Fuller, Blind Boy
Fuller, Blind Boy
One of the most popular exponents of the Piedmont blues style, guitarist and singer Blind Boy Fuller recorded, between 1935 and 1940, 135 sides that found their way into the repertoires of a great number of bluesmen of the pre-World War II era. An understudy of guitarist Blind Gary Davis, Fuller created a personal style which brought an individual stamp to the large body of his work. Fuller’s musical repertoire included ragtime-influenced “hokum” songs (double entendre numbers) and down home blues, several of which he displayed an exceptional talent on slide guitar. Though much of his material was culled from traditional folk and blues numbers, Fuller possessed a formidable finger-picking guitar style-one that influenced musicians such as Brownie McGhee who, during the first years of his career, performed under the name of Blind Boy Fuller No. 2.
Blind Boy Fuller was born Fulton Allen in 1908 in the small country market town of Wadesboro, North Carolina. Despite his later musical sobriquet, Fuller was born sighted, and attended school in Wadesboro until the fourth grade. After his mother’s death, his father, Calvin Allen, moved the family to Rockingham, North Carolina, where Fulton eventually learned to play the guitar.
In 1926 Allen married fourteen year-old Cora Mae Martin and moved to Rockingham, North Carolina. The following year, he began to lose his eyesight. As blues scholar Bruce Bastin explained in Red River Blues, “While he was living in Rockingham he began to have trouble with his eyes. He went to see a doctor in Charlotte who allegedly told him that he had ulcers behind his eyes, the original damage having been caused by some form of snow-blindness.” In search of work, Allen took his young wife to live in Winston Salem, where for short time he found employment in a coal yard. Not long after, Allen became blind and, without means of employment, turned to music as a permanent vocation. Studying the records of country bluesmen like Blind Blake, Allen became a formidable musician in the use of finger picks and the playing of slide guitar.
In 1928 Allen briefly played the tobacco warehouses in Winston-Salem and Danville, Virginia, and then moved to Durham. In Looking up at Down, William Barlow, described how “Fuller soon became a familiar figure, playing along [Durham’s] Pettigrew Street and around the nearby tobacco warehouses.” Through a permit requested on behalf the Welfare Department, Allen played the “Black Bottom” section of Durham, and not long after, developed a small local following. Allen gathered around him musicians such as guitar and washboard player George Washington, and a blind South Carolina-born guitarist, Gary Davis (Reverend “Blind” Gary Davis). A brilliant finger-style guitarist, Davis served as Allen’s guitar instructor. Allen’s musical circle also included a young blind harmonica player, Sonny Terry, who would eventually make his recording debut with Allen.
In 1935 Allen came to the notice of young white record store manager and talent scout, James Baxter Long. While managing Durham’s United Dollar Store, Long encountered Allen, and brought him to the attention of the American Recording Company. In July 1935, Long took Allen, Gary Davis, and George Washington to New York City where the musicians cut sides for the ARC label group—sessions featuring solo pieces like “I’m a Rattlesnakin’ Daddy” and numbers such as the traditional “Rag, Mama, Rag,” on which Allen is accompanied by guitarist Gary Davis and Washington on wash-board. To promote the material, as Bruce Bastin explained in the liner notes to Blind Boy Fuller: East Coast Piedmont Style, “Long decided that the name Fulton Allen would not sell 78s, and as Fulton would always be elided in speech, Blind Boy was coined. Washington, a light-skinned near albino, was the ubiquitous ‘Red’ from Bull City, so became Bull City Red.”
In April 1936, Long organized another New York session for Fuller—now known as Blind Boy Fuller—during which the guitarist recorded ten solo performances. Fuller’s February 1937 session included the accompaniment of Bull City Red and guitarist Floyd Council. In
Born Fulton Allen, c. 1908, in Wadesboro, North Carolina, died February 13, 1941, in Durham, North Carolina; son of Calvin Allen and Jane Walker; married Cora Mae Martin, 1926.
Worked as a laborer in a coal yard; by 1928 performed as a street musician and learned guitar from Gary Davis; 1935 recorded for the American Recording Company; first recorded with Sonny Terry in 1937; in July 1937 recorded sides for Decca label; throughout late 1930s performed in the North Carolina cities of Raleigh, Greensboro, and Chapel Hill, and Memphis, Tennessee; October 1938 attended recording session in Columbia, South Carolina; recorded in Memphis 1939; last sessions for ARC took place in New York City 1940.
July 1937, Fuller, after auditioning for talent scout Mayo “Ink” Williams, recorded for the Decca label (he had never signed a contract with J.B. Long). Following the session with Decca, Fuller agreed to sign a contract with Long that placed him under his permanent management. During December 1937, Fuller performed in the studio with harmonica stylist Sonny Terry, cutting such sides as “Bye Bye Baby Blues.”
In 1938 Fuller was incarcerated for shooting a pistol at his wife. In Looking up at Down, William Barlow described Fuller as “a diminutive man with an attractive face and pleasant smile, but [he] also had a fiery temper. He was a smart dresser, and he usually carried a thirty-eight pistol, which on one occasion he threatened to use on his agent J.B. Long. On another he did use it to shoot his wife, wounding her in the leg.” Because of his connections with Long, and the unwillingness of his wife to testify against him despite her leg wound, Fuller was released from jail.
Fuller recorded with Sonny Terry in April 1938 and, in October of the same year, attended another session in Columbia, South Carolina—a date that produced the autobiographical number “Big House Bound,” dedicated to his time spent in Durham’s jailhouse. At a 1939 session held in Memphis, Fuller—accompanied by Washington and Sonny Terry—yielded such numbers as “You’ve Got Something There” with a unknown guitarist (possibly Sonny Jones). He also recorded with Terry and Washington (now billed as Oh Red) on the suggestive number “I Want Some of Your Pie.” In the liner notes to the album Story of the Blues, English blues historian Paul Oliver observed that the “I Want a Piece of Your Pie” exhibits “a rag flavor and the ambiguities that are often found in Fuller’s blues.”
Fuller’s last two recording sessions took place in New York City during 1940. One of these sessions produced the hit, “Step it and Go,” modeled after “Bottle up and Go,” a number popularized by Mississippi singer and guitarist Tommy McClennan. Though he emerged the last of the pre-World War II top-selling bluesmen, Fuller saw little monetary reward for his music. Suffering from a kidney aliment brought on by excessive drinking, he received intermittent hospital treatment and care at home from a family doctor. Eventually, Fuller refused admission to the hospital and remained under the supervision of his wife, Cora Mae. He died in Durham, North Carolina, on February 13, 1941. That same year, Brownie McGhee, in honor of his former mentor, recorded “The Death of Blind Boy Fuller” for the Okeh label.
Fuller was often criticized by blues critics and historians as a derivative musician—as opposed to a composer of one’s unique own material. Fuller’s ability to fuse together elements of other traditional and contemporary songs and reformulate them into his own performances, attracted a broad audience who were drawn to his facile guitar work and able voice. In a music rooted in a long history of borrowing and redefining melodies, themes and lyric lines, Fuller represented, in his performances, a sense of identity enabling him to become, as John Cowley noted in The Blackwell Guide, “one of the most successful street singer-guitarists on gramophone records during the New Deal period.
Truckin’ My Blues Away, Yazoo, 1978.
East Coast Piedmont Style, Columbia, 1991.
Blind Boy Fuller 1935-1940, Travelin’ Man, 1994.
Blind Boy Fuller Volume 1: 1935-1936, Document, 1994.
Blind Boy Fuller Volume 2: 1936-1937, Document, 1994.
Blind Boy Fuller Volume 3: 1937, Document, 1994.
Blind Boy Fuller Volume 4: 1937-1938, Document, 1994.
Blind Boy Fuller Volume 5, 1938-1940, Document, 1994.
Blind Boy Fuller Volume 6: 1940, Document, 1994.
Remaining Titles 1935-1940, Best of the Blues.
Get Your Yas Yas Out: The Essential Recordings of Blind Boy Fuller, Indigo, 1996.
The Story of the Blues, Columbia.
The Slide Guitar: Bottles, Knives, & Steel, Columbia, 1990.
Barlow, William, Looking up at Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture, Temple University Press, 1989.
Bastin, Bruce, Red River Blues: The Blues Tradition in the Southeast, University of Illinois Press, 1986.
The Black Guide to the Blues Records, Blackwell Reference, 1989.
Bastin, Bruce, Blind Boy Fuller: East Coast Piedmont Style, Columbia.
Oliver, Paul, The Story of the Blues, Columbia.
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