imitated mockingbirds, passing trains, and other sounds of his youth. When he was nine, his father encouraged him to learn the proper way to play what Delta blues musicians called the “juice harp.”
At age 17 Foster left home and moved north to Detroit, where he worked in automobile factories for three years. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II and was stationed in Europe. There he played harmonica for boxing champion Joe Louis and bombshell actress Betty Grable during a show for soldiers in London.
After the war Foster moved to St. Louis, where he played his first paying gig around 1950 in a nightclub called Green’s Grocery. “It was a colored-owned club,” Foster said in an interview quoted on CNN.com. “Me, a drummer and a guitar man got 50 cents each for the night. We played for two weekends for that, and on the third weekend he paid us $1 each, and the week after that $1.50 apiece. Whew, we had ‘em packin’ in.” It was in St. Louis that Foster formed his band—the Three W’s—with drummer Willie Williams and guitarist Willie Howard. Occasionally Foster would jam with other musicians,
Born William James Foster on September 19, 1921, near Leland, MS; died on May 20, 2001, in Jackson, TN.
Moved to Detroit, MI, to work in the auto industry, age 17; served in U.S. Army in Europe during World War II; moved to St. Louis, MO, after the war; formed threeman band, played first paying gig in St. Louis, c. 1951; moved to Chicago, met bluesman Muddy Waters, 1953; made recording debut with the single “Falling Rain Blues/Four Day Jump,” 1953; played with Waters in Chicago and at Carnegie Hall in New York; moved back to Mississippi, 1963; formed his band, the Rhythm and Blues Upsetters, 1980s; performed in the United States and abroad, 1990s.
including Delta bluesman Frank Frost and guitar great Albert King, who often played across the river in East St. Louis.
Foster often roamed between St. Louis, Mississippi, Detroit, and Chicago. Ultimately he settled in Chicago, becoming a regular presence on Maxwell Street, the legendary strip where blues musicians played for the tips passersby would drop into their tin cups. Here he met blues harmonica great Walter Horton, who helped Foster polish his skills. Eventually Foster joined the Chicago club circuit, playing with the likes of Floyd Jones, Snooky Pryor, and Lazy Bill Lucas. In 1953 he met legendary bluesman Muddy Waters, who invited Foster to join and tour with his band. That same year, Foster made his recording debut with the single “Falling Rain Blues/Four Day Jump,” released on Parrot Records. About a year later he performed with Waters in New York’s famed Carnegie Hall.
Foster moved back to Mississippi in 1963 to take care of his father, who had been involved in a serious car accident. For the rest of his life his home would remain Mississippi, where he would play in blues clubs (called “juke joints”) in Holly Ridge, Indianola, and Greenville. Living in Greenville during the 1970s, Foster often played with bluesmen James “T-Model” Ford, Asie Payton, Frank Frost, and Sam Carr. In the 1980s he formed his band, the Rhythm and Blues Upsetters, a seven-person band with guitarists John Horton and Mickey Rogers.
Foster’s career accelerated in the 1990s when he toured worldwide despite his failing health. In 1991 he met the New Zealand musician Midge Marsden, who invited him to play in her country for several months. While abroad, Foster stepped on a mussel shell and the wound led to an infection, resulting, ultimately, in the amputation of his leg. Several years later—already legally blind from glaucoma—illness led to the removal of his other leg; he was back performing only days after the operation.
If the last decade of Foster’s life was a physical trial, it was a musical triumph. He seemed unstoppable, recording his first compact disc, At Home with the Blues, in 1993, which was released by RMD Music, a label based in his hometown of Greenville, Mississippi. More CDs followed, including I Found Joy in 1995 and Live at Airport Grocery in 2000. His reputation overseas led him to play with musicians in Europe, Australia, and elsewhere. The Juke Joints, a Dutch band, featured songs with him on two of their CDs. Foster had just finished recording a new CD with Mempho Records before he died.
“Blues is a feeling,” he told the U.S. News and World Report. “Black people named it the blues and made a song out of it. But it really means a burden hung over you.” Despite enduring many hardships—including six failed marriages—Foster never lost his sense of humor and positive outlook. He died in his sleep of an apparent heart attack on May 20, 2001, after performing at a private party in Jackson, Tennessee. Foster is survived by his wife, Chestrene, six children, 12 grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.
At Home with the Blues, RMD Music, 1993.
I Found Joy, Palindrome, 1995.
Live at Airport Grocery, Mempho, 2000.
Sacramento Bee, November 2, 1997.
U.S. News and World Report, April 23, 2001, p. 66.
“Bluesman Willie Foster Dead at 79,” CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com (May 21, 2001).
“Willie Foster,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (December 4, 2001).
“Willie Foster,” Big Road Blues, http://bigroadblues.com.archives/williefoster.shtml (December 4, 2001).
“Willie Foster,” Delta Boogie, http://deltaboogie.com/deltamusicians/fosterw.htm (December 4, 2001).
“Willie Foster,” Living Blues, http://www.livingblues.com/foster.htm (December 4, 2001).
“Willie Foster,” Stand on the Ocean, http://www.standontheocean.com/fosterinterview.html (December 4, 2001).