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Obituary: Lowell Fulson

ONE DARK night in Mississippi, the blues singer and guitarist Lowell Fulson was told his life wasn't worth a nickel. His band's coach had accidentally jammed a white woman's car up against a bridge, bringing rednecks running out of the woods. "It was my trumpet player caused the problem - he was from the South, Carolina, but wouldn't say yassuh, nossuh to them. I'm trying to calm the sheriff down, and he shouts, `You know how much it costs me to kill you? A nickel. That's what the shell costs.' "

A lifelong pragmatist, Fulson placated the sheriff with the "yassuh, nossuh" that was obligatory social etiquette for a black musician in the American South in 1956. Retelling the story 40 years later, he bore little resentment, convinced that the world the sheriff and his cronies epitomised had gone forever.

The sheriff had seen a worthless blues singer - Fulson was a bluesman, for sure. His credentials were impeccable, including launching the career of B.B. King, and writing hits like "Reconsider Baby", which became a staple of Elvis Presley's repertoire. But Fulson's influence stretched across genres, from the earliest of itinerant blues right up to the most sophisticated Nineties R&B.

When I spent a couple of days with Fulson and his manager-landlady Tina Mayfield in 1995, his career seemed lower than low-key. But that was the way he liked it. Relaxed, cheroot-chomping, he would get regular calls to guest with B.B. King, or from Eric Clapton's publishers, but where many would have parlayed such contacts into a star-studded comeback, Fulson was happy cutting small-label albums and playing the occasional Christmas show. If he reckoned he'd packed enough into the first 50 years of his life to allow him to take it easy for a decade or three, he had good reason.

It was Fulson's grandfather, Old Man Henry Fulson, who started it all. Brought over as a slave from Africa in the 1850s, he escaped, and was adopted by a Choctaw tribe, marrying a Choctaw woman - Lowell's grandmother - and building a reputation as a medicine man. Even at 90, Henry's hillbilly violin was still boisterous enough to entrance the young Lowell, who was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921. Before long he was sneaking away with an uncle's guitar, always retuning it perfectly afterwards to conceal the unauthorised loan.

By his teens, Lowell Fulson had left home for a guitar-playing job with the Dan Wright String Band, who breached musical colour bars by playing "white" Western Swing. After meeting the harmonica player Texas Alexander in 1939, Fulson hit the road with him, once he had got hold of a new guitar from the pawnshop. He "had to give my old one back to my mother-in-law - she wouldn't have me playing no Devil's music on it". But as soon as Fulson had learned to work a crowd and stepped out on some solo dates, the draft intervened. In 1944 he was posted to the Pacific island of Guam.

The navy wanted him on submarine duty. Fulson had different ideas: "I bluffed my way into the kitchen, and worked up this special chicken dish for the base commander. That helped decide him I didn't need shipping out on no submarine." Soon he linked up wth a black piano player, and a trio of white Bostonians, whom he schooled in country and western, and Louis Jordan-style jump blues - both styles were a hit with American sailors and Guam natives alike.

Once honourably discharged, Fulson landed a record deal in Oakland, California, and brought over his brother Martin to play second guitar. They soon started making waves with songs like "Three O'Clock Blues" and "Everyday I Have the Blues". A young Memphis DJ called B.B. King was an enthusiastic plugger of Fulson's records; in return, Fulson gave "Three O'Clock Blues", publishing and all, to B.B. It would become King's first hit, and together King and Fulson would forge a whole new strand of blues music, more fluid and sophisticated than the gritty, urban blues stomping out of Chicago.

Fulson's first national hit, "Reconsider Baby", was typical, a standard blues sequence refashioned into something suave, seductive and unique. The song came to him on a fishing trip: "You'd think I was a fool, sitting out there in Texas at night with a brand new Fleetwood Cadillac next to me and my line out. But I didn't want no company. You can't use the music that everybody uses - you gotta regenerate everything. Fishing relaxed me, and that helped."

"Reconsider Baby" 's hit status removed whatever stability Fulson's rollercoaster life had enjoyed. His success inspired his pianist, one Ray Charles, to try out on his own, taking several key band members with him. Fulson's sound was a crucial ingredient in Charles's groundbreaking recipe for soul, but Brother Ray did partly repay the debt by covering a Fulson song, "Sinner's Prayer". Forced to rely on session musicians, Fulson lost his way until the mid- Sixties, when he signed to a new label - at which point he nearly lost his name. A secretarial error at Kent records rechristened him Lowell Fulsom, and the label insisted on sticking with the misspelt name for several years.

By 1967, blues was out of favour, but black Americans recognised Fulson's smooth R&B as soul, and put songs like "Tramp" and "Black Night" into the charts. Ironically, Fulson's rivals were more convinced of his genius than his own record label was - Otis Redding spotted "Tramp" as a hit, and recorded a version in a duet with Carla Thomas that out-sold Fulson's original. If "Reconsider Baby" was Fulson's blues standard, covered by Elvis Presley and, more recently, Eric Clapton, "Tramp" was his soul staple, recorded or sampled by everyone from Joe Tex to Salt-N-Pepa, De La Soul and Prince.

Having given one song to B.B., Fulson was smart enough to keep hold of the rest, and a succession of covers helped him through the next lean period which preceded a modest revival in the Eighties and after. By then, his audience was pretty much restricted to blues diehards, but Fulson had made his indelible mark on musical history. Whether you count his impact on B.B. King, and thence to Eric Clapton and just about every electric guitarist in the world, or Ray Charles, and hence the world of soul, his influence was pervasive, and was more recently honoured with induction to the Blues Hall Of Fame, plus a Grammy nomination, last year. Twenty- five cents will never be worth as much again.

Lowell Fulson, singer, guitarist and songwriter: born Tulsa, Oklahoma 31 March 1921; died Los Angeles 6 March 1999.