A St. Louis blues institution with deep southern roots. Photo R.L. Shelli
Tommy Bankhead, a fixture on the St. Louis blues scene for forty years, passed away on December 16th, 2000 of complications from emphysema. His funeral will be/was held at Eddie Randle and Sons, 4600 Natural Bridge on Friday January 22nd at 11AM.
A look back
at Tommy's deep blues roots helps to explain his longstanding popularity. He was born in 1931 on Bufford's Farm at Lake Cormorant, MS, just south of Memphis. His father played guitar at jukes and picnics but quit while Tommy was very young. Tommy attempted to play a pump organ his father had, but his first real playing was on harmonica and jew's harp about age eleven. By thirteen he had a Silvertone guitar, and began playing picnics and ballgames, emulating Howlin' Wolf, who came through town with a guitar slung over his shoulder and a belt full of harmonicas, playing for money on the street. Tommy's musical ambitions soon took him to Helena, Ark., where he played on the King Biscuit Flour Hour with Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller). He met Houston Stackhouse, Willie Love, and James Peck Curtis, and began playing out with Sonny Boy. "By me being too young to go in on my own, Sonny Boy would tell people that I was his son...they let me in!" His acoustic guitar had gained a pickup. "Some guy had converted a radio into an amplifier. This is what we played on. It would play awhile then it would get that bad sound in it." Tommy cruised the fertile Memphis area blues territory of the late forties. He played with the Howlin' Wolf band, sans Wolf, but with Willie Johnson, in West Memphis. In Memphis he learned to be a DJ at WDIA from Ford Nelson, Maurice Herbert, Jr., and Nat Dee. He played Memphis with The Three B's: his friend Woodrow Adams, Fiddlin' Joe Martin, and Big Boy Crudup's brother. They played down into the Delta at Robinsonville for a while. The country jukes they played featured craps ("cards took up too much room"), bootleg whiskey, and dancing. "If there would be room enough they would be kickin' up dust...the Big Apple, Truck, Suzy Q, Blackjack, Ball The Jack." He traveled to Jackson with Sonny Boy, Joe Willie Wilkins, and a drummer called Carousel. They traveled to Indianola, to Belzona, where they played Jake's place and Sonny Boy wrote the song about Gonna Tell Fannie What Her Boyfriend Say, Fannie being Jake's girlfriend. "Joe Willie learned me lots about lead. We'd start playing and when the time come to take the lead, he'd hunch me, so I had to do something. He told me later, "If I'd never did that you''d never have played lead." They played Greenville, Greenwood, Leland, and Goodman, where what seemed like a whiskey bottle when he when to sleep tunrned out to be a marmasis (snake) when he awoke. "I think we scared each other. He went crawlin' out the door. Joe Willie killed him." Jobs came readily due to Sonny Boy's fame, and days "we'd sit around the room and have rehearsal. As soon as somethin' new hit the radio we rehearsin' on it."
Next Tommy played with Boyd Gilmore and a harp player named Dan. Dan had family in East St. Louis and on a visit sat in at Ned Love's. Asked if he had a band, he said he could send for them, and Boyd and Tommy came to East St. Louis, where Ned bought them brand new equipment at Son B. Shield's music store. Adding Albert Davis on drums, they played a long stretch at Ned Love's. Next he sat in across the river at The El Morocco at Theresa and Franklin. He soon led the band there, at first commuting from Firewood station on foot ("Just exercise for me, I had never owned a car. What messed it up was when I got my first car. I didn't want to walk to the bathroom then."), then moving into the Harlem Hotel next door. Tommy named this group the Landrockers, then gave the name and the band to one of the members and formed the Blues Eldorados in the late sixties. They played the Pinto Lounge on the South Side, Sadie's, a place on Grand with a revolving bandstand, and Miss B's on Chouteau, where they were approached by Lew Prince and Tom Ray to cut a record: Tommy Bankhead and the Blues Eldorados (Deep Morgan 001). At Sadie's a white harp player sat in and later offered to get Tommy a job as a deputy sherrif, a job he still holds today. While waiting for the Deep Morgan album to be issued, Tommy cut a single issued on Hot Cam, "Have You Ever Seen A One Eyed Woman Cry", a tune Tommy says he authored. He also appeared as the bass player on Henry Townsend's Prestige Bluesville album cut at Technisonic. Over the years Tommy has had four marraiges, but none of the women deterred him from his blues. "I tells 'em before I marry 'em, if you don't think you can handle it, don't jump in the pot."
Tommy held a longstanding gig at Mike and Min's in the Soulard neighborhood and, more recently, had been playing with John May and the Cryin' Shame at BB's Jazz Blues and soups.
Tommy recently had released a new CD, "Message To St. Louis," on the Fedora label. He will be fondly remembered by all who knew him.