The up-tempo tune is a sonic jungle gym for Smith, whose left hand crabwalks the neck of his Stratocaster. His joint-popping speed transforms "Stomp" into the musical equivalent of a ride on a vintage roller coaster: Just as you think he's tumbling over the edge, he clacks the tune back on track, catapulting the beery crowd toward the next sharp turn.
Smith has been playing this song for decades. But the crowd's ready to burst, and you'd think these amps had never coursed with the current of the guitarist's rhythmic maze. Drummer Chuck Wolters the sole remaining original member of Smith's band, the Urban Blues Express motors the tune on snare, slide guitarist Rich McDonough takes a back seat on rhythm guitar, while Jim "Doc" Evans strides along on bass.
Despite the breakneck finger work, there's none of the pyrotechnics that are the hallmark of formally trained younger guitarists. Smith is a postwar St. Louis bluesman. He learned his trade in backyards and on street corners, studying at the feet of guitar great Herman "Ace" Wallace. After more than 50 years playing clubs (often as many as three a day), touring and studying his idol, Gatemouth Brown, the 72-year-old Smith has honed a style that possesses all the elegance and eccentricity of a fingerprint.
"You've got to go a long way to find anybody as good as Bennie Smith," says local photographer and blues historian Bill Greensmith. "He's probably the best guitar player to come out of St. Louis. He's got the edge over them all."
As Smith draws the final notes from his Strat, a bald, mustachioed reveler presses against the stage to shake the bluesman's hand. "You're the greatest!" he imparts.
But it takes a lot more than an inebriated interruption to knock Smith off his stride. This is the man who taught Ike Turner to play guitar, the man who has shared the stage with Gatemouth Brown, Albert King and Matt "Guitar" Murphy, to name just a few.
But Smith also knows he has another two hours to go. He won't get home until 4 a.m. His back, which never healed properly after he broke it in 1976, is throbbing. He can sense a cold coming on. Though he's rigged a small plastic fan to help his wind, a long-entrenched case of emphysema has him short of breath. He doesn't have medical insurance, the gas company's threatening to shut off his service, and he's got another gig tomorrow afternoon.
Best bring it down a notch.
On a clear, windy day in March, a clutch of mourners gathered at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. They'd come to the western banks of the Mississippi River to bury Clarence Johnson, who'd died a month earlier. After a brief graveside eulogy, three aging veterans pointed their rifles toward the sky and honored Johnson with a three-gun salute. A bugler sounded "Taps." Two service members presented a tightly folded American flag to Johnson's half-sister, Fannie Harper, and the mourners departed. The ceremony lasted fifteen minutes.
Blind, diabetic and indigent, Johnson had only narrowly escaped the potter's field. At age 91, he had been living barely at subsistence level since his East St. Louis home burned down in 2000. After the fire Johnson had little contact with friends and family. When paramedics found him in an unheated apartment on February 18, a day when temperatures in St. Louis dipped to eighteen degrees, he'd wrapped himself in several layers of clothing in an apparent attempt to keep warm. He died that same day of hypothermia at Kenneth Hall Regional Hospital. His body temperature was 87 degrees.
Johnson had no identification on him when he died, and for the next two weeks his remains sat unidentified at the morgue. It wasn't until 96-year-old blues legend Henry Townsend was shown a photograph of the body that authorities were able to identify him as blues guitarist Clarence "Windy" Johnson.
"Clarence was one of those fellows that watched what he do while he's playing. When his eyesight started going bad on him, it pulled him out," says Townsend, who employed Johnson in the 1940s and '50s. "In my own opinion he had a feeling there was no returning. He kinda relaxed himself in that position: 'If this is the way it is, this is the way it is.'
"I used to visit him kinda often," Townsend goes on. "I used to tell him quite a bit as I see he was going down, I said: 'Clarence, now look, man, don't go down too far.' I sit down and talked to him man to man on it. He didn't even think about it. Then I didn't see him no more."
Johnson worked mainly as a sideman. In addition to accompanying Townsend on guitar, he backed up a young Miles Davis, as well as several other area musicians. Over the years he managed to lay down a few tracks of his own for Jerome, a small St. Louis label that was active in the early 1960s. Though he played music all his life, he earned his keep fixing radios and other small electronics out of his house.
"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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
"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.
"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.
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."
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?"
That said, he's well aware of the fate that has befallen many older blues musicians.
"People in America take blues for granted," Knox says. "I'm still trying to figure out how they runnin' the social security in line with musicians. If I've been playing the blues all my life and I'm making all this money, do I get a social security check too when I come of age? A question like that, ain't nobody ever talked about it. Don't no bluesman talk about how it is having the blues being old."
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