James' Leg

When barrelhouse-blues pianist James Crutchfield died a few months back, not only did he leave a legacy -- he left a leg

Jeff Lockheed can't keep from laughing as he talks about the time James Crutchfield lost his shoe. "We were cleaning up after everyone had left," says the co-owner of Benton Park's Venice Café, "and here's this one shoe lying out in the middle of the floor. It was kind of funny -- I mean, who would leave one shoe behind? Next morning, it's freezing cold, snow on the ground. Icy. Horrible. And here comes James, looking for his shoe, and he's wearing just his wooden foot on the one leg. He was the only guy who could walk out without his shoe and not know it."

How Crutchfield lost his left leg was a source of wonder and speculation. "I think he got it smashed between two cars," says Lockheed, "later in his life." Paul Cuba, the other owner of the music club, who died suddenly on March 4, a few days after being interviewed, dissented: "I heard it happened when he was a kid -- a train accident."

But one thing that Lockheed and various barbacks at the Venice do know is that sometimes a trip to the cellar to fetch libations was met with a series of resounding thumps. Crutchfield had a standing gig at the Venice -- every Wednesday night for 12 years. He would play keyboard and sing while tapping the foot of his wooden leg. "It never stopped," said Cuba, "and in the basement it was deafening. Sometimes it would seem that maybe he wasn't keeping time. It sounded like he was just thumping."

Patricia Thomas with her grandfather's prosthetic leg
Jennifer Silverberg
Patricia Thomas with her grandfather's prosthetic leg

Cuba laughed as he conjured the quirks and idiosyncrasies of a good friend. There was the time Crutchfield announced some big news: "He came to me one day and said, 'I got a new leg! I got a new leg!' I said, 'Really? Neat.' He said, 'My first black one.' I said, 'What?' He said, 'Yeah, it's black. All the others were pink.'"

And so when Crutchfield died a few months ago at the age of 89, the idea of a memorial to him was born. Perhaps in unconscious anticipation of a shrine that would fit somewhere on the cluttered walls of the Venice, Lockheed had already bought Crutchfield's trademark light-yellow leisure suit. "I gave him 20 bucks for it," he says. "He was kinda shriveling up, and it got to the point where it wouldn't fit him anymore." They also had photos, a poster, keys from his electric keyboard and a copy of his 1983 album James Crutchfield: Original Barrelhouse Blues.

Acquiring the leg for use in the shrine first dawned on Lockheed and Crutchfield fan (and St. Louis excise commissioner) Bob Kraiberg at the musician's impromptu funeral march through the streets of Soulard, but it wasn't until the wake at the Ronald L. Jones Funeral Home that it seemed possible. It was a bluesman's funeral, with musicians playing in the parlor and Crutchfield laid out next to the band. "We asked Mr. Jones where it was," says Lockheed, "and he brought us in his office, let us take a peek."

"It was in this chair -- a chocolate-colored leg with a sock still on it," says Kraiberg. "That's when we knew we were on the trail. James was in the casket, and the leg was in the office."

Kraiberg asked Jones to approach Patricia Thomas, Crutchfield's granddaughter. "At first it was not acceptable to me," says Thomas, 49, manager of a Sears store. "I mean, that's kind of personal. Why would they want to show his wooden leg for people to gawk at it? Fact was, he hid it from us for a very long time. I know each morning, when Granddaddy got up, he always sat facing the wall for a few minutes. Grandmama's slop jar was on the other side of the bed, and I just thought he was staying away from that. I had no idea that's where he laid his leg each night and he'd put it on each morning. I had to be, oh, 12 before I knew it was not his leg. I just thought he walked with a limp."

But after she mulled over the request, the memorial didn't seem so outlandish. "The more I thought about it," Thomas continues, "exactly who and what my granddaddy was and what he felt about the blues and the people at the Venice Café, I decided that, really, it's OK. Granddaddy would like that." Kraiberg and John Biller, a certified public accountant, drew up a contract stipulating that if the family wasn't happy with the results, they could have the leg back.

It helped that Thomas had been to the Venice Café and seen her grandfather in his element, banging out some of the familiar songs she'd heard as a girl -- "Piggly-Wiggly," "Sittin' on Top of the World," "Walkin' the Dog." Thomas says that as kids, she and her cousins always looked forward to the weekend: "Grandma didn't allow much piano-playing during the week, but on Friday nights and Saturdays, that's what the family did. Everybody got together at the house and sat in the front room and listened to Granddaddy play blues -- and my favorite was "Walkin' the Dog." As a little girl, I always wanted him to play that. I would dance and dance ..."

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