Time period: Post-WWII
Date nominated: Apr 26, 2010
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Jesse Fuller was born in Jonesboro, Georgia, near to 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 a multitude of jobs: grazing cows for ten cents a day, working in a barrel factory, a broom factory, a rock quarry, on a railroad and a streetcar company, shining shoes, and even peddling hand-carved wooden snakes.
He came west and in the 1920s worked briefly as a film extra in The Thief of Bagdad and East of Suez. Eventually he settled in Oakland, California, across the bay from San Francisco, where he worked for the Southern Pacific railroad. During World War II, he worked as a shipyard welder, but when the war ended he found it increasingly difficult to find work. Around the early 1950s, Fuller's thoughts turned toward the possibility of making a living playing music.
Start of Career
Up to this point, Fuller had never worked professionally as a musician, but had certainly been exposed to music, and had learned to play guitar and picked up quite a number of songs: country blues, work songs, ballads, spirituals and instrumentals. And he had carried his guitar with him and played for money by passing the hat. When he decided to try to work as a professional, he found it hard to find other musicians to work with: thus his one-man band act was born.
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, and in 1958 his recording career started with his first album on the Good Time Jazz record label. Fuller's instruments included 12-string guitar, harmonica, kazoo, cymbal (high-hat) and fotdella, several of which could be played simultaneously, particularly with the use of a head-piece to hold the harmonica and kazoo, often at the same time.
Much later, the Grateful Dead covered a few of Fuller's songs, including "The Monkey and the Engineer" and "Beat It on Down the Line". Others who have covered his work include Hot Tuna, Peter, Paul & Mary, Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Bob Dylan, on his debute in 1962.
No discussion of Fuller would be complete without devoting some attention to the fotdella. This is an instrument entirely of Fuller's creation and construction. Keeping in mind that he was a one-man band, the problem was how to supply a more substantial accompaniment than the typical high-hat (cymbal) or bass drum used by street musicians. Fuller's stroke of genius, which he said came to him as he was lying in bed, was this fotdella. It was a foot-operated percussion bass, consisting of a large upright wood box, shaped like the top of a double bass. Attached to a short neck at the top of this box were six bass strings, stretched over the body. And finally, there was the means to play those strings: six foot pedals, each connected to a padded hammer which struck the string, in a homemade wooden contraption.
The six notes of the fotdella allowed him to play a bass line in several keys, though he occasionally would play 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" (as in a "killer-diller" instrument played with the foot), which was shortened to fotdella.
You can get a look at the fotdella in the coloured picture at the bottom of this page. I think he played with it in front of him, but it's turned so you can see it for the picture.
Fuller died in January 1976 in Oakland, California from heart disease. He was 79 years of age.
Jug Band Hall of Fame
Sponsored by Arlo Leach and the National Jug Band Jubilee
Inspired by The Amazing Mister
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