A top blues artist of the 1920s, Lemuel Fowler’s personal life has been persistently difficult to clarify. New research leads this author to believe Lemuel James Fowler is likely to have been born July 19, 1898, in Woodlawn, Alabama, part of what is now Birmingham, the eldest son of Edward Richard Fowler and Tempe Thomas. This family can be found on the 1900 and 1910 census including siblings Mabel Fowler and Parks Henry Fowler.1,2 While this family continues to be documented in Alabama in 1920 and beyond, Lemuel disappears from the picture there. Publication and copyright records make it clear Lem is in Chicago by 1920, perhaps as part of the Great Migration.3 (Getting to Chicago from Birmingham could certainly have given him some first hand experience traveling the L & N railroad line.) By 1922 he is almost certainly in New York where he was prolific until about 1930 when his name nearly vanishes from contemporary records. There is a 1942 World War II Draft Registration Card for James Fowler documenting a black male, unemployed, born in Alabama July 19, 1896, at a Harlem address which is generally consistent with Michael Montgomery’s report about a Harlem address where ASCAP had been sending royalty checks as late as 1964.4,5 (On that card the name of “someone who will always know your address” is listed as “L Hackner [possibly Hackney] 2310 7th Ave.” a potential springboard for further research.) The discrepancy of the year of 1896 versus all other suggestions of 1898 might have something to do with the 1897 cut-off dates for the regular draft versus the “old man’s draft.” Researcher Rob Perry located a 1956 Birmingham newspaper clipping further connecting the dots between Birmingham and New York that refers to an ASCAP songwriter Lemuel Fowler who had previously attended St. Mark’s Academy there.6 Michael Montgomery writes about an anecdote that J. Lawrence Cook reported seeing Lem in 1962.5 A death was record in New York on June 8, 1963, for a Lemuel Fowler of Manhattan born in 1898.7 Nothing remotely suggestive has surfaced to suggest Lem was alive after that time.
A bit about aliases— Lemuel Fowler published and copyrighted MOST of his music under his own name, but contextual and stylistic clues strongly suggest he also published music under at least five additional aliases including P. Henri, Ed. Richard, James Meller, Relphow James/Jones, and Edith Smith. The first two of those aliases might well be drawn from his brother and father respectively. The next two involve a play on his own name by rearranging, redirecting, or rephoneticising the letters involved in “Lemuel James Fowler.” Edith Smith remains a curiosity that is clearly connected to Lemuel Fowler and other scholars have suggested she might have been a wife, girlfriend, sibling or just another alias.5,8 By using aliases it was possible for Lem to record very similar versions of the same works with different recording companies and stay under the radar, but it is not clear that there weren’t other reasons for them. Compare “Percolatin’ Blues” by Lemuel Fowler and “Frisky Feet” by Relphow Jones both copyrighted in 1926.
1. ”United States Census, 1900,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:M981-TZV : accessed 21 November 2021), Edward Fowler, Precinct 34 Woodlawn, Jefferson, Alabama, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) 125, sheet 5B, family 105, NARA microfilm publication T623 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1972.); FHL microfilm 1,240,022.
2. ”United States Census, 1910,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MK7S-516 : accessed 21 November 2021), Lemuel Fowler in household of Edward Fowler, Birmingham Ward 12, Jefferson, Alabama, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) ED 77, sheet 13B, family 234, NARA microfilm publication T624 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1982), roll 19; FHL microfilm 1,374,032.
3. ”Catalog of copyright entries. n.s. pt.3 v.15 no.2 1920 Music.” Page 248. “Marcelina; words and music by L. J. Fowler [of U. S.] [19401 © 1 c. Aug. 16, 1920; E 488513; Lemuel J. Fowler, Chicago.” Available at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015077986811&view=1up&seq=248. Accessed 20 Nov 2021.
4. ”World War II Draft Registration Cards, 1942″ database with images, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com/discoveryui-content/view/1544004:1002), James Fowler. United States, Selective Service System. Selective Service Registration Cards, World War II: Fourth Registration. Records of the Selective Service System, Record Group Number 147. National Archives and Records Administration.
5. “Lem Fowler Complete Recorded Works 1923-1927 in Chronological Order.” RST Records JPCD-1520-2. Audio recording liner notes by “Michael Montgomery, Detroit, Michigan.” 1995
6. “A Birmingham man has been elected to membership. . .” The Birmingham News. Birmingham, Alabama 22 Aug 1956, Wed. Page 14 Col. 5. available at https://www.newspapers.com/image/574491815/?terms=%22Lemuel%20Fowler%22&match=1. Accessed 22 Nov 2021.
7. Lemuel Fowler. Ancestry.com. New York, New York, U.S., Death Index, 1949-1965 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2017. Available at https://search.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll?indiv=1&dbid=61461&h=551851&ssrc=pt&tid=27532530. Accessed November 20, 2021.
8. Lem Fowler ‘Chitterlin’ Struts & Washboard Stomps.‘” FROG Records DGF 66. Audio recording liner notes by Mark Berresford. 2007