Going Down Slow

Bennie Smith and a dwindling cadre of St. Louis music pioneers have a right to sing the blues

Downtown Saturday night has barely begun its creep into Sunday morning, but Bennie Smith is dressed for business: dark pinstripe suit, white dress shirt and gray newsboy cap. Seated on the small, dimly lighted stage of South Broadway nightlife mainstay BB's Jazz, Blues and Soups, Smith's halfway through his second of three sets when he launches into a frenzied rendition of the Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown classic "Okie Dokie Stomp."

The up-tempo tune is a sonic jungle gym for Smith, whose left hand crabwalks the neck of his Stratocaster. His joint-popping speed transforms "Stomp" into the musical equivalent of a ride on a vintage roller coaster: Just as you think he's tumbling over the edge, he clacks the tune back on track, catapulting the beery crowd toward the next sharp turn.

Smith has been playing this song for decades. But the crowd's ready to burst, and you'd think these amps had never coursed with the current of the guitarist's rhythmic maze. Drummer Chuck Wolters — the sole remaining original member of Smith's band, the Urban Blues Express — motors the tune on snare, slide guitarist Rich McDonough takes a back seat on rhythm guitar, while Jim "Doc" Evans strides along on bass.

Bennie Smith, the Dean of St. Louis Electric Guitarists, is still playing club gigs at age 72. He can't afford not to.
Jennifer Silverberg
Bennie Smith, the Dean of St. Louis Electric Guitarists, is still playing club gigs at age 72. He can't afford not to.
Henry Townsend has recorded in each of the past seven decades. He's 96, and still keeping on.
Jennifer Silverberg
Henry Townsend has recorded in each of the past seven decades. He's 96, and still keeping on.

Despite the breakneck finger work, there's none of the pyrotechnics that are the hallmark of formally trained younger guitarists. Smith is a postwar St. Louis bluesman. He learned his trade in backyards and on street corners, studying at the feet of guitar great Herman "Ace" Wallace. After more than 50 years playing clubs (often as many as three a day), touring and studying his idol, Gatemouth Brown, the 72-year-old Smith has honed a style that possesses all the elegance and eccentricity of a fingerprint.

"You've got to go a long way to find anybody as good as Bennie Smith," says local photographer and blues historian Bill Greensmith. "He's probably the best guitar player to come out of St. Louis. He's got the edge over them all."

As Smith draws the final notes from his Strat, a bald, mustachioed reveler presses against the stage to shake the bluesman's hand. "You're the greatest!" he imparts.

But it takes a lot more than an inebriated interruption to knock Smith off his stride. This is the man who taught Ike Turner to play guitar, the man who has shared the stage with Gatemouth Brown, Albert King and Matt "Guitar" Murphy, to name just a few.

But Smith also knows he has another two hours to go. He won't get home until 4 a.m. His back, which never healed properly after he broke it in 1976, is throbbing. He can sense a cold coming on. Though he's rigged a small plastic fan to help his wind, a long-entrenched case of emphysema has him short of breath. He doesn't have medical insurance, the gas company's threatening to shut off his service, and he's got another gig tomorrow afternoon.

Best bring it down a notch.

On a clear, windy day in March, a clutch of mourners gathered at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. They'd come to the western banks of the Mississippi River to bury Clarence Johnson, who'd died a month earlier. After a brief graveside eulogy, three aging veterans pointed their rifles toward the sky and honored Johnson with a three-gun salute. A bugler sounded "Taps." Two service members presented a tightly folded American flag to Johnson's half-sister, Fannie Harper, and the mourners departed. The ceremony lasted fifteen minutes.

Blind, diabetic and indigent, Johnson had only narrowly escaped the potter's field. At age 91, he had been living barely at subsistence level since his East St. Louis home burned down in 2000. After the fire Johnson had little contact with friends and family. When paramedics found him in an unheated apartment on February 18, a day when temperatures in St. Louis dipped to eighteen degrees, he'd wrapped himself in several layers of clothing in an apparent attempt to keep warm. He died that same day of hypothermia at Kenneth Hall Regional Hospital. His body temperature was 87 degrees.

Johnson had no identification on him when he died, and for the next two weeks his remains sat unidentified at the morgue. It wasn't until 96-year-old blues legend Henry Townsend was shown a photograph of the body that authorities were able to identify him as blues guitarist Clarence "Windy" Johnson.

"Clarence was one of those fellows that watched what he do while he's playing. When his eyesight started going bad on him, it pulled him out," says Townsend, who employed Johnson in the 1940s and '50s. "In my own opinion he had a feeling there was no returning. He kinda relaxed himself in that position: 'If this is the way it is, this is the way it is.'

"I used to visit him kinda often," Townsend goes on. "I used to tell him quite a bit as I see he was going down, I said: 'Clarence, now look, man, don't go down too far.' I sit down and talked to him man to man on it. He didn't even think about it. Then I didn't see him no more."

Johnson worked mainly as a sideman. In addition to accompanying Townsend on guitar, he backed up a young Miles Davis, as well as several other area musicians. Over the years he managed to lay down a few tracks of his own for Jerome, a small St. Louis label that was active in the early 1960s. Though he played music all his life, he earned his keep fixing radios and other small electronics out of his house.

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