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Bennie Smith

By Dave Beardsley, 1996

Bennie Smith at the  SheldonBennie Smith is one of St. Louis' leading blues guitarist, with his musical heritage firmly rooted here in St. Louis. Those of you who were fortunate enough to have seen Bennie perform can attest to his musical genius. Kind enough to grant STLBlues this interview, the following chronicles Bennies life in his own words. As we prepared for the interview, Bennie cued up some appropriate background music (early Vernon Guy & Clayton Love).

STLBlues: On behalf on STLBlues, we want to thank you for granting us time for this interview. You're a St. Louis native. Have you lived in St. Louis all your life?

Yeah, I went and stayed a little while, a few months in Arkansas.

STLBlues: Were you born in this area of the city?

I was born on October 5, 1933, over on Gratiot, in South St. Louis. 14th and Gratiot, between Peppe and Choteau.

STLBlues: When did you first get into music?

BS: Well, it started back with a fellow named, well, it actually started back with my cousin, A-frog, we called him. His name was Floyd, Floyd B.Robinson. He came back from the service and he brought back a ukulele. He used to play on the ukulele "Shofoot Flossie with the Flaws off". I never knew what that meant. He used to sing that all the time and that kinda caught my fancy. He gave me a ukulele and I used to try and pick on that, but there wasn't much I could really do with it. Then later on, he went out and bought me a guitar, you know.

STLBlues: How old were you at that time?

BS: Oh, I was about, at that time, about 11 or 12. I was real young. Well, Floyd bought the guitar, and after that I didn't have any strings. So his brother, his name is Eddie Robinson, he bought me some strings, so I could string my guitar. I had my guitar then, and I was trying to get it tuned up, and I had a cousin who stayed across on Jefferson, he was gonna take the guitar home, and tune it up and bring it back for me. Somehow I heard he got in a fight and broke the guitar over somebody's head. Then my brother Calvin, (he was working at the time) said "I'll go out and buy you a guitar". So he went out and bought me another little Stellar. I was playing on that thing for quite a while. I used to play around the house a lot with it, picking at it, making a lot of noise. My brother Calvin, he would come up and say "Yeah, one of these days you might learn how to play".

STLBlues: You said you listened to the radio a lot. Who did you enjoy listening to?

BS: At that time I was listening to Bobby Bland, Junior Walker. Before that happened, before that time, the one that really inspired me was Butch McCrane. That's when I lived down on South 8th Street, down in the Soulard area. He used to play back when Joe Louis and Max Schmeling was fighting. I used to hear him play guitar, and it seemed he would stomp louder than he could play (laughs). He would be playing and singing all by himself, and I would sit there and watch him, and watch him. One day he said "come on and sit in, and you and me can play some". I would try to pick a couple notes, but I didn't know nothin'. I would just hit the guitar clink-clink-clink-clink. I was trying to keep time, and I didn't know what time was. Butch played for quite a while, and I learned a whole lot during that big fight with Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. He gave a little party out in the back yard. Everyone in the court he lived in would come out, and Butch would play a little guitar.

STLBlues: So you began playing around town, and played with just about everybody.

BS: After that, that's when I moved back on Choteau. Before that, that's when I heard Ace Wallace. That's when I used to walk around Jefferson & Choteau and used to hear music come out of there and I wondered how they were playin'. That's when I first saw George & Doc Perry. George could play some guitar, I could listed to his notes, and they sounded good. During that time I would hear BB King too, he was playin a lot. He had some songs out. I would listen to mostly Memphis Slim. My favorite to listen to was Matt "Guitar" Murphy on the guitar. I started listening to Roy Hooker. Then Grant Green. During that time, at that time I didn't know nothing about Grant Green and all the other guitar players, ya know. So Ace Wallace told me he was gonna teach me how to play guitar. He showed me so much on the guitar, a whole lotta things.

Heck, I could only play one note (laughs). Showed me how to hold my fingers, how to play everything. So after that I got together with a fellow named John, who played guitar. Bill Doughtery and his honky tonk were moving up, that was in the 50's, I think. Ace Wallace and I played together in a lot of places. We had Alvin Ford with us, we had quite a few people who played with us at that time. Joe Hunt. I'm trying to summarize it all. Then I moved on Vandeventer Place, after I left off of Hickory Street. That's when I met John who played guitar, and Rayburn (Ernest Rayburn). At that time we used to bum around together. We worked at Beamis Bag Company at 4th and Poplar. I worked there many years. It's right across from the Tums place. I worked there for quite a while and then go home and play a little guitar.

Mostly I like to party every Friday. My main thing was trying to work on cars. I had a little car I used to fix up, and my sister used to steal my car, and drive. I finally got me a little sweet 37 Chevrolet. That thing was nice, I loved that car. I never knew what happened to it, but basically, getting back to the guitar part of it, a whole lot of things happen in your life through the years. I went to school, and a Professor Phillips was my principal. Come to find out, I met his son, Gus Phillips. He used to play with Howlin' Wolf years ago. Before that, on Vandeventer Place, I was staying there- no, I got together with Gabriel when I was on Hickory. Ace (Wallace) introduced me to him, and we started playin around Fort Leonard Wood every weekend.

I had a little amplifier I had made out of a radio. One of those round radios. I would tune it to a certain station and play the guitar through it. We played at Fort Leonard Wood and around there every weekend. It was pretty nice. We'd drive over there and have to get out after 5 to 6 miles and put oil in the car. In his (Gabriel's) van, you know, we did that for years. We played together for quite a while. Then, after Gabriel, I started playin on and off with Roosevelt Marks. Before I went with them, I was playin with another group, me and Willie Richardson. We had a little group we'd play with, that was when I lived over on Cates.

STLBlues: So you've lived all over the City?

BS: All over, all around. Willie Richardson and me, we had Chuck Bernard, Jimmy Johnson, Martell Oates, and Chuck Berry. We used to play at the Dots Lounge. I'm breaking t in bits and pieces - The Dots Club over on MLK and Union, that was Dave Dixon's place. Dave Dixon was running that place. I told you about Roosevelt Marks, but I haven't told you much about him.Well, Roosevelt Marks, I played with him, and during that time I was over on Vandeventer Place. Before then, we had Larry Davis, Billy Duncan, Jimmy Walsh and James Walsh. Jimmy played drums, James blew sax , and Eugene Washington also blew saxophone. We had Jimmy Box (St.Louis Jimmy) playin' piano for us. We played different places like the Frolic Bar, the Manhattan, big clubs. We played Chappy's Lounge on Vandeventer.

We had quite a few places that we were playin' around during that time. Ike (Turner) had come in town during that time, too. He had heard about me. He was playin piano for BB at that time. He wanted me to teach him how to play guitar. One I used to like was Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown. He was really good. I would listen to his song I wanted to learn, "Okie Dokie Stomp". I sat around one day, and tried to pick it note for note, and thought I'd put some of my stuff in it, you know. That's when I was teaching Ike, at that time. He was a pretty darn good piano player, but he wanted to play guitar. Se we got together and started playin. He learned that song ("Okie Dokie Stomp") a different way, cause he wanted to put a whole lot of different stuff in it. So I think he called it "Prancin".

STLBlues: Is that when you met Ike Turner?

BS: That's when my relationship with Ike started. My relationship with Clayton Love, I recorded with Clayton Love-quite a few songs. I recorded "Box Top" and quite a few songs with Ike. His first recording was "Box Top'. Gabriel, he was an engineer at that time. Basically, getting back there again, before Ike, that's when I used to sit around at the "Birdcage" over on Vandeventer. I was staying off Vandeventer anyhow, on Vandeventer Place. He (Grant Green) was playing at the Birdcage. Seemed like he could go to sleep and play and never miss a note. He was playing jazz, it seemed like he played so fast and so much until I wished I could ever play like that. Then he came around and asked me to teach him to play the Blues. It knocked me off my feet. I felt proud, I said "Oh my, goodness"! I showed him how to bend a note, there wasn't nothing to it, you know. I thought, Grant Green, coming and asking me to teach him how to play - something else!

During that time I was trying to fiddle around with electronic stuff too, and I used to fix Ike's cars, and different things. And, basically I got me a group together called Bennie Smith and the Sportsmen. Thats when I had Willie Richardson, Val Moore ("Woofer"), Chuck Bernard. We played around for quite a while when I was staying on Cates - I can relate to the places I was stayin'. At that time I had Screamin' Joe Neal and Tim Cooper (Little Cooper). We had a fella named "Gawk" - I never knew his name, Henry they said it was, he played drums. I used Anthony Schmitt's brother, George Schmitt, yeah, he played saxophone. We played at the Peppermint Club on Skinker at Delmar, biggest club around here at that time. We kept it packed 6 nights a week.

STLBlues: What years were these?

BS: That's back in the 60's, with Roosevelt Marks, that's way before that, when I used to stay on Beard. Roosevelt and I got a group together. "Weepin and Cryin" Tommy Brown, he was singing at the Manhattan, and he wanted me to play with him. Booker, who owned the Manhattan Club, said he was gonna book us on the road. So he got together a group called "Tommy Brown and the Teardrops". It included me, Sam Rose, Billy Duncan, and Raymond Hill, who just recently passed. We had "Stumpy", (Eugene Washington) to me, the loudest drummer I ever heard, for real! Then we had Raymond Hill, he could blow some sax. We all got together - Raymond Hill, Billy Duncan, Lloyd Wallace on organ, and Sam Rose on bass. Stumpy was on the drums, and I was on guitar. We had Tommy Brown and we had Anna Mae Turner.

STLBlues: Sounds like quite a band.

BS: We left and went on the road, we were booked in Atlanta, Georgia. We stayed in Atlanta about 6 months, we could down to Tampa, Florida, and the gulf, you know. Different places. We had Charles Brown and Ruth Brown at that time, too. It was a big show we had going, a nice show. At that particular time, we were guaranteed $75.00 a week, whether we played or not.

STLBlues: Over the years you also played with people like Little Milton, and Aretha Franklin.

BS: Aretha, yes. She came in town and she wanted a band together, so they called me. I wanted and got Stumpy, and we got George, who plays bass. We went and played at Kiel Auditorium down here on Market Street. We had a really nice time. That's the first time she ever kissed me (laughs). Back during the time when John (?) was staying on Slattery, when I was staying on Hickory. That was when I first met Joel Carlos and the Bop-A-Deers, in the 1940's. He had a little show where they would dance, come out and do the limbo, crawl under fire, and stuff. During that time, that's when I was on Cates, playing at the Red Top. Started playing at the Red Top with Jimmy Johnson, Martell Oates and me and Chuck Bernard. That's when I got together with Morris Henderson, was singing with Little Herbert and Stacey (Johnson), and Vernon Guy. They called themselves "The Turbans". They were little boys then. They were singing around town.

During that time, I was starting to play with Billy Gayles, off and on, too. We were playing at the American Legion post on Kingshighway. We had quite a few people- Sam Rose on bass. During that time I met Billy (?) with The 5th Dimension. Then I started teaching guitar a little bit to quite a few people. I was getting guitar players together cause Ike was in California, and sometimes he'd want some guitar players. He'd call me and say "get some guitar players together and send them out here". I sent him a guy I met overseas, I can't remember his name. He ended up playin' with Lightin' Slim. He came up and said "Don't you remember teaching me guitar in your basement?" Still can't remember his name. I was teaching so many people in my basement. Bennie Sharp would come by with Stacy sometimes, he wanted to learn a few numbers. He got pretty good, you know! Benny Sharp started preachin' you know. After that, who else? Anthony Shinott (sp), I got him ready to send to California.

STLBlues: So you've played with or taught just about everybody!

BS: Yeah, just about everybody. You name them - Billy Peek, Little Herbert, Q.T. Macon, Larry Davis. When Larry was staying with me on Vandeventer, I was teaching him. He wanted to learn how to play guitar instead of singing-he could sing his butt off-so I put some new music to him to make him sing (laughs). That's when Roosevelt Marks was in the band. We had a pretty good band then.

STLBlues: You're still out there playing around town. In fact, aren't you a feature artist at the 1996 Blues Heritage Festival?

BS: Yeah, and I've played with Oliver Sain, Billy Gayles, Ike Turner, Albert King (who called me Alvino Ray), Bobby Bland, and Little Milton. That's when I was playin' over at Lakeside. Bobby Bland used to be over there a lot. Bobby Bland and The Minstrels would come in, and they didn't want nobody to play but me & Jimmy Johnson, Martel Oates, and Chuck Bernard. We was playin' behind them, and we put some soul on them! That's the time Little Milton outsung Bobby Bland - I said "Oh wow!" Ike Turner was in the other room, shooting dice (laughs).

Years ago, Little Milton got my drummer from me, he payed a little more an hour. Took me a long time to teach that drummer! Besides Al Saint James and Howard Yates, he was the only drummer who could make a roll with one hand. I was teaching him, you know, and finally got him to do it, it was something else! Little Milton snatched him, and went off. I went on the road, and 6 months later, in Atlanta, that's when I met Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown. We played at the Peacock Hotel at that time. We was in the lobby, and we all got together and started playin'. We was gonna rehearse that day, and just got together and started playin' some music.

I didn't tell you about BB King! The 1st time I played with BB, he didn't have an amplifier. They keep saying this is the amplifier BB played on, (gestures to one nearby in his basement) but I don't know, looks different. This might be it, I'm not sure. We was playin' over at the Club Riviera. BB came into town and didn't have an amplifier, so Roosevelt said "bring one of your ampifiers over here!" So I brought this one. We had a band you wouldn't believe - out of sight! We had Stumpy on drums, Roosevelt played bass, we had Clayton Love playin' piano. BB came out and played, and there was only 5 or 6 people in the place!

STLBlues: Now you see BB King playin' gigs like the closing ceremonies of the Olympics, spreading the Blues gospel to over 200 million people, all over the world!

BS: Yeah, that was the 1st time I ever played with BB. I was playin' chords behind, letting him lead, then he'd throw the solo to me - and there was hardly anybody there to hear us. Most of my style then was like my favorite guitarist, Matt "Guitar" Murphy. Him and I played together on the radio. That's when I had Erskine Ogelsby and Jimmy Johnson. That's when Chuck Berry was playin' down at the Cosmo.

STLBlues: Lots of history! You've since came out with your long- overdue CD , "The Urban Soul of Bennie Smith" (back in 1993).

BS: Yeah, that CD. Through the grace of God, somebody sent a good friend to me, Charlie Riggs and his son, Josh. They really helped me, really worked with me to try to get the CD together. I had to make the CD in the basement at that time, and it's like, the musicians we had to use, they didn't have but an hour, or15 minutes to spare. They'd come in do a number, get paid, and leave. It was all kinda weird, you know! They used to play in my basement, and I'd have to almost put them out of here, or they'd play all night. But they didn't want to cut the CD. They'd come down here talking about this and that, play a few minutes, and have to leave. I just didn't have the instruments I really needed. I needed a good piano player, you know. Hard to get it together. Finally got a piano player, Joe Neal. And the drummers - I had to use Skeet and Ray - hard to get them together at the time. Joe Neal didn't know too many of the chords I really wanted, so basically it wasn't really what I wanted. I finally got the CD done the way I liked it, you know. Engineering was great, no problem. Josh Riggs did the engineering, he's real good. His father Charlie is real good too, made sure everything got together. So I finally got the CD out.

STLBlues: You're still out there playing. Who do you play with currently?

BS: I'm playin' with James Crutchfield, Clara McDaniels, and others. Over the years, I've played with quite a few people - forget them as you go along. I've taught quite a few people. Ace Wallace taught quite a few - Tommy Bankhead learned from Ace!

STLBlues: How do you feel about playing at this years Blues Heritage Festival?

BS: I'm looking forward to it! I had the pleasure of meeting James Carr ("my idol"). When I met James Carr over in England, along with Gatemouth, they said "finally makin' it", and I said "I don't know, hangin in there with it". That was the first time Gatemouth ever heard me play, he told me "somebody must have had you locked up in jail, cause you should've been out here years ago" (laughs).

STLBlues: On behalf of STLBlues, thanks for granting this interview, it's been a pleasure!

BS: I hope I haven't missed anybody, cause I have so many people in mind, just can't remember everybody. Tina Turner, she sang on the "Box Top" recording.

STLBlues: Thanks again, we look forward to hearing you play around town.

Sadly, Bennie passd away on Sept. 10th, 2006, but his music and memories of him will live forever

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