Walter Lewis was born in Greenwood, Mississippi, gaining his nickname from childhood friends in Memphis where he grew up. His birth date is uncertain and Lewis himself cited dates between 1893 and 1900 as the year of his birth. Building his first guitar himself, Lewis quoted a local guitarist named "Blind Joe" as a major influence when he was growing up in the early 1900's in Memphis. When Furry was 17 years old he lost a leg in a railway accident and he turned to music for a living, playing on street corners and in clubs and bars on Beale Street, often in partnership with Will Shade.  He then moved on to the medicine show circuit helping sell ‘Jack Rabbit Liniment’ in small Mississippi and Arkansas towns.  Since his job was to draw crowds to the tent so that a pitchman could concentrate on selling the goods, Lewis evolved a style that did not depend on a mike and which included rather ‘flashy’ guitar tricks to hold the crowd. With his sight dogged by cataracts, he learned a variety of accompaniment techniques on the guitar, from fast-moving rags to piercing bottleneck blues and developed different techniques and styles to suit whatever vocal material he had for a song. He also used both finger-picking and flat-picking techniques, and sometimes, using a knife as a slide, played his guitar on his lap Hawaiian style.

He recorded his first songs in Chicago in 1927 for the Vocalion label. At a first session Lewis was accompanied by back up musicians but at a subsequent session the same year he made six solo recordings which were much more typical of his individualistic showman blues style.  However sales were not good and Lewis, who had taken a job as a manual labourer with the Memphis sanitation department, relied on this as his source of regular income right through until the 1960’s, playing house parties and picnics at weekends. This contrasted sharply with his experiences in the 1960’s and 1970’s when, after being recorded again in 1961, Lewis became one of the most popular of the “re-discovered” stars of that period. He recorded with Mississippi Joe Callicott and he played the festivals and college circuit, appeared on a TV and even in a few films, his stories about the early blues making him a figure in demand for talk shows. His recordings sold well and he lived comparatively affluently until his death in 1981, by then one of the best known of the early blues heroes.