Masters of Their Domains

Hometown legend Bennie Smith joins other blues greats at the "Guitar Masters 2002" show

Dapper in coat, tie and cap, Bennie Smith sits onstage at BB's Jazz, Blues & Soups. He's as relaxed as a man out for a leisurely drive in the country. It's 1 a.m., and Saturday night has slipped into Sunday morning, but the long, narrow room is still packed, mostly with twentysomething men and women whose parents may not have even been born when Smith first started playing the blues. The music of Smith's Urban Blues Express fills the scant floor space in front of the stage, urging dancers on with renditions of familiar material ranging from "Drown in My Own Tears" and "Sweet Home Chicago" to "Back at the Chicken Shack" and "Johnny B. Goode."

The revelers, young enough to be Smith's children and grandchildren, don't care that the songs have been played 100,000 times before. Right now, they want to drink, flirt, shake, shimmy and maybe do a little belly-rubbing to the slow blues, and Smith and the Express are delivering the goods in classic fashion.

Smith is a capable vocalist, with a soulful baritone that sometime pushes into tenor range, but it's his guitar playing that steers the music. Occasionally he cocks an eyebrow, nods slightly or even flashes a lopsided grin, expressing approval after delivering a particularly stinging lead-guitar lick or when something else he hears pleases him. Mixing slashing pentatonic riffs, fat jazz chords and the occasional twang of country with idiosyncratic rhythmic displacements, Smith's distinctive style is like a recombinant gene-splice of Freddie King, Thelonious Monk, Scotty Moore and Wes Montgomery.

Over five decades, Smith has performed and recorded with lots of famous folks, including the Drifters, the Spaniels, Amos Milburn, Charles Brown, Jimmy Reed, Hubert Sumlin, Matt "Guitar" Murphy and Bobby "Blue" Bland, as well as many performers with connections to St. Louis, such as Ike and Tina Turner, Larry Davis Jr., Albert King, Fontella Bass, Oliver Sain, Henry Townsend, Johnnie Johnson, Billy Gayles, "Screamin'" Joe Neal, Clayton Love, Billy Davis, Roosevelt Marks and Big Bad Smitty.

His current band, formed in 1995, is a sturdy unit. Drummer Chuck Wolters and bassist Sharon Foehner lay down efficient, no-nonsense grooves. Guitarist Tom Maloney, another respected veteran of the local blues scene who'd be the lead guitarist in almost any other band but this one, gets plenty of solo space, which gives Smith a chance to demonstrate that he's an inventive rhythm guitarist, too. Saxman Harry Simon, who earned his own place in St. Louis music history as a member of Bob Kuban and the In-Men circa "The Cheater," is on vacation tonight, but trombonist John Wolf has come by after his regular gig with the Soulard Blues Band to sit in for the last set. The band plays, the liquor flows and the house rocks until closing time.

Though he's done his share of recording, festivals, tours and concerts, big money and fame have eluded Smith, and he's spent a lot of Saturday nights like this, simply entertaining people by playing the blues in barrooms. Though not a household name, he's indisputably a St. Louis treasure, one of the city's last living direct connections to the progenitors of postwar electric blues and a mentor to several generations of aspiring guitar players.

Many of those students have been working players on the local club circuit. Others have tasted greater success -- Anthony Shinault, who went on to back Isaac Hayes, and Ira Gates, who worked with Little Milton. Ike Turner couldn't exactly reproduce the version of "Okie Dokie Stomp" that Smith showed him, so he rewrote it as the blues jukebox hit "Prancin'" and later tapped his teacher to handle guitar chores on a single called "Boxtop," which featured the first recorded performance by young Anna Mae Bullock, now known as Tina Turner.

As the elder statesman of St. Louis blues guitarists, Smith will have plenty of admirers in the house when he performs as one of the featured artists in the "Guitar Masters 2002" show on Sunday at the Pageant. But he won't be the only master onstage at the marathon show, which is scheduled to run from 4:30 p.m. until after midnight.

Billed as "a tribute to six strings and the people who play them," the event is the latest in a series started by the St. Louis Blues Society in 1990. "The idea is to take some of the finest St. Louis players and present them in a large venue as professionally as we can," says Blues Society president John May. "We have such a wealth of talent in the St. Louis area, and that has allowed us to have completely different shows every time we've done this."

May calls it "a celebration of the instrument and the musicians that we have in our own city," and even the one out-of-towner on the bill evokes memories of a famous local. "The first time I saw Michael Burks play, I closed my eyes and I thought I was hearing Albert King," May recalls. Based in Arkansas and signed to Chicago's Alligator Records, Burks is a rising star on the national club and festival circuit. He's built a following here through regular club appearances. Nominated in 2000 for a W.C. Handy Award as Best New Artist and called "a master showman" by Blues Revue, "he's a guitar player's guitar player, an absolute monster," says May.

Though the blues is a common thread, the bill reflects the variety of traditions underlying St. Louis music. Billy Peek started as a rocker, emulating Chuck Berry on early singles such as 1962's "Twisting Johnny B. Goode" and going on to back the Wizard of Wentzville for a number of years. Spotted by Rod Stewart during a televised performance with Berry, Peek worked with the rooster-haired vocalist on four albums and numerous tours in the late '70s before returning home and settling into the local club circuit.

Alvin Jett, who grew up in East St. Louis, also played rock before turning to blues as a member of Tommy Bankhead's band. Influenced by Carlos Santana, he shows off everything from jazzy octave riffing to James Brown-style funk while fronting busy local combo the Hired Help. "Alvin has learned his blues properly and is not only a great guitar player but a great entertainer," says May.

Dave Black learned rock and country in his hometown of Gary, Indiana, delving into blues and jazz after moving to St. Louis in 1982. These days, Black works in a variety of contexts -- a duo with saxophonist John Norment, the funk band Dangerous Kitchen and the jazz quartet Brilliant Corners -- and plays solo acoustic-guitar gigs that incorporate jazz, blues, folk, country and classical influences.

Tom Hall played electric guitar in ensembles such as the Geyer Street Sheiks, the River City Rhythm and the Illusions and has also carved out a busy career as a solo performer, playing slide and fingerstyle guitar, banjo and dulcimer and drawing from Delta blues, folk and world music.

Billy Barnett did a long stint playing rock, soul and fusion with Streetcorner, spent a year playing with country fiddler Shoji Tabuchi in Branson and now fronts his own blues/funk/rock band. Rich McDonough has performed with the Soulard Blues Band and Rondo's Blues Deluxe and now works with his own quartet and the St. Louis Social Club. Tony T. (he uses only the initial) has played with Barbara Carr, Renée Smith and Bankhead, and he currently bends the strings for Cryin' Shame. Blues-rocker Mike Matthews, who recently moved to the city from Southern Illinois, leads a band (also including second guitarist Jim Alexander) that has opened for acts including Big Brother, Etta James and Chuck Berry.

Each guitarist will have a featured set, with Black and Hall playing solo and the rest performing with their regular working groups. With more than eight hours of virtually nonstop music, there will be something to please most every fan of great guitar playing, May promises: "This is to showcase the guitar players. They consider it an honor, and the bands really rise to the occasion."