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After Red got out of the orphanage, he lived with his grandmother in Pittsburgh. During this period, he says the husband of one of his aunts pummeled him constantly. Red attempted to run away, but the police quickly tracked him down. When he returned, he says his aunts would routinely instruct their boyfriends to beat him up. His only refuge was to go up on the roof with his guitar and play the blues.
Red learned from anyone who could show him a new technique or tuning, whether it was an obscure Pittsburgh street musician or a living legend such as Waters. The two men met after Red played a song over the phone for Chess Records co-founder Phil Chess. The record impresario sent him fare for a bus ticket to Chicago.
"When I got there, I asked Leonard Chess where I was staying, and they said Muddy would be by in 15 minutes, that I'd be staying at Muddy's house," Red recalls. "I couldn't believe it. He took me out to the Zanzibar, where he played, and I asked him all kinds of questions, like what did he use for a slide, and he showed me. He took me with him, and that's where I met Jimmy Rogers and Little Walter. It was something."
Recording for a variety of labels under pseudonyms such as Rocky Fuller, Crying Red and Playboy Fuller, he eventually settled on Louisiana Red, a nickname friends had given him because of his love of hot sauce. Aside from a million-selling topical 1962 side called "Red's Dream," which placed the Cuban Missile Crisis in 12-bar blues form (with Red unleashing his own brand of six-string diplomacy on Nikita Khrushchev: "Get that junk out of Cuba/Before you make me mad"), Red's records received little stateside attention over the years.
In a way, he's probably been handicapped by his greatest asset: his astonishing versatility. Because he can effortlessly leap from smooth B.B. King lyricism to raw slide-guitar rave-ups and acoustic Delta-blues showcases, he hasn't necessarily put the kind of unmistakable stylistic stamp on his work that many of his heroes have. After all, Red is so open to musical ideas that he's even picked up alternate guitar tunings from bandmates of Nigerian icon King Sunny Ade.
But since Red moved to Germany, appreciation for him has grown; his continued vitality makes him a touchstone for a brand of authenticity that's always in danger of extinction. In 2000 alone, he was nominated for four W.C. Handy Awards for his Millennium Blues album on the Earwig label.
One of Red's trademarks has been a willingness to adapt news events to the blues form, whether it's Kosovo, Ethiopian famine, or the Oklahoma City bombing. In the early '80s, he slammed America's swing to the right with songs like "Reagan Is for the Rich Man" and "Anti-Nuclear Blues." But when the September 11 terrorist attacks occurred, he found himself lost for words.
"I didn't believe it was happening," he says. "I thought it was a movie. I called my wife and said, 'Honey, look at this film. They're blowing up the World Trade Center.' Then I looked down and saw, 'CNN News.' I said, 'My goodness, this is for real.' It shocked me, it hurt me really hard, all those people perishing for nothing. It was too sad, I couldn't write anything about it."
If the September 11 attacks were too tragic for him to convey in song, Red nonetheless sees himself as a kind of international missionary, singing about his own pain so that others can be relieved of theirs.
"Those people in Afghanistan, they're living the blues," he says. "Those people in Israel, they're living the blues. For me, it's about sharing my suffering with the world so they can feel it."