Jesse Fuller (1896-1976) - Songwriter and musical performer

This job I got is a little to hard
Dangerous and money, little pay

Georgia born, bluesman who found his fortune in San Francisco of the 60’s, he inspired a generation of folk singers and pathed the way for artists such as Van Morrison and the Grateful Dead.

Born in 1896 in Jonesboro, Georgia, Jesse Fuller did not have an easy childhood. He never laid eyes on his father and at the age of seven his mother gave him up as well. Taken in by the Wilson’s, a family who lived near Macedonia, Georgia he was abused and mistreated. Referring to the ritual starvation and beatings he was “treated worse than dog” in his own words. In an attempt to seek refuge from these torments Jesse turned to music. At the age of nine he constructed a mouth bow with wax and string. Soon after he built himself a primitive guitar and by ten was learning songs that he heard in the Saturday night dances he snuk into.

As soon as Jesse had completed third grade he escaped from Georgia and ran away, working his way across the south he held a number of jobs involving manual labour such as lumber yards and railroad factories, when money ran short he sang on corners and went to minstrel shows where he learnt most his repertoire of folk and blues songs which he practised and played on his harmonica and guitar.

Now in his early twenties Jesse finally made a break from the south and headed for Cincinnati where he manned a tram for a period before joining the Hagenback Wallace Circus as a canvas stretcher. It whilst the circus was in Michigan that Jesse realised that he could earn good money by playing his guitar on the corners for the soldiers returning from World War I.

When he was twenty-four, he hopped a freight train and went to California, the place he would live out the rest of his life. He arrived in Los Angeles with $175 sewn in the hem of his pants, the cash he had picked up playing in the streets along the journey. Using his considerable talents he carved wooden snakes and sold them on the streets of Los Angeles, and also set to shining shoes in front of the United Artists Studio. It was here that he met actor Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and director Raoul Walsh. They got Jesse bit parts in several movies, including "East of Suez", "Thief of Bagdad" and "Heart of Dixie" and provided the money to finance a hotdog stand for him.

In 1929 at the age of thirty-three he moved to Oakland and took a job with Southern Pacific Railroad icing cars. After a few years faithful services the company awarded Jesse an annual rail pass for “self and wife”. Jesse decided to return to Georgia to find himself a “real nice wife to go with the pass”. It seems he was successful in his endeavour as he returned in brief to Oakland with a new bride.

When war struck the world for the second time that century Jesse returned to manual labour and worked throughout the conflict in shipyards up and down the pacific coast. With this job he was able to save up enough money to buy a house in West Oakland in which to raise his three daughters, Jarania, Alice and Gertrude.

As America returned to normal and the wounds of war were healing Jesse turned back to music and gradually devoted himself more and more to this art until come the late 40’s he was being sought out by both jazz and folk artists in the Frisco Bay area. A few years later, early 1950’s, he began to play regularly at the Haight Street Barbecue, a small club in Fillmore.
At the same time he opened a small shoe shine stand on College Avenue in Berkley which attracted not only the scruffy shoed but music fans as well who wanted to hear him sing as he worked and play whilst he rested. He would play both his own original music as well as traditional folk and blues. One of the most popular of his own pieces was “San Francisco Bay Blues”.

Making use of imagination and talent in the late 50’s Fuller devised a new musical instrument he called the “fotdella”. The fotdella was a big six string bass viola that he would play with his foot via a system of pedals and levers. Jesse says he devised this instrument to because he heard there were some people earning a lot of money from music and since his attempts to recruit a band had failed - “I tried to get some fellers to play with me but they were always busy - drinking wine and gamblin’” he set up a one man band.
To complete the set up Jesse Fuller had a right foot pedal for the fotdella, a left foot pedal for the high-hat cymbal and a harness for the harmonica and kazoo. As if this was not enough Jesse would also play a twelve string guitar and sing at the same time.

Soon after with the help of his close friend and folksinger Barbara Dane, Fuller’s career began to take off. He and Barbara featured at the Ash Grove in LA in 1958 and throughout the state in a series of other folk venues. In the summer of 1959, Alan Lomax of the University of California put together an international folk festival in which Jesse featured as the guest of honour. But his stroke of luck, his big break, came the same year at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Jesse had heard though the grapevine that he would be invited, but he never was so he went anyway, When he showed up Jimmy Lyons, the director of the festival, had no room in the schedule for him so he set Fuller in a small booth in near the stage and plugged his mike into the speaker system. Jesse was given the task of playing between the matinee and evening performances. Amongst the listeners was one of the artists performing at the festival, Chris Barber, leader of British band Chris Barber’s Jazzband.
An invitation for Jesse to accompany him on a European tour arrived shortly after, as Jesse was returning from a stunt picking walnuts. The tour was a blow away success and during the sixties Jesse continued to play numerous events and made regular appearances at concerts, festivals and coffee-houses throughout the Sates. He returned to England in 1966 where he joined both the Rolling Stones and The Animals on stage.

Some of his songs, such as the Monkey and the Engineer were included in the repertoire by a few rock and roll bands and folk performers. Peter, Paul and Mary turned "San Francisco Bay Blues" into a massive hit for themselves as well as leading to a recording of the same song by Hot Tuna and other many folk singers over the years.

Jesse Fuller died on January 30, 1976 in Oakland. By the start of the 1980s, though folk artists still included some of his songs in their repertoire, little of Jesse's recorded work was still available. A few albums of his 1960s work continued to be offered by small record companies, an example being Fantasy Records' 'Brother Lowdown', a repackaging of Fuller's Prestige recordings, and 'The Lone Cat' on GTJ with was digitally remastered and released on CD in 1990 by GTJ.

  • Good Time Jazz (GTJ) - 1958
  • Blues, Jazz, Spirituals... - (unkown) - 1958
  • The Lone Cat - (GTJ) - 1961
  • Brother Lowdown - (unkown) - 1963
  • San Francisco Bay Blues (Prestige Records) - 1964
  • Jesse Fuller Favorites - (Prestige Records)- 1965
  • Frisco Bound - (Arhoolie Records) - 1967
  • Jazz, Folk Songs, Spirituals and Blues - (unkown)

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