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Mr. Henry Townsend

Excerpts from an interview by Steve Pick

About his 92nd birthday party down at BB's: "Well, I'll be doing something, but I'm not going down there to go to work on my birthday. There'll be a lot of guys there, a lot of renowned musicians. It will be mostly them. But I'll make my appearance. I'll be 92. The ones that say 93 are not doing their mathematics. You asked me, so I told you what it was. Most interviewers just go ahead and say it, and I don't bother about it. If they said 95 I wouldn't say nothing."

On performing out:
"Oh, 2 or 3 times a year. Sometimes more, but that's as far as I care to go. Matter of fact 2 times would be good enough for me. Father Time talks to you. If you're wise, you kind of obey."

His feelings about music:
"I keep myself in shape. You have to. If you don't use it, you're gonna lose it. I don't prefer to do too much work. So, I have to keep in touch with my instruments here at the house. Sometimes I'll have a few guys come by for classes. That helps me to keep myself playing. But, then, I've got one now, and that's kind of scattery. So I do this here at home to keep myself intact with it. I didn't accept but two for this year, and the last one wasn't good. That was in the U.K. It got cancelled about two days before we was supposed to take flight. They thought they cancelled it and that's that. It don't work that way. I do want my money. When you have to work out of state that way, it can be a little difficult. Split it 50/50 maybe by the time you get through. Sometimes you have to get a lawyer to get a lawyer. I've been teaching off and on . . . I've got people that started when they were teenagers who are about 45 years old. So that dates back to that time. I got one that's made big time. One of them moved over to England, I think he's moved back to the States now. They call him Tomcat Bates (?)."

About his musical beginnings:
"I started fooling with the guitar when I was around 14 or 15 years of age. In 1929 I made records with Columbia. A lot of people had records. Lonnie Johnson was out there. He was one of the people that I admired very much. Blind Blake was out there. Blind Lemon was out there. All of them people had recorded. Whole lot of guys was out there, by the time I recorded. I can't give no dates on that (electric guitar) or be specific about it, but my first electric guitar was in the 40s, the early 40s. That was back when amplifiers were just a little tin cabinet, about a foot long, about 6 or 8 inches deep. They was amazed, they liked it. It was an improvement for the purpose. An acoustic could only cover so much territory. With this thing, it sounded terrible, but at least they could hear some of what was going on. That's why it was in a metal cabinet so things wouldn't interfere with it. It helped some. To hear one of those amplifiers compared to what we have now, they ain't no relatives in no kind of way. They're not even 9th cousins."

Coming up in the Blues:
"Back in Chicago, that must have been in the 40s (hearing Snooky Pryor). He's younger than me. I think it was after I got out of the service. That could have been when it was. I went over there twice. I stayed over there one time for a good spell. The next time I didn't stay so long, but I was over there. I met all of those people working in Chicago. I was amazed at it (the Chicago scene). It did a lot for me. It give me the inspiration to go ahead and work at it. It made me really want it. I was in the service in 1945. I got out in late 45. When I come back to the States, they were giving preference to whatever you wanted to do, to go to school for it. I already had one recording with Columbia. I applied for music. They said my IQ wasn't good enough. Well, you know how that goes. So they gave me a choice of refrigeration and something else. So, I took refrigeration. When I was free to start traveling, that's when I went to Chicago, and that's when I met Snooky.

These younger guys, they were very enthused about the electric sounds. So, most everybody around started to buy up electric sounds. Occasionally I would work with Roosevelt Sykes, the piano player. And, of course, with Walter Davis. He and I were together I'd say on 80% of Walter's recordings. I was his back-up man. From then on, I mostly stayed around St. Louis. I went to have gigs out of town. I got through all the way with domestic and commercial refrigeration. I never did like it, but it turned out to be a pretty good deal, because it was something I could fall back on. I don't do it now. Once in a while, I used to go in for the right kind of job. If it was heavy enough that I could make some money.

I've known Hubert Sumlin for a while, for a good while. He's done some recording for the same company that I've just done some recording. APO it's called. It's home is in Kansas. I know you haven't seen it or heard it because it hasn't been released yet. I'll have them for my birthday, because they'll be released to the market on the 10th (Sept.10th, 2001).

Everybody but Ron Edwards is out of town guys. He plays backup guitar. I play piano and guitar.
I don't (decide what songs to record). It's all up to me. I don't decide, I just ad lib. I don't have anything written down, I don't know what I'm gonna do until I do it. I carry a little tape recorder with me. It will pick up whatever I sing. To keep it from getting stolen, I do a quick copyright on it. I go to the Post Office and mail it back to me, sealed in an envelope.
If something goes wrong, I've got that proof."

Henry's plans for the future:
I don't pre-plan nothing. If I did, it wouldn't do me no good. Plans for me are a distraction. I just have to ad lib. I just have to let whatever wants to come out. That keeps me able to do what I'm doing, and execute my music. A lot of good musicians cannot do vocals and play. BB can't. He's great, but he can't vocal and play. When he vocals, he has to let that guitar alone. There's nothing wrong with it. You can't dispute the fact that he's one of the most successful people in the blues. Buddy Guy can play both, but he does slow it down when he does his vocal. I guess everybody does. I guess I do, too, but I don't notice it.

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