Going Down Slow

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

On the wall above Smith's neatly made bed is a framed mayoral proclamation declaring October 6, 2003, Bennie Smith Day and bestowing upon Smith the honorary title "Dean of St. Louis Electric Guitarists."

Smith says he took up the blues when his cousin, Floyd "Hayfall" Robinson, gave him a ukulele he'd picked up while stationed with the army in the Pacific. "Hayfall, he used to always come and sing the song 'Sue Foot Floozie with Your Flaws Off.' I used to like to hear him sing that, and that stuck in my mind for quite a while," he says. "After the years go by, I finally got together and heard Ace Wallace playing."

Wallace was giving lessons at his home on the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Chouteau Street. Smith was thirteen years old. "Tommy Bankhead, George and Doc Perry — he was teaching all of us," Smith says, reeling off the names of St. Louis guitar luminaries. "We was playing in the backyard with the Ace Wallace Band. I think we was making two dollars apiece."

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.

By the 1950s Smith had earned a spot in the Roosevelt Marks Orchestra, a local outfit that laid down several recordings with St. Louis-based Bobbin Records. During that decade Smith also led a combo at the Dot Club that included an upstart guitarist named Chuck Berry, and in 1958 he backed up a young Ike Turner on "Boxtop," which featured the debut of vocalist "Little Ann," who eventually became Tina Turner. In 1963 Smith's band, Bennie and the Sportsmen, recorded "Shook Up Over You" with Jimmy "Soul" Clark. The label, Teek Records, was owned by future St. Louis alderman Freeman Bosley Sr.

When Smith broke his back, he qualified for disability payments. But when he applied for social security, he discovered that his lack of nine-to-five jobs made him ineligible for any benefits, including Medicare: Like many itinerant bluesmen, Smith had never addressed the tax formalities the government requires of independent contractors.

"[The social security office] said I didn't have enough work quarters," says Smith. "I gave them the names of the places that I used to work at, but they can't use those, 'cause they're out of business. The people I was working for at that time, they done lost the records. I can't do nothing about it."

Smith has been a dues-paying member of the American Federation of Musicians Local 2-197 for 45 years, but that hasn't been of much help.

"The only thing I know is it gives me the right to play on the bandstand," he says. "This card gives you a MasterCard, and I think they put some money towards a burial. Other than that, I'm not getting anything else out of them."

Smith's union membership makes him a rarity among blues players. Unlike Broadway shows or symphony orchestras, few of the smaller clubs blues musicians frequent require union membership or formal contracts. So many players are unwilling to fork over a portion of their earnings to the union and share the opinion of pianist Rudy "Silver Cloud" Coleman, who says: "I wouldn't join the union, because I was making more money than the union scales."

Today Smith relies on his disability benefits for healthcare. He cuts corners where he can, dulling his back pain with codeine and coveting the neuro-stimulation device comedian Jerry Lewis swears by.

As of two months ago, the guitarist faces bigger problems: He has been diagnosed with lung cancer.

Prompted by 1950s chanteuse Ruth Brown's 1987 royalties claim, Atlantic Records chief Ahmet Ertegun donated $1.5 million in 1988 to set up the Rhythm & Blues Foundation. The Foundation now provides emergency financial assistance to R&B artists nationwide with funds from several Motown labels and private donors.

"Oftentimes Rhythm & Blues artists thought getting a Cadillac was greater incentive than understanding their royalties checks," says Kayte Connelly, the foundation's executive director. In addition, says Connelly, labels commonly charged artists for studio time and production and distribution expenses, deducting those costs from royalties checks. "So even if you signed a royalty agreement and a contract with an advance, you oftentimes owed money to the studios.

"There's a whole generation of people that are now living in obscurity," Connelly goes on. "Look at Rosa Parks: Rosa Parks was a housemaid when Glen Gregory found her again and started saying, 'Look, we've got to get you out of being a housemaid in an old hotel. You don't need to be here, woman. Look at what you've done for the country.' There are a lot of people in that state, but a lot of them don't know we're around."

But the foundation's endowment doesn't cover blues musicians, who must rely on informal networks of fans to help them hunt down royalties or provide emergency financial assistance.

"Sometimes when we recorded we'd get $150, sometimes $80. Boom, that was it," Bennie Smith recalls. "When [Jimmy "Soul" Clark's "Shook Up Over You"] was recorded, we was supposed to see some money off the royalties. I signed some papers and things, but I haven't seen anything."

It's unlikely he ever will. "Shook Up Over You" and Ike Turner's "Boxtop" were limited releases recorded at now-defunct labels. Today a 45 of either might lure $40 as a collectible, but that doesn't translate to royalties.

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