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Jesse Fuller

Jesse Fuller, b. March 12, 1896 in Jonesboro, GA, d. January 29, 1976 in Oakland, CA, one-man band musician, best known for his song "San Francisco Bay Blues".

Fuller was born in Jonesboro, Georgia, near Atlanta. He was sent by his mother to live with foster parents when he was a young child, in a rural setting where he was badly mistreated. Growing up, he worked at numerous jobs: grazing cows for ten cents a day; working in a barrel factory, a broom factory, and a rock quarry; working on a railroad and for a streetcar company; shining shoes; and even peddling hand-carved wooden snakes. By the age of 10 he was playing the guitar in two techniques, as he described it, "frailing" and "picking." In the 1920s he lived in southern California, where he operated a hot-dog stand and was befriended by Douglas Fairbanks. He worked briefly as a film extra in The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and East of Suez. In 1929 he settled in Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco, where he worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad for many years as a fireman, spike driver, and maintenance-of-way worker. He married, and he and his wife, Gertrude, had a family. During World War II, he worked as a shipyard welder, but when the war ended he found it increasingly difficult to secure employment. Around the early 1950s, Fuller's began to consider thoughts the possibility of making a living as a musician. Up to this point, Fuller had never worked as a full-time professional musician, but he was an accomplished guitarist and he had carried his guitar with him and busked for money by passing the hat. He had a good memory for songs and had a large repertoire of crowd-pleasers in diverse styles, including country blues, work songs, ragtime and jazz standards, ballads, spirituals, and instrumentals. For a while he operated a shoe-shine stand, where he sang and danced to entertain passersby. He began to compose songs, many of them based on his experiences on the railroads, and also reworked older pieces, playing them in his syncopated style. When he set out to make a career as a musician, he had difficulty finding reliable musicians to work with: thus his one-man band act was born, and he started calling himself "The Lone Cat." Starting locally, in clubs and bars in San Francisco and across the bay in Oakland and Berkeley, Fuller became more widely known when he performed on television in both the Bay Area and Los Angeles. In 1958, at the age of 62, he recorded with his first album, released by the Good Time Jazz record label. Fuller's instruments included 6-string guitar (an instrument which he had abandoned before the beginning of his one-man band career), 12-string guitar, harmonica, kazoo, cymbal (high-hat) and fotdella. He could play several instruments simultaneously, particularly with the use of a headpiece to hold a harmonica, kazoo, and microphone. In addition, he would generally include at least one tap dance, soft-shoe, or buck and wing in his sets, accompanying himself on a 12-string guitar as he danced. His style was open and engaging. In typical busker's fashion he addressed his audiences as "ladies and gentlemen," told humorous anecdotes, and cracked jokes between songs. He told of his love of his wife and family, but some of his stories were anything but cheerful, often including recapitulations of his tragic childhood, his mother's illness and early death, his determination to escape the segregated racial system of the South, suicide and death. The British label Topic Records issued his album Working on the Railroad in 1959 as a 10-inch vinyl LP, including "San Francisco Bay Blues". This recording is included as track six on the first CD of the Topic Records 70-year anniversary boxed set Three Score and Ten. The fotdella was a musical instrument of Fuller's own creation and construction. He built at least two of them, in slightly different patterns, as evidenced in photographs and film footage of his performances. As a one-man band, Fuller wanted to supply a more substantial accompaniment than the typical high-hat (cymbal) or bass drum used by other street musicians. His solution was the fotdella, a foot-operated percussion bass, consisting of an upright wood box, shaped like the top of a double bass, with a short neck at the top, and six piano bass strings attached to the neck and stretched down over the body. The strings were played by means of six piano or organ pedals, each connected to a padded piano hammer which struck a string. Removing his shoe and placing his sock-covered foot in a rotating heel cradle, Fuller played the six pedals of the fotdella like a piano. With the instrument's six notes, he could play bass lines in several keys. He occasionally played without it, if a song exceeded its limited range. The name was coined by his wife, who took to calling the instrument a "foot-diller" (a "killer-diller" instrument played with the foot), which was shortened to fotdella. The term foot piano has been used by some performers and musicologists to describe this type of instrument. Fuller died in January 1976 in Oakland, California, from heart disease, at the age of 79. He was interred at Evergreen Cemetery, in Oakland. His fotdella and his 1962 Silvertone Electric-Acoustic guitar (the latter purchased from a Sears and Roebuck store in Detroit to replace his Maurer guitar, which had been stolen while he was on tour) are in the possession of the Smithsonian Institution.


Jesse Fuller Biography by Jim O'Neal

Equipped with a band full of instruments operated by various parts of his anatomy, Bay Area legend Jesse Fuller was a folk music favorite in the '50s and '60s. His infectious rhythm and gentle charm graced old folk tunes, spirituals, and blues alike. One of his inventions was a homemade foot-operated instrument called the "footdella" or "fotdella." Naturally, Fuller never needed other accompanists to back his one-man show. His best-known songs include "San Francisco Bay Blues" and "Beat It on Down the Line" (the first one covered by Janis Joplin, the second by the Grateful Dead). Born and raised in Georgia, Jesse Fuller began playing guitar when he was a child, although he didn't pursue the instrument seriously. In his early twenties, Fuller wandered around the southern and western regions of the United States, eventually settling down in Los Angeles. While he was in Southern California he worked as a film extra, appearing in The Thief of Bagdad, East of Suez, Hearts in Dixie, and End of the World. After spending a few years in Los Angeles, Fuller moved to San Francisco. While he worked various odd jobs around the Bay Area, he played on street corners and parties. Fuller's musical career didn't properly begin until the early '50s, when he decided to become a professional musician -- he was 55 years old at the time. Performing as a one-man band, he began to get spots on local television shows and nightclubs. However, Fuller's career didn't take off until 1954, when he wrote "San Francisco Bay Blues." The song helped him land a record contract with the independent Cavalier label, and in 1955 he recorded his first album, Folk Blues: Working on the Railroad with Jesse Fuller. The album was a success and soon he was making records for a variety of labels, including Good Time Jazz and Prestige. In the late '50s and early '60s Jesse Fuller became one of the key figures of the blues revival, helping bring the music to a new, younger audience. Throughout the '60s and '70s he toured America and Europe, appearing at numerous blues and folk festivals, as well as countless coffeehouse gigs across the U.S. Fuller continued performing and recording until his death in 1976.