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  From the Corner - by Jeremy Segel-Moss
 February 2004

James Crutchfield Let me take you back to a winter Wednesday night at the Venice Café about six or seven years ago. Outside there was snow and ice and below-zero-bone-chilling St. Louis cold. The staff at the Venice was cleaning up after another night of music and merrymaking. All very routine until they found (drum roll please) a Stacy Adams shoe.

There was some immediate wondering about who in their right - or drunk - mind would have walked out into the frigid cold with only one shoe. While speculations flew there was only one person who would have, could have, walked out one shoe short. The next afternoon working his way up the front stairs, blues legend James Crutchfield, hobbled into the Venice with his shoeless prosthetic leg.

Blues pianist James Crutchfield died on December 7, 2001 of complications with heart disease, but his memory lives on at the Venice in many forms. The most tangible is the shrine installed last year. For a club that has enough eye candy to keep you busy for…forever…there is no missing the beautiful wood cabinet filled with Crutchfield paraphernalia. But before we go there…a little blues history.

Crutchfield was born in Baton Rouge, LA in 1912 and arrived in St. Louis in 1948. He played with legends such as Howlin’ Wolf, Roosevelt Sykes, Speckled Red, and Elmore James (who he helped create 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," said Crutchfield (interview with James).

Having only met Crutchfield once and only witnessing him perform a hand full of times it would be hard to explain his style of music. So, we’ll lean on the bullpen and turn it over to bass player, Sharon Foehner, who played with Crutchfield during his last years.

"James played pure folk art. He comes from a time when music wasn’t as organized …not as premeditated as music today. The [Venice’s] mosaics resemble his music because you don’t get a good picture of it until you back up and look at the whole thing. It’s not just the piano or the people around him…when you back up and look at the whole picture it all makes sense," said Foehner.

She also told me driving with James was like driving with a blindfolded man. Don’t know how that’s relevant, but interesting just the same.

Before the Venice became the psychedelic club we all know it as today, it was a simple artists residence which just happened to be the home of quite a few after-hour parties. Crutchfield was at a lot of those parties banging away all night at the stand up piano in the corner.

When the Venice opened its doors in 1988 it was only natural he start playing every Wednesday night (on the same piano). Funny thing…the piano faced the wall, which meant he played with his back to the audience for most of the performance. It wasn’t until 1991, when he got a new keyboard, that he could see the folks who came to see him.

James Crutchfield was a permanent fixture at the Venice while he was alive and still reigns in death. The case housing some of his memorabilia can be seen anytime the Venice’s doors are open. It includes everything from his drivers license, articles about his achievements, recordings, prosthetic leg (with his brown Stacy Adams shoe), the leisure suit he wore during the late 80’s and early 90’s and to top it off…the original keys from the stand up piano he banged on for years. Especially enjoy the keys his barrelhouse style of blues pounded off.

Like all folk art, the tradition didn’t stop with his passing. The memory of James Crutchfield is still in the hearts of those who knew, heard, and played with him. The Wednesday blues jam has evolved into a new kind of sound featuring Bennie Smith and the Urban Blues Express. The music has changed, but the feeling of community and creativity is still there and hopefully will be for…forever.

Read James leg | From the Corner - December 03

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