Fat Possum was founded in 1991 by two Living Blues magazine staff, Peter Redvers-Lee and Matthew Johnson. Lee was born July 2, 1960, in Estcourt, South Africa. He came to University of Mississippi for his MA studies in Journalism, and became editor of Living Blues in 1987. He planned on starting a record label and picked the name with another student, Billy ‘pup’ Cochrane. Johnson, who grew in the state, was too a writer in Living Blues and a student at the University of Mississippi. By 1994 or so Lee left, and freelance recording engineer Bruce Watson assumed his managerial role. An early investor was John Hermann of Widespread Panic, who also pitched Robert Palmer’s name as producer.
The label initially specialised in discovering blues players from the North Mississippi region, many of whom had never recorded before. At Fat Possum’s behest some artists, particularly R. L. Burnside, released both standard blues albums and more techno albums, done in the style that would later be made famous by Moby’s album Play. This led to a fair amount of controversy among blues purists, a group in which Johnson was largely uninterested. Many of the early artists for Fat Possum were picked with the aid of Palmer (previously a teacher of Johnson at the University of Mississippi), who also produced a number of records for the label.
WORRIED LIFE by ASIE PAYTON
Although their releases were critically acclaimed, particularly Junior Kimbrough’s album All Night Long, which received 4 stars from Rolling Stone and the loud approval of Iggy Pop, Fat Possum was perennially strapped for cash. Word of mouth and artist compilations, such as Not the Same Old Blues Crap 3 (with a cover illustration by Joe Sacco) and All Men Are Liars, gradually pulled Fat Possum out of the red, even if only for brief periods of time. A legal fight with Capricorn Records, who were to be their distributor, drained Fat Possum’s funds and left a number of projects on the shelf.
Burnside proved early on to be the label’s biggest money maker. Having released two albums, he teamed with The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion for a tour, and then
recorded with the band A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, which helped Burnside and Fat Possum gain wider recognition. A remix of the R. L. Burnside song, “It’s Bad You Know”, was also featured prominently on The Sopranos.
DO THE RUMP by JUNIOR KIMBROUGH
With time, many of the label’s artists have died. Asie Payton, King Ernest, and Charles Caldwell died before their records could be released. Kimbrough died in 1998 and Burnside 2005. T-Model Ford and Robert Belfour joined in the 2010s.
Responding to the first deaths, Fat Possum begun to release more archival records. George Mitchell’s recordings came out first as individual albums of Furry Lewis, Mississippi Joe Callicott, R.L. Burnside, Townes Van Zandt, and others, with covers designed by Chip Kidd, and then in bulk as the George Mitchell Collection. They acquired the Al Green catalog including his 1975 Greatest Hits.
The successful band The Black Keys released their second album Thickfreakness (2003) on Fat Possum, and left the label after their third album Rubber Factory (2004). Solomon Burke’s “comeback” album, Don’t Give Up On Me, won the 2003 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album. In 2013, Fat Possum released “Ready To Die” by Iggy and the Stooges.
GOIN’ DOWN SOUTH by R.L. BURNSIDE
Concluding that further searches for rural talent are hopeless, it has begun to broaden its base of artists and sign a range of younger, indie rock bands like Andrew Bird, Milk Music, MellowHype, the Heartless Bastards, Deadboy & the Elephantmen, Wavves, Youth Lagoon, The Walkmen, Temples (band), Yuck (band), Fat White Family, The Districts, Crocodiles, and Bass Drum of Death. They have tapped into the indie-folk scene releasing Verbena’s frontman A.A. Bondy’s solo records, The Felice Brothers, and female songwriter Lissie.