Standing on the curb of Broadway in front of Dick’s, Ronald Fulton opens his guitar case and pulls out an Eric Clapton signature Fender Stratocaster, a black and white beauty decorated with Jimi Hendrix and Greenpeace stickers. Plugged into a mini amp to his right, he starts warming up with some scale work.
“This is the best guitar ever made,” he says with a broad grin. “The best guitar in the world.”
It’s 11 a.m. on a sunny Sunday afternoon and Dick’s has just opened, but he has already gotten the attention of the restaurant employees and people passing by. After almost 10 years of paying homage to the likes of Jimmi Hendrix and Willie Nelson on street corners around Seattle and another decade playing “everywhere else,” Ron has established himself as a local legend.
“I’ve been influenced by all of the music I’ve ever heard” he says. “Miles Davis, Jimi, Santana, Bob and Ziggy… all of the greats. Everything inspires me, even the birds. Let me hook that up in the mix!”
Now 53 years old, Ron remembers fondly the first time he first heard Jimi Hendrix.
“I hated it when I first heard it! It sounded like a bunch of gobbledy goop… was just too much for me to handle at first. But then the third time I heard it, I got it. I was like, damn…”
Ron and his wife live by Miller Park on 19th Ave. with their dog, Trinity. Together 21 years, they have two grown children, Adrian and Malia, and a grandson, Isaiah.
Originally from Arkansas, Ron started playing alto saxophone in 6th grade and picked up the guitar at age 17. The son of a Pentecostal preacher, he has always surrounded himself with music. He entered the army, joined the 10th Mountain Golden Dragon Infantry Division in Desert Storm and spent time in Panama. Most recently, Ron worked at the E. John Safeway as a journeyman in the meat department for three years until he quit to play music full time.
“I said I’d quit (Safeway) when I could make the same amount street busking. But I loved it there… sometimes my old coworkers and customers come by Dick’s for a burger and a listen.”
These days, Ron is a full-time street musician. Street busking can be challenging — and competitive. He often arrives at Dick’s before they open to set up before the panhandling crowd moves in. Today is no different — two panhandlers stand to the side for a while, waiting for a chance at the spot, before moving on for the afternoon.
“Street etiquette is, whoever gets there first, you have to wait until they’re done. You can’t ask how long they’re gonna be there. They’re there, and will be there until they want to leave,” Ron says. “And you can’t stand more than 50 feet next to another street performer. That ruins it for each other.”
Sometimes, Ron even pays off panhandlers for a prime spot.
“I’ll give them 5 bucks or so for the space. They can only make $5 a day sometimes… so usually it works out for both of us.”
Ron says he can make up to $100 or more a day in street busking, but that more or less depends on the weather.
“It’s a struggle. Some days I make $20, other times I make $100. I can’t perform in the rain.”
Ron regularly performs in front of Dick’s, at the Fremont and Ballard Markets, and Pike Place Market. But he doesn’t like Pike Place as much — there is too much competition from other performers for the good places.
“Most days, I may set up in the worst spot and still make money.” Ron pauses. “I feel so lucky to do this every day, I have found my special purpose.”
Street performing can be a tricky dance between entertainers and law enforcement. Places like Capitol Hill, however, are rarely an issue.
“It completely depends on the powers that be,” says Ron. “I’ve had police officers tip me a dollar or two and say, ‘You know, I’m not supposed to do this, but you’re pretty good,’ and stuff like that. Some officers ask me for my permit then tell me to move along.”
You can watch him on the Seattle Channel and contact him through his Myspace page or e-mail at email@example.com. You can preview tracks and buy his album The LInear Now online. Currently, he only carries one copy of his CD around with him. He’s holding on to it for a fan who prepaid him for it one day, but Ron hasn’t run in to him since. The cover art was done by his daughter, a local graphic designer. Ron wanted it to look childish, to play on the happy nature of the album. All of the songs, except for one Willie Nelson cover, are Ronald Fulton originals.
He wants to start a trio, so if you’re a bassist or drummer, contact him.
“I’ve been trying to get a group together forever and no one wants to play with me!” Ron exclaims. “I must suck pretty bad.”
Without much warning, Ron breaks into song — Willie Nelson’s “Night Life.” The Dick’s employees hang out the window and grin as they watch. Then, he begins a jazzy rendition of “(What A) Wonderful World,” the sky clear and blue during that strange February heat wave.
“I want people to know I’m just like them — someone trying to find my way,” Ron says with a grin. “I’m forging my way into the great unknown.”