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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Jesse "The Lone Cat" Fuller - San Francisco Bay Blues

If you went to YouTube and searched for Jesse Fuller as Our Host advised in the California episode, you'd have found this marvelous video of Fuller performing his San Francisco Bay Blues on his invention, the fotdella.

As Dylan notes, the instrument is a good way of cutting back on expenses and if I were a member of his Cowboy Band I might have some cause for concern. "I got hearing about fellers who were making lots of money on records," said Fuller in an interview. "I tried to get some fellers to play with me but they were always busy - drinking wine and gambling. So I said, 'I'm going to make me a one man band.' And I did.

"My wife she call it a fotdella - that's like 'foot diller' cause I play it with my foot. And that's its name." Fuller had a right foot pedal for the fotdella, a left foot pedal to run a high-hat cymbal, and a harness to hold a harmonica and kazoo, all backing accompaniment while Fuller sang and played a twelve-string guitar.

Fuller was a colorful character, born in 1896 in Jonesboro, Georgia. He had a bad home life - no father he ever knew, and a mother who gave him away at age seven. He later recounted he was beaten and starved, "treated worse than a dog."

Fuller constructed his first musical instrument - a mouth bow - at age nine. By his next birthday he had also built a crude guitar and was learning to play songs from various musicians at the Saturday night dances that he managed to sneak into.

When Fuller was twenty-four he hopped a freight train and eventually ended up California, his home base for the rest of his career. He carved wooden snakes and sold them on the streets of Los Angeles, and also worked shining shoes near the gate of the United Artists Studio in Los Angeles. Fuller was befriended by various studio employees and actors, including Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. who helped get Fuller bit parts in several movies, including the classic The Thief of Baghdad.

Fuller moved to the San Francisco Bay area in the late `20s and took a day job with the Southern Pacific Railroad. By the late `40s he was well-known in the Bay area folk and blues community, playing regularly at a small club called the Haight Street Barbecue in the Fillmore district of San Francisco. By the `60s he was playing gigs with the Rolling Stones and the Animals, and his songs were being covered by Peter, Paul, and Mary, Hot Tuna, the Grateful Dead, and Bob Dylan, who used Fuller's You're No Good on his 1962 self-titled album.

Fuller passed away on January 30, 1976 in Oakland, CA.

Sources and Further Reading: Wikipedia article; Roots of the Grateful Dead - Jesse 'The Lone Cat' Fuller

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