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Influential West Coast BluesmanCopyright © 1999The Scotsman, 1999
Fulson, LowellLowell Fulson was not only a major name in his own right in the development of post-war blues, but also served as either a sometime employer of or a leading influence on a number of famous artists. He was a major formative influence on the music of B B King, while his bands in the early-50s included musicians like pianist and arranger Ray Charles, guitarist Ike Turner, and saxophonists Stanley Turrentine and King Curtis.
Fulson was born on a Choctaw Indian reservation near Tulsa, of mixed African American and Native American lineage, but grew up in Atoka, Oklahoma, near the Texas border. His early musical experiences as a child were with gospel music in church, but by his teens he had acquired a taste for the blues which he would eventually turn into a successful career. In the first instance, though, he played for a time in an Oklahoma string band in a style closer to country music.
In 1939, he was given the opportunity to take over from Chester Burnett (better known as the legendary Howlin' Wolf) as guitarist in the band led by the country-blues singer Alger 'Texas' Alexander, which operated out of Gainesville, Texas. He remained in Alexander's band for three years, until he was drafted in 1943, and served his two years in the US Navy in Oakland, California.
In what was to be a crucial meeting, he came across the small shop and record label run by Bob Geddins, a famous figure on the West Coast blues scene. Geddins offered him a recording contract on his demobilisation in 1946, and he stayed on in California, cutting discs for Geddins's small but influential labels, and building a word of mouth reputation.
Fulson built his sound on a mix of the swinging Texas jump-blues and a more sophisticated urban approach then emerging on the West Coast, and welded them into a rich but relaxed jazz-influenced rhythm and blues style. He had his first real hit with "Three O'Clock Blues" in 1948, followed by "Everyday I Have the Blues" (a re-working of Memphis Slim's "Nobody Loves Me" which later furnished a major hit for B B King) and "Blue Shadows" in 1950, the year in which he drafted a young Ray Charles into his touring band.
Fulson's West Coast success did not escape the attention of rhythm and blues specialists back east, and in 1954 he was signed to the Checker label, a subsidiary of the famous Chess Records in Chicago. He promptly supplied them with a hit single, "Reconsider Baby", which was later covered with even greater success by Elvis Presley.
As with many of his peers, Fulson's laconic style began to be regarded as unfashionable with the advent of rock and roll, and his career began to slow down, although he was one of the major influences on the blues revival in Britain in the mid-60s. He continued to tour and record for Checker until 1962, when he ended his association with the label. Seeing the way the wind blew, he modified his style to take on a more overt soul feel after signing to Kent Records in 1964 (using the name Lowell Fulsom), and scored a sizeable hit in 1967 with "Tramp", a song which was subsequently covered as a duet by Otis Redding and Carla Thomas.
He continued to perform on the blues club circuit in the 70s, and was a regular on the international festival circuit from the mid-80s. He returned to the recording studio on a regular basis from that time as well, for labels like Rounder and Bullseye, the most recent of which was the wryly but appropriately titled Them Update Blues (1995), which won him a Grammy nomination to add to various honours he won, including entry into both the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame. He continued to perform until 1997, when failing health forced his retirement.
Lowell Fulson died from complications arising from kidney disease, diabetes and congestive heart failure. He was survived by his partner, Tina Mayfield, and several members of his family, including two sons, two daughters and thirteen grandchildren.