In a more than fifty-year career that has placed him in numerous musical settings, blues guitarist Lowell Fulson continues to record and tour, bringing audiences the sound of authentic blues guitar and a voice of rich expression. Since his early days as string band musician and performer of acoustic down home blues, Fulson—through the incorporation of the guitar influences of T-Bone Walker and the music of Louis Jordan—produced an instrumental style and original numbers that emerged as modern blues classics. As a songwriter, Fulson’s compositions have inspired renditions by such musicians as B.B. King, Ray Charles, and Otis Redding, and continue to be performed in the repertoires of modern bluesmen.
Lowell Fulson was born the son of Martin Fulson and Mammie Wilson on March 31, 1921, in Tulsa, Oklahoma (though sources list him as descending from his father’s Cherokee lineage, Fulson has claimed Choctaw ancestry). His paternal grandfather (named Fulsom) played fiddle, and his mother sang and played guitar. After his father’s death in a sawmill accident around 1927, Fulson’s mother took him to live on the Choctaw Strip, “some land,” as Fulson explained in Honkers and Shouters, “of the Choctaw freedman Indian, mixed blacks between Ataxia and Wopanockee. It belonged to my grandfather, that was where I was brought up, a mission school.” Eventually, Fulson sang spirituals in the Methodist church and tap danced at local events.
By age twelve Fulson taught himself to play the guitar and learned country-and-western songs. Later, he fell under the influence of recordings by Texas bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson and East coast stylist Blind Boy Fuller. Because performing in church provided little remuneration, he played country balls, and in 1938 joined the string band of Dan Wright, a unit comprised of two guitars, two mandolins, three violins, and two banjos.
In 1939 Fulson became the guitar accompanist for blues singer Alger “Texas” Alexander, a vocalist and occasional pianist who previously performed with guitarists Lonnie Johnson and Howling Wolf. Fulson later recounted, in Meeting the Blues, his year-long stint with Alexander: “I went on a trip with him to Texas. First, we started out in Western Oklahoma and played Saturday night fish fries and whatever else they had going on. They’d cut the nickelodeon if they thought you sounded pretty good. They let you play there, and they passed the hat around and take up a little collection.” In his work Blues Off the Record, blues scholar Paul Oliver discussed
For the Record…
Born Lowell Fulson, March 31, 1921, in Tulsa, OK; son of Martin Fulson (a fiddler) and Mammie Wilson; married Adena c. 1939-1949; married Minnie Lou (nightclub owner), early 1950s.
Early 1930s sang at local church functions; mid 1930s played guitar at country dances; worked with Dan Wright’s String Band 1938-39; worked with singer Texas Alexander 1939-40. Military service: U.S. Navy 1943-45.
the lessons gained by Fulson during his musical association with Alexander. “Travelling with [Alexander],” wrote Oliver, “gave Lowell a breadth of experience which was to stand him in good stead in his maturity. He learned from Texas Alexander the art of improvising blues on situations and events from his own life.”
After his travels with Texas Alexander, Fulson moved to Gainesville, Texas, in 1941. In Gainesville he worked as a fry cook and played guitar at Saturday night country balls. In 1943 he was drafted into the U.S. Navy. While stationed in Alameda Air Station near Oakland, California he spent time on leave watching Texas guitar great T-Bone Walker perform—a musician who would have a profound influence on Fulson’s post war career. Stationed on the island of Guam in 1945, he entertained in USO shows held at a rest camp for naval personnel.
Discharged from the Navy in 1945, Fulson briefly returned to Duncan, Oklahoma before moving to Oakland, California, where he played small nightclubs. In 1946, he formed a group with pianist Eldridge McCarthy and recorded on Bob Geddins’s Big Town label and Down Home labels (Geddins often leased his recordings to Jack Lauderdale’s Los Angeles-based Swing Time label). As Geddins recalled in Honkers and Shouters, “Lowell Fulson was the first great bluesman I put on wax…. [I] Bought him an electric guitar and amplifier—cost a hundred and eighty dollars. And he did a lot of rehearsing in the Seventh Street Music Shop.” Fulson’s first two sides were “Crying Blues” and “Miss Katie Lee Blues.” Not long after, Fulson sent for his brother Martin and recorded duo-guitar sides of down home blues. In 1948 Fulson recorded the hit “Three O’Clock in the Morning Blues” —a number which inspired B.B. King’s 1952 hit, “Three O’clock Blues.” In the book Rock is Rhythm & Blues, King later cited his musical debt and admiration for Fulson: “I learned a lot from Lowell Fulson. In fact my first big record, Three O’clock Blues,’ was written by Lowell. And I used to love him—still do.” In 1950 Fulson scored a hit on Swing Time label with blues pianist Memphis Slim’s number “Everyday I Have the Blues.” Among Fulson’s popular Swing Time numbers were “Blue Shadows” and “Lonesome Christmas.” In 1949 he cut sides for the Aladdin label, and a year later formed a road band which included pianist Ray Charles (who later recorded Fulson’s composition “Sinner’s Prayer”). During its tenure on the road the group also included jazz saxophonist Stanley Turrentine who assisted in writing the band’s arrangements. For the next two years, Fulson’s band performed on R&B package tours of the South and Southwest.
In 1953 Fulson recorded for Aladdin in New Orleans, and a year later began recording with the Chess subsidiary label, Checker. Recorded in Dallas in September of 1954, his debut Checker single, “Reconsider Baby,” emerged a perennial blues classic and has been covered by artists from Elvis Presley to Eric Clapton. In the Chess Chicago studio in February 1956, Fulson recorded “It’s All Your Fault Baby” and Willie Dixon’s “Tollin’ Bells.” In his memoir I Am the Blues, Dixon stated, “I wrote ’Tollin’ Bells’ for Lowell Fulson and the idea was like in New Orleans, when they’d have a funeral, guys would be marching for the funeral with the church bells tolling.” Fulson continued to record for Checker until 1962. In the Blackwell Guide to the Blues, Dick Shurman emphasized the impact of Fulson’s Checker recordings: “The standard those records set for slashing guitar, supremely animated singing, generally unobtrusive but propulsive and dynamic accompaniment, and outright overall expressiveness is in no apparent danger of eclipse by Fulson or the many peers who took due heed of his style.”
By the 1960s Fulson made several recordings in the rhythm and blues vein. Recording on the Los Angeles-based Kent label, he landed the 1965 hit with the R&B number “Black Nights,” his first smash hit in a decade. His number 1960s “Tramp” was later covered by Otis Redding and Carla Thomas. In 1966 Fulson played several Chicago clubs and, two years later, recorded for the Jewel label in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. He toured Europe in 1969 and appeared at the 1970 Ann Arbor Blues Festival. In his Down Beat magazine review of the Ann Arbor festival, Jim O’Neal took note that “Fulson’s beautiful, echoing guitar notes on the opening of ‘You’re Gonna Miss’ set a lofty mood for his set. Fulson’s deep, confident vocals were a pleasure to hear.”
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Fulson performed steadily at festivals and clubs. After encountering Fulson in the early 1980s, English blues scholar Paul Oliver described, in his work Blues Off the Record, Fulson’s timeless character: “a tall, heavily built man on who voluminous suits hang rather uncomfortably, Lowell cuts a striking figure.” During the 1980s Fulson returned to the studio, producing such efforts as the 1988 Rounder LP It’s a Good Day— an album that, as Don Snowden observed in the liner notes to Hung Down Head, “demonstrated that he had lost none of his ability to come up with captivating variations off his signature sound.”
Fulson’s career saw an upswing in the 1990s when he recorded for Ron Levy’s Bullseye label which saw the release of Fulson’s 1992 album Hold On— recorded with Jimmy McCracklin and saxophonist Bobby Forte’—and the 1995 LP Update Them Blues. Recent tributes testify to the lasting influence of Fulson’s music. In 1993 Fulson appeared on B.B. King’s Blues Summit LP, and in 1996 was paid tribute by guitarist Duke Robillard on the album Duke’s Blues. In the liner notes to Hold On, Billy Vera wrote “Lowell has never stopped: He is still creative. A restless non-traditionalist, he keeps up with the times, yet never self-consciously panders to the latest trends.” Still an active performer and recording artist, Fulson is one of the few bluesmen performing today who exhibits a loping, swinging guitar sound and a subtle approach rooted in the authentic school of post war T-Bone Walker blues.
Lowell Fulson, Chess, 1959.
Back Home Blues, Night Train, 1959.
Now, United, 1969.
In a Heavy Bag, Jewel, 1970.
Hung Down Head, Chess, 1970 reissued Chess/MCA, 1991. (With brother Martin Fulson) Lowell Fulson (Early Recordings), Arhoolie, 1975.
Everyday I Have the Blues, Night Train, 1984.
One More Blues, Evidence, 1984.
Blue Days Black Nights, Ace, 1986.
It’s a Good Day, Rounder, 1988.
Hold On, Rounder/Bullseye Blues, 1992.
Update Them Blues, Rounder/Bullseye Blues, 1995.
Sinner’s Prayer, Night Train, 1995.
The Swing Time Records Story: R&B, Blues, and Gospel 1946-1952, Capricorn Records.
San Francisco Blues, Black Lion, 1988.
Blues Masters Volume I: Urban Blues, Rhino.
The Blues Guitar Box, Sequel.
Comin’ Home the Blues Vol. II, Music Club.
The Best of Chess Vol. I, MCA/Chess.
Dixon, Willie with Don Snowden, I Am the Blues: The Willie Dixon Story, Da Capo, 1989.
Govenar, Alan, Meeting the Blues: The Rise of the Texas Sound, Taylor Publishing Co., 1988.
Oliver, Paul, Blues Off the Record, Da Capo, 1988.
Reed, Lawrence, Rock is Rhythm And Blues (The Impact of the Mass Media), Michigan State University, 1974.
Shaw, Arnold, Honkers and Shouters: The Golden Age of Rhythm and Blues, MacMillan Pub. Co. Inc., 1978.
The Blackwell Guide to Blues Records, edited by Paul Oliver, Blackwell Reference, 1989.
Down Beat, October 1, 1970, p. 30, 34.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from liner notes by Don Snowden to Hung Down Head, Chess/MCA, 1991; from the notes by Billy Vera to, Hold On, Bullseye Blues, 1992.