Going Down Slow

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

"He was good with his hands," says Fannie Harper, who lives in East St. Louis but hadn't seen her brother in two years. "He loved music and would fix radios. He had his own band and did his own job. We had been looking for him for at least two years."

Johnson was married twice, once as young man in Arkansas to a woman named Pauline with whom he fathered a son, J.B., and later to a woman named Mattie Harris, who already had two children. It was rumored among the blues community that he was the son of the renowned blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson, whose distinctive style he drew from heavily. But Harper discounts the connection. "I don't know where they got that from," she says of the legendary lineage. "His father was Jack Johnson."

Perhaps shrewdly, Clarence did little to clarify the matter while he was alive.

Now retired, 73-year-old Rudy "Silver Cloud" Coleman never bothered with the musicians' union: "I was making more money than the union scales."
Jennifer Silverberg
Now retired, 73-year-old Rudy "Silver Cloud" Coleman never bothered with the musicians' union: "I was making more money than the union scales."
"I consider myself three-quarters a man," says fifteen-year-old Marquise Knox, who's working his way up on what he calls "the Junior Chitlin Circuit."
Jennifer Silverberg
"I consider myself three-quarters a man," says fifteen-year-old Marquise Knox, who's working his way up on what he calls "the Junior Chitlin Circuit."

But if blues aficionados view Lonnie Johnson as one of the art form's great innovators, they view Clarence Johnson's death as emblematic of the plight that faces the dwindling population of aging blues musicians. Inured to an informal economy in which cash changes hands at the end of a long night and with no formal documentation, many bluesmen now find themselves ineligible for social security benefits and forced to obtain healthcare via Medicaid or the emergency room. With royalty payments from past recordings elusive or nonexistent, older musicians often have no choice but to play through their infirmities just to keep the lights on.

"The only safety net these guys have is if they married a woman of some substance. If they don't have that, they don't have shit," says Bob Lohr, a local attorney who moonlights as Chuck Berry's keyboardist. "They can still make a living, but the living is way below what a lot of us will tolerate, and you'll kill yourself doing it. The conditions are awful, and the older you get, the less you can tolerate."

Lohr is part of an informal network of local blues aficionados who devote time and energy to helping older bluesmen. Some donate aid in the form of legal services, others provide discounted medical services. As a measure of last resort, they organize benefits to raise money to cover medical treatments, a gas bill or a funeral.

In the case of Windy Johnson, it wasn't enough.

"We tried to find him a few years back, because there was a guy who came down from Minnesota who was trying to do a book on Lonnie Johnson," says John May, president of the St. Louis Blues Society and co-owner of BB's Jazz, Blues and Soups. "For six months we were trying to find Clarence, but there was nothing."

In the end, Illinois authorities located Johnson's surviving family. "Once we found out and went down to the morgue, we had to go through hell and high water to get his social security number before we could bury him," Fannie Harper says. "They was ready to put him in a pauper's grave. I said no: He served his time in the military and he deserved a burial at Jefferson Barracks."

Bennie Smith broke in as a working musician at the age of seventeen, but for most of his working life he took a day job to make ends meet. That all came to a halt in 1976, when the guitarist broke his back in a workplace accident.

"I was picking up a piece of steel and my back went off. Pop!" Smith recalls. "I tried to get compensation on my back, and the company just packed up and moved out of town. So now I'm basically totally disabled. My heart — I'm taking pills you wouldn't believe."

As evidence, he hefts a plastic grocery bag filled with pill bottles.

"They're checking me for colon cancer, prostate cancer and sticking me all in my back. You know what time it is. I'm hung up."

Smith never underwent corrective surgery for his back. He says he made the decision after seeing a friend undergo a similar surgery. "We both had our backs broken," Smith explains. "I was in a wheelchair — he was in better shape than me, walking around. He came out of surgery in a wheelchair, never walked again."

Smith is a tall man, with a full head of gray curly hair, a right eye that tends to wander, a broad nose, thick lips and a deeply creased face. When he walks, his torso tilts slightly to the left, and when he has to stoop down, he bends at the pelvis, keeping his back ramrod straight and reaching out his long arms for support.

Smith's ramshackle bungalow in north St. Louis is a veritable museum of amplifiers, space heaters, radios and answering machines, in various stages of decrepitude. Smith has managed to nurse several vintage television sets back to (relative) health. Their circuitry exposed, the TVs now crowd the red-carpeted living room, blaring whatever happens to be on. The inveterate tinkerer's newest interest is computers, of which the living room contains a total of three, stacked pell-mell on and around (what else?) a wood-encased television set. None of the computers is fully operable, yet each is pressed into service for a different function: one to go online, another to burn CDs and play a game based on the TV show Wheel of Fortune. The third workstation remains a work in progress.

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