Going Down Slow

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

Though he has been performing professionally for less than a year, Marquise Knox has written a lot of songs. "Fourteen Year Old Blues" is a popular one, but he always saves the harmonica-heavy "Big Daddy Boogie" to close out the set.

After all, he's fifteen now.

"I consider myself three-quarters a man," says Knox, who got his first guitar when he was three years old and now opens twice a week for St. Louis chanteuse Kim Massie at Beale on Broadway. "I want to challenge [St. Louis bluesman] Big George Brock. I think I got what it takes to go up against him. See, Big George got a belt that he wear around his waist when he play out. He call himself the Champion of the St. Louis Blues. I call myself the King."

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.

The coronation is probably a few years away. But when blues aficionados get to talking about Knox, the words "prodigy" and "Muddy Waters" tend to crop up in reverent tones.

"The big question is always the future of blues. All the innovators are dying out and the future of blues is in danger of becoming white rock & roll. Right now this kid should be on at every blues festival in the country. He's got about three years where he's still a phenomenon," says May, who books Knox once a month at BB's. "He's got a big voice like Muddy Waters, and he's got that machismo. He's really stunning when you hear him. He's rough and raw, and he's pure."

While Knox's peers aim their adulation at hip-hop heroes, he cites Lightnin' Hopkins, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. Gazing up at the portraits of bluesmen lining the walls at BB's, he's not shy about projecting his own image up there.

"I listen to hip-hop, but blues is exciting," says Knox. "I don't care what nobody thinks. I got some friends who like the blues. There's a lot a young people that like the blues, but they don't want to say they like it. They want to make sure their name's kept up. They don't want everybody to know what else they like, because they want to make people think they're big and bad with the hip-hop. That's not where it's at. All that stuff fell down from the blues."

Born in Missouri, Knox lived briefly in Mississippi before returning to St. Louis. He says a great uncle and his grandmother introduced him to the music. "They taught me everything they know. It wasn't much, but it helped out a lot." He first performed onstage in fourth grade during a Black History Month celebration, an experience he says hooked him on the blues. "The girls — I love it," he explains, uncharacteristically at a loss for words. "The girls got excited about it. When they found out I knew how to play, I believe she made my fifth girlfriend."

If Knox's tender age adds to his appeal, it can also hold him back. In a world where most clubs don't start hopping until midnight, as a minor Knox is prohibited by law to be in a club after 11:00 p.m. He's not even old enough to have a driver's license. His mother, Ruby Knox, home-schools him and ferries him to shows from their home in the north-county suburb of Berkeley. Though his father lives in St. Louis, Knox seldom sees him.

"I see him as often as I want, but I don't want to see him no every day. I'd get burnt out on him. It's just like eating the same food every day — you don't want no more," Knox says. "I know it ain't right, but it's something I can't help. My thing is, if you gonna start a family and burn out on it, and go have another woman, why come back to something you already done broke up? Don't try to come back and put your temporary two cents in the pipe. I'm at the point now that I won't take too much from my father. I give my mama all the respect, but him I won't."

What Knox does do is practice, for several hours each day. He says he even plays the harmonica in the shower. He recently applied for the Robert Johnson New Generation Award, whose recipient receives a Gibson "Robert Johnson" edition guitar, a harmonica and an invitation to play at the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation Spring Festival in Crystal Springs, Mississippi. Besides the gig at Beale on Broadway, he plays at Hammerstone's in Soulard and plays weekly at the Duck Club Yacht Club in St. Charles. But to achieve wider success, he knows he'll have to leave St. Louis.

"I say this the Junior Chitlin Circuit. We got three types of Chitlin Circuits. You got what I'm doing, and then you've got Middle Chitlin Circuit, people such as Bobby Rush. Then you got the third one, which is the Top Dog Chitlin Circuit: B.B. King and Buddy Guy."

He's aiming for the top. "Very seldom do you see a top blues person coming to St. Louis," Knox notes. "I figure somebody got to do it. Why not me?"

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