Going Down Slow

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

Blues albums are rarely top sellers, and royalties checks are typically meager at best. The real money for blues musicians comes when a rock band covers a song and turns it into a hit. If the blues musician managed to hold on to the publishing rights, he's in line for a hefty windfall.

Smith worked with both Ike Turner and Chuck Berry, two artists who understood early in their careers the importance of maintaining the publishing rights.

"Ike had a little empire going for a while. He had his own band. He had his own label. He had publishing. He booked his own jobs," says blues historian Bill Greensmith, who collaborated with Henry Townsend on the piano, guitar and vocal virtuoso's as-told-to autobiography, A Blues Life. "He saw how it was really working and paid a little more attention to the business end as opposed to just the music or simply having a good time. Ike Turner realized there was money in owning the songs, there was money in owning your own publishing company."

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.

Such savvy is even more remarkable when contrasted with the way most of Turner's and Berry's contemporaries viewed their recordings.

"If you made $200 for a recording session, that was a hell of a lot of money, especially back in those days," says Greensmith. "A record was going to last two or three months at best. Most guys' thinking was that a record was just a vehicle to get you jobs — to get you touring. No one ever really thought about earning fortunes off of a record."

For artists who didn't have the foresight to assert ownership of their music, the retroactive campaign to secure rights is frequently a maze of pseudonyms, hazy memories and a song's natural evolution.

"It's really hard to track backwards in blues," explains bassist and BB's co-owner John May. "Two guys in 1929 played on a stage, and one guy went back to Memphis and recorded the song. The person who's credited for the song could well have gotten it from somebody else. A lot of times, these guys would change names so they'd be known as different people on different recordings. They'd have a contract with one label, so they'd record under different names for different labels to get under that. They did that because they were getting paid cash for the recording session."

Roughly fifteen years ago, May helped Henry Townsend regain the rights to roughly 350 of his songs. Though by no means living in luxury, Townsend now receives royalties for songs he produced during a career that has spanned seven decades.

"They don't have the tools to take care of themselves," Townsend says of his less-fortunate brethren. "When I say tools, I mean the education to know how the game go. I know deep in my heart that I was messed over in a lot of ways. But I don't fight the other fellow for it. I fight me for being so weak in my knees to bend down."

Though he's considered by many to be one of the best living blues guitarists, widespread fame has always eluded Bennie Smith. During his 50 years in the business, Smith has received less than $1,000 in royalties — most of that came from "Shook Up," a CD he cut in 2001 for a small New York-based blues label.

"There was a major blues scene here from the early '20s almost through today. St. Louis has had no shortage of talent," says Greensmith, noting that the city also functioned as a way-station on the trek many bluesmen took from the Delta to Chicago. "There was talent on every street corner. They just didn't have any record companies — there has never, ever been a successful record company out of St. Louis. There've been a lot of successful artists out of St. Louis, but they've always had their success with out-of-town companies — never with a local company."

I learned this from Henry Townsend: The moment you hit the hospital, have as many people as possible show up," imparts John May. "You get people to show up. That way everyone on that floor knows that this is a significant person. He's not just a 97-year-old black man. There are a lot of people that care about him. Henry'll bring in pictures of himself and albums. He wants people to know who he is."

Clad in a St. Louis Blues Society T-shirt, jeans and a black beret, May has fueled his tall, thin frame with beer and a few shots of Patrón tequila in preparation for a Saturday-night shift working the door at BB's. Meantime, though, he's happy to hold forth on his favorite topic — the blues. Specifically, the Blues Society's "Mission Fund," set up on behalf of indigent musicians.

May says many musicians are reluctant to ask directly for help, out of pride or embarrassment. Medical services are often hard to come by, and there's a widespread belief that what medical care they do receive will be substandard. That was true in Bennie Smith's case, and in the case of Jimmy Rogers, who played guitar in Muddy Waters' band and died in 1997 of colon cancer.

« Previous Page
Next Page »