Holly Ridge Cemetery
in Holly Ridge, MS
William James Foster was born on September 19, 1921 outside Leland, Mississippi. In interviews, he told the story of his mother’s labor during the late-summer harvest. The plantation owner made her pick cotton, and “she couldn’t get to the house when the pain started,” Foster admitted in an interview with Stand on the Ocean Records. “Some people run across there and put down a sack–and boom, there I were.” His mother could not have more children after him. He helped his mother and father, who earned about $100 a year, on the farm as early as age 7. Foster often wore sacks tied to his feet instead of shoes. He attended school only sporadically after the fourth grade, when rain kept him from working in the fields.
Also at age 7, Foster bought his first harmonica for 25 cents on lay-away at the Rexall Drug Store in Leland. With only a dime to put toward the first payment, he pumped water to earn the rest of the money. “I left there, got on the railroad track and walked home blowin’ my harmonica,” Foster explained, “I didn’t know nothin’ to blow, but that was my inspiration.”
“I was lonely and what really satisfied me was my music,” he recalled in U.S. News and World Report. Before he knew how to play tunes, Foster imitated mockingbirds, passing trains, and other sounds of his youth. When he was nine, his father encouraged him to learn the proper way to play what Delta blues musicians called the “juice harp.”
Foster moved to Detroit at age 17 to work in automobile factories, and he served in Europe with the U.S. Army during World War II. He played harmonica for boxing champion Joe Louis and bombshell actress Betty Grable during a show for soldiers in London.
In St. Louis, he played his first paying gig around 1950 in a nightclub called Green’s Grocery. “It was a colored-owned club,” Foster said in an interview quoted on CNN.com. “Me, a drummer and a guitar man got 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 apiece. Whew, we had ‘em packin’ in.” It was in St. Louis that Foster formed his band–the Three W’s–with drummer Willie Williams and guitarist Willie Howard. Foster also played with Delta bluesman Frank Frost and guitarist Albert King, who often played across the river in East St. Louis.
After roaming between St. Louis, Mississippi, and Detroit, he settled in Chicago and became a regular presence on Maxwell Street, the legendary strip where blues musicians played for the tips passersby would drop into their tin cups. He met blues harmonica great Walter Horton, who helped Foster polish his skills for the Chicago club circuit, where he played with the likes of Floyd Jones, Snooky Pryor, and Lazy Bill Lucas.
In 1953, he met legendary bluesman Muddy Waters, who him to tour with his band. Foster also made his recording debut in 1953 with the single “Falling Rain Blues/Four Day Jump,” released on Parrot Records. About a year later he performed with Waters in New York’s famed Carnegie Hall.
Foster moved back to Mississippi in 1963 to take care of his father, who had been involved in a serious car accident. For the rest of his life his home would remain Mississippi, where he would play in blues clubs (called “juke joints”) in Holly Ridge, Indianola, and Greenville. Living in Greenville during the 1970s, Foster often played with bluesmen James “T-Model” Ford, Asie Payton, Frank Frost, and Sam Carr. In the 1980s he formed his band, the Rhythm and Blues Upsetters, a seven-person band with guitarists John Horton and Mickey Rogers.
Despite six failed marriages, Foster never lost his sense of humor and positive outlook, and his career accelerated in the 1990s. In 1991, he met the New Zealand musician Midge Marsden, who invited him to play in her country for several months. Foster stepped on a mussel shell abroad, which led to an infection and the amputation of his leg. Several years later, he became legally blind from glaucoma and another illness led to the removal of his other leg.
The last decade of his life was a musical triumph. In 1993, he recorded his first compact disc, At Home with the Blues on the RMD Music label of Greenville, Mississippi. More albums followed, including I Found Joy in 1995 and Live at Airport Grocery in 2000. His reputation overseas led to concerts in Europe, Australia, and elsewhere. The Juke Joints, a Dutch band, featured songs with him on two of their CDs, and Foster recorded another album with Mempho Records right before he died.
“Blues is a feeling,” he told the U.S. News and World Report. “Black people named it the blues and made a song out of it. But it really means a burden hung over you.”