Bennie Smith


Bennie Smith is the dean of St. Louis electric guitarists. His shy manner belies an awesome talent. Born in St. Louis on October 5, 1933 the seventh son in a family of fourteen Bennie began playing on a ukelele brought back from the Pacific by a cousin called Hayfall who played a song Bennie still recalls called Slewfoot Floozie With Your Flaws Off. Soon his brother Ivory bought him a battered accoustic with two or three strings. Near 8th and Park he traced strains of blues to an old fellow from Mississippi named Butch McCray who taught him some techniques. He heard more music emanating from the building at Jefferson and Chouteau and two fellows came walking out, the brothers George and Doc Perry. Benny investigated and encountered Ace Wallace who taught him "how to hold the guitar, squeeze it, caress it."

He began to play out with George and Doc Perry over on Franklin. Like Ace Wallace he played with Gabriel's band. Bennie's amp was a converted cathedral radio. Gabriel's trumpet was covered with scotch tape. "Anyplace that wasn't taped up wasn't his horn". There was a trip to Ft. Leonardwood in Gabriel's battered '50 Chevy Carryall that needed oil every ten miles. Jack Woogie was the piano player, and Nick Nicodemous, called "Chops" played sax.

After his stint with Gabriel Bennie joined the Roosevelt Marks Orchestra. Roosevelt got all the work Ike Turner couldn't handle, and was the first black band to play on local television. The band included Roosevelt on bass, Bennie on guitar, St. Louis Jimmy (James Walls) on piano (and later, Clayton Love), Eugene Washington on sax, Houston Walls, Jimmy's brother, on sax, and L.C. Davis on vocals. L.C. Davis is Larry Davis who went on the play with Z.Z. Hill, Albert King, and B.B. King and who became a star in his own right. Washington was a dead ringer for Louis Jordan in looks and style, and there was an occasion when the two played together in East St. Louis. "You couldn't tell 'em apart!" The Roosevelt Marks Orchestra recorded several excellent singles for the St. Louis based Bobbin label.

In the late fifties he led his own combo at the Dot Club at Union and Easton that included Chuck Berry and Chuck Bernard. He also played with Sportin' Ford at a joint at 13th and Cole that served watermelon and barbecue.

During the fifties Bennie cut his first of many sessions, backing Jimmy "Soul" Clark on Shook Up over You, with Eugene Neal on second guitar, Otha Thomas on bass, and Dot and the Velvelettes singing backup, for Freeman Bosley's Teek label. Clark had come to town with Ty Hunter who authored the song.

Another very rare sesion, cut at Ike Turner's house on Virginia Place for Gabriel's Tune Town label was Boxtop, featuring Bennie and Ike and a then unknown vocalist referred to on the label as Little Ann, Tina's first record!

Bennie taught Ike some guitar, including Gatemouth Brown's Okee Dokee Stomp. "Ike learned it his way 'cause he couldn't get all the things right, and he broke it into a thing called Prancin'.

In the late fifties Bennie joined Tommy Brown and the Teardrops who were booked to Atlanta to play on one of the large R&B extravaganzas at the Club Peacock. Bennie and the band, including Raymond Hill and Billy Duncan on saxes, Lloyd Wallace organ, Sam Rose bass, and Stumpy on drums backed The Drifters, The Spaniels, Amos Milburn, and Charles Brown. From the Atlanta base they played regionally in Georgia and down into Florida.

When he returned to St. Louis he played with Screamin' Joe Neal for the first few months of his long stand at the Peppermint Club at Skinker and Delmar.

Bennie next played with Billy Davis who went on to the Fifth Dimension, at Edward's Club in Kinloch which was owned by Billy's uncle. The band included Ira Gates drums, Erskine Oglesby sax, Terry Williams organ, and Wilford Valmore bass. This band was the first black group to play the Admiral. The show at Edwards also included Billy's sister Fedora doing a fan dance, and a performer called Lockjaw whose act included holding chairs and even tables in his mouth.

During much of the sixties and on into the seventies Bennie played the American Legion Hall in Madison, Illinois with a band led by sax player Richard Mansfield that included Martell Oates drums, Jimmy Johnson bass, and Chuck Bernard vocal and piano. At one point in the sixties Bennie's girl's sister was dating Bennie's idol, Matt "Guitar" Murphy, and Bennie and Matt spent a night sharing a room. Bennie recalls Murphy would wake up every hour or two and "torture his guitar" and then fall asleep again.

Bennie taught many students through the years. He is proudest of Anthony Chinott who went on to play with Isaac Hayes, and Ira Gates who went into Little Milton's band. He also coached Benny Sharpe during an early incarnation of The Sharpees called The Turbans which included Stacy Johnson, Vernon Guy, Morris Henderson and Little Herbert. Bennie cut Condition Your Heart with Little Herbert for Teek, and it is now the title cut for Red Lightnin's Condition Your Heart album, which contains several other Bennie Smith cuts, particularly fine is Clayton Love's Mistreated.

The seventies saw stints with Billy Gayles and with Charles Drain, after which Bennie retired, suffering from back and eye problems. In 1987 Bennie re-formed The Sportsmen, named after a lounge at Sarah and Finney where the group originated many years before. These Sportsmen included Anthony Boon sax, Cubie on bass, Bell Boy on drums, Vernon Guy on vocals and occasional help from Bennie's daughter Robertino Robinson on vocals.

Bennie played from 1990 to 1994 with Big Bad Smitty, making five trips to Europe and recording two CDs. He also led the band accompanying Screamin' Joe Neal to the Blues Estafette in 1993. He is currently playing with Big Clara and the Magnatones and accompanied Clara on her recent (and successful) trip to the London Blues Festival.

One of the highlights of the 1995 St. Louis Blues Heritage Festival was a duet between Bennie and Clarence Holliman. Those who saw it tell me Bennie definitely held his own. Another highlight was when Big Bad Smitty got up to do an unannounced guest slot with Dan Lee Taylor's band, Bennie showed up as if by magic with guitar and cord, and, standing behind a speaker cabinet, he offered Smitty some truly superb backing. Bennie's loyalty to Smitty (who has fired him many times) is not unlike Hubert Sumlin's to Wolf.

Bennie Smith's CD, The Urban Soul of Bennie Smith is available on the Blues Highways label