ST. PETERSBURG — Another area blues legend has left the stage. Clinton "Deacon" Fuller, who rocked the Tampa Bay area playing an up-tempo style reminiscent of his Louisiana roots, died Feb. 3. He was 56 and had congestive heart failure.
His Deacon Fuller Band twice won recognition in the early 1990s from Creative Loafing as the area's best blues band. Mr. Fuller also played at music festivals all over the southeastern United States and in Europe, and opened for performers like the late Diamond Teeth Mary.
Mr. Fuller grew up in Louisiana and embraced the musical heritage of that area as well as his Anishinabe-Lakota Indian ancestry. At 19, he went to New York and immersed himself in the blues scene. He attended New York University and Louisiana State University before moving to Florida.
He loved New Orleans songs like Iko Iko, but could switch from loud to soft in a second if the music called for it. He had mastered the slide technique on his prized 1957 Fender Stratocaster guitar but could make any other guitar sound good, musicians who played with him say.
"Deacon taught me about the blues — playing in the pocket, groovin', and respecting the audience," said bass player Tom "Tbone" Hamilton. The audience, Mr. Fuller liked to say, is the "most important member of the band," said Hamilton, 44.
Accordingly, he eschewed pre-determined song lists during performances. "Some musicians had set lists, we never did," Hamilton said. "He would just feel it."
After several years playing in the Tampa Bay area in the 1980s, Mr. Fuller moved to Minnesota. There he met Lakota Indians he believed could guide him through a tough period — brought on by Mr. Fuller's dependence on alcohol and other drugs — and enhance his spirituality.
He participated in the tribe's Sun Dance, a purification ritual culminating in days of dancing and fasting. He also subjected himself to what republicoflakotah.com describes as "voluntary torture," in which "the dancers were pierced through the breast or shoulder muscles by skewers which were tied to the center pole, and they danced by pulling back until their flesh tore away."
"He showed me the scars," said David Maxwell, who played drums in the Deacon Fuller Band in the 1980s.
"For whatever reason, that was his path," said Lisa Fuller, 41, Mr. Fuller's wife. "That's what brought him closer to God. It made him feel great when it was all over."
Mr. Fuller returned to the Tampa Bay area in the 1990s. He played at area clubs until a few years ago, when heart and lung problems and a hip replacement forced him to stop. Though Mr. Fuller struggled with chemical dependency through most of his life, he stayed clean for the last two years, Dr. Joseph Molea, an addiction medicine specialist, said at the memorial service Saturday at Beach Memorial Chapel.
"On the day he died, I was aware that he had accomplished a great deal, despite any number of factors that could have easily upended his recovery or the stability of other people's lives," Molea said.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]