Going Down Slow

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

"Jimmy Rogers went into the hospital, and they punctured his intestine. He died in a matter of weeks," says May. "All these older black guys know that. They know that they're at the bottom of the rung for medical treatment, and they'll tough it out.

"Most of the time they'll need a medicine that costs $200 a month and they don't have $200," May posits. "Or if it comes down to eating or buying the medicine, they'll eat. So we'll buy the medication. It's a stopgap."

When bassist Gus Thornton suffered a stroke at the 1996 Big Muddy Blues Festival and could no longer perform, the Mission Fund stepped in to help with his house payments and bills. The Mission Fund provided for vocalist Erma Whiteside, who was diagnosed with liver cancer and fell behind on her utilities bills. The Blues Society paid for bluesman Tommy Bankhead's funeral and helped Chuck Berry's legendary former pianist Johnnie Johnson rise from anonymity to reclaim his career.

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.

"Johnnie fell into absolute obscurity," May recounts. "He was driving a bus for an old folks' home. There was a time when his car got repossessed. In the 1980s the Blues Society put together Ike Turner's Kings of Rhythm, and Johnnie got noticed. He went from getting his car repossessed to performing in the Royal Albert Hall with Eric Clapton."

While the St. Louis Blues Society does its part for the Mission Fund by hosting benefit concerts at BB's and an annual show at the Sheldon Concert Hall in Grand Center, May and business partner Mark O'Shaughnessy support older bluesmen week in and week out.

"The whole structure at BB's is set up for the old guys," May explains. "The big-money nights are all for St. Louis musicians. The older guys get the weekends, and they get 100 percent of the door.

"A lot of these guys shouldn't spend every night in bars where there's a lot of smoke," he goes on. "They shouldn't be out there trying to kill themselves for a couple hundred bucks divided six ways. That's crazy."

Last year while Bennie Smith was in the hospital, someone broke into his van and stole his instruments. BB's allowed his band to continue playing its scheduled gig without their leader — on the condition that Smith receive his cut of the door. When Smith returned, the Blues Society held a benefit to replace his instruments.

"Next time Bennie was at the club, we gave him the money," says May. "He came up and gave me a big kiss. And Bennie ain't the kind of guy that kisses anybody."

In addition to playing piano for Chuck Berry at the rock pioneer's monthly Blueberry Hill gig, Bob Lohr is one of several local attorneys who help older musicians by dispensing pro-bono legal advice.

"Most of these guys I represent for nothing," says Lohr (who also moonlights as a record producer). "These guys can't afford it anyway. Most of this stuff is no big deal — it's an hour's worth of negotiation over the phone, and then taking a look at a two- or three-page deal and making sure they get what they've got coming for publishing, and a decent advance and a bunch of records so they can sell them at the gig."

A small cohort of area doctors also pitch in with discounted medical care.

"I try as hard as I can to keep them going, to keep them working," says Dr. Edward Geltman, a cardiologist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital who cares for Henry Townsend. "Because that's what keeps them alive. We'll often have samples of the medications they are using, so we'll try to give them whatever we can. Sometimes there are a bunch of medications in the same class, and if one is not being sampled anymore I'll switch them to a similar med in the same class that I can get samples of."

In a certain respect, the need for medical assistance is dwindling. The past five years have witnessed the deaths of St. Louis greats Johnnie Johnson, Oliver Sain, Big Bad Smitty and Tommy Bankhead, among others.

"We're definitely on the tail end of it. It's a music of a place and time, but unfortunately the times seem to be changing," Bill Greensmith laments. "These guys are dying out, and who's there to replace them? There's nobody. These are singular talents. You're never going to get another Muddy Waters, you're never going to get another Howlin' Wolf. And there won't be another Bennie Smith or Henry Townsend. You can get somebody doing somebody else's song, but it will never be the same."

Marquise Knox is dressed casually for a bluesman, in jeans and a striped polo shirt. In the midst of his signature song, "Big Daddy Boogie," he leaps off Beale on Broadway's tiny bandstand and bounds into the crowd, blowing his harp and targeting the finest-looking woman in his path. When he spots one, he pulls her up front, gets her dancing, and stomps back after another. He's heavy-framed and given to a simple little two-foot shuffle, but before long he's got five ladies working up a sweat while he solos. When sweat beads on his own brow, Knox tosses his porkpie hat to one of the ladies.

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