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James Crutchfield

STLBlues: Thanks for taking the time for this interview. Lets start with the basic 'where were you born' question.

JC: I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1912.

STLBlues: When did you decide to become a musician?

JC: What made me start playin' the piano is when I was younger, I used to love to ride freight trains. We got off a freight train one night, we were in a joint, a guy we know comes in and sits around awhile. This guy limped, didn't get around too good. He sat over there by himself, another guy over there started pattin' on the piano. After awhile he walks over there to the guy at the piano and says "How about lettin' me play a piece?" The guy at the piano looked back over at him, but he wouldn't get up. He went on back and sat back down. Again he went back and asked him, the man, and he still wouldn't get up. The bossman said "You, piano player, every night you come in here with that pling, plang, ploong. You don't know if the man can play or not, so get your black ass up!" (laughs) So he got up and the guy sat down. The first piece he played was "Baby face, you've got the cutest little Baby face". It just came out beautiful. Then the bossman said to them, "You fellas we're gonna give you something to eat and tomorrow I'm gonna take you to the store and buy you some clothes to put on. You got a job here". "You boys can sleep here tonight and we'll let you out in the morning". I didn't need that, cause I wasn't gonna need no place to sleep. I had $700 in my pocket. I left home with that kind of money cause I hustled all summer long. And I saved my money - especially runnin' up and down the road here! So, anyway, I told Shines that night "you know one thing, when I get back home , I'm gonna be a piano player". "You see that man there? He's ragged and dirty and he's got some where to sleep and you and me ain't!'

So when I got back home the had started on a theater before I left from there and they had got it finished. So the man knew me and he said, "Buck (that was my nickname)- we done opened this theater and we want to give you the job to clean it up". I said good, this is right down my alley (they had 2 pianos in there!). I'd clean it up and then I'd peck on that piano with these two fingers. Finally, one day I picked up a book, the book said "If you can sing, whistle or hum, you can learn how to play the piano". Lessons cost $17.50 per month. I started playing and every time I hit a bad key, I'd know it because I had the sound in my head. I tell people now most of the thing about music is sound and timing. You keep the sound in your head and when you hit the right key, you know it. That's the way I learned to play. Nobody teach me.

STLBlues: When did you first come to St. Louis?

JC: I came to St. Louis in 1948.

STLBlues: Who did you play with then?

JC: I was Elmore James' piano player. I happened to help make his record "Dust My Broom". In Memphis, TN., B.B. King would play on the right side of the street and me and Elmore played on the left side. I didn't sing, Elmore sang. I was the piano player. We done good! Albert made the record "Hand Me Down My Walking Cane". People thought Elmore James made the song cause he'd sing it all the time but he didn't. Albert made it.

STLBlues: You disappeared from the music scene for awhile. Then you reappeared. What did you do during that time?

JC: Yeah, I didn't play for 10 years. I quit playin'. I had a woman. She nagged me to death. It's true. That woman ran me nuts. I said I'm gonna leave this woman. I had bought us a home. So I got up one morning and said "I'm leavin' ". She said "You're leaving?" I said "Yeah, I'm gonna leave, leave you the house and everything in it but my piano and my clothes". That's what I told her and I left her with the home and when I came back, she had sold the house. She lives on 14th St. now. We got together when her son was 10 years old, he's 26 now.

STLBlues: Is he a musician?

JC: No, he don't play music but he's got a good head on his shoulders. He's a smart kid. He told me, he said "let me tell you something. You is my daddy cause when I needed him, my daddy wasn't there, but when I needed you , you were there". And I love him for that. I don't care if its Christmas or any holiday, if he had a nickel, he'd give me half of it! He told me "I'll never forget you as long as I live! "If it hadn't been for you I don't know which way my mother and I would have turned". I had met this wife after my first wife passed. Her name was Ruby. She was 6 feet tall. Yeah, she was. I've got two boys by her and a girl.

STLBlues: When did you get together with your current band?

JC: I just met Benny Smith, we been together about two or three months. And Sharon Foehner came from New York. She came up to me and said "I've talked to you but I've never heard you play and I would like to play with you". I said "I'll tell you what you should do. You come on while I'm playin' and I'm gonna learn you how to play behind me. You got to play like I tell ya". She's a good player now. I said "Keep up with me and you'll be a good player ". And now she's a top player. I've got to give it to her, she's good.

STLBlues: Tell us about your early days here in St. Louis

JC: I'd been all through the country. When I was a kid, that's all I did was ride freight trains. I heard that train whistle blow, I just had to go. Couldn't stay still to save my life. So I ended up here, got here about 2 in the morning. There were so many people here I couldn't find a place to sleep. Women were laying out asleep with their babies in their arms. In 1948, out on Delmar they had all those whiskey stills all out through there. A Negro would go downtown to buy a coca-cola in a place, they wouldn't allow him to drink it in there. The man told him "You can't drink that in here". "I don't give a damn if I did sell it to you, you can't drink it in here". I threw the damn bottle down, said "just keep the quarter"."You that hard up for a quarter, just keep it!" He said "you're a crazy G-D nigger". I said " you're a crazy G-D white man too!" I didn't go down there no more, though. I played for a woman named Rosalie (Levitt?) down in Gaslight square. She ran the "Left Bank". James added, "my wifes 49". I'm old enough to be her daddy". But she loved me right on. She ought to love me. I took on her children and put her to bed-you can't beat that! (laughs)

STLBlues: Mr. Crutchfield, we want to thank you for this interview!

This interview was conducted by request of Mr. Crutchfield in between sets during a performance of his at the Venice Cafe.

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