Willie Foster

Monday 11 June 2001 00:00 BST

Willie James Foster, harmonica player and singer: born Leland, Mississippi 19 September 1921; married; died Jackson, Tennessee 20 May 2001.

Willie Foster was a veteran harmonica player who, in the 1950s, took the blues of his native Mississippi to the clubs of Chicago and enjoyed success working alongside legends like Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed.

Known to admirers as "The Godfather of the Blues", he once declared, "I am the blues from the bottom of my foot to the hair on my head. I was born in the blues, raised in the blues and lived the blues."

He was, in fact, born on a cotton sack in a field on the Mississippi Delta. An only child, he loved music and at the age of seven, using the 25 cents he had earned as a water-carrier, purchased his first harmonica. His parents were desperately poor: he frequently wore old sacks on his feet rather than shoes and he rarely attended school. Music offered a temporary escape from this privation and, whilst learning to imitate birds and trains, he absorbed the sounds he heard at the weekends in local juke joints.

At 17, in common with many other young blacks keen to put the racism and poverty of the Old South behind them, he headed north to Detroit where he worked in the automobile industry. He enlisted during the Second World War and found himself driving trucks in England. In 1943 he made his stage début, appearing alongside Billy Eckstine, Joe Louis and Betty Grable and playing the only tune he knew, Lionel Hampton's "Hamp's Boogie".

He returned to the United States at the end of the war and moved to St Louis, making his professional début there in 1951. He later recalled:

It was a coloured-owned club. Me, a drummer and a guitar man got paid 50 cents each for the night. We played for two weekends for that, and on the third weekend he paid us $1 each, and the week after that $1.50 a piece. Whew, we had 'em packin' in!

His young guitarist Frank Frost would later become an influential harmonica player and long cited the older man as a primary influence.

Foster eventually found himself in Chicago, playing for tips on Maxwell Street, before graduating to the city's club scene where his fellow performers included Walter Horton, Leroy Foster, Snooky Pryor and Lazy Bill Lucas. By 1953 he was working with Muddy Waters and in that same year he cut his first sides: "Falling Rain Blues" and "Four Day Jump". He continued to work the club circuit and at a 1957 session for Cobra recorded "Crying the Blues" and "Little Girl".

By 1963 he was back in Mississippi where he remained, becoming a mainstay of the juke joints around Indianola and Greenville for nearly four decades. In 1991 a blues fan from New Zealand named Midge Marsden heard him perform and organised the first of several international tours.

In 1995, an acclaimed disc entitled I Found Joy was issued on the Palindrome label and paved the way for an even more successful album for Mempho Records, Live at Airport Grocery (2000). Numbers like "Dear Old Dad", "Love Everybody" and "Honey Ain't Sweet" fully capture his expressive, mournful singing and playing and, in the words of one critic, "breathe the essence of the blues".

Paul Wadey

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