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Author Topic: Henry Townsend passes away  (Read 1859 times)

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Offline uncle bud

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Henry Townsend passes away
« on: September 25, 2006, 07:52:22 AM »
First news of Etta Baker, now this. Henry Townsend was surely one of the playingest country bluesman I've had the pleasure of hearing....

This from the St Louis Today website

Henry Townsend: Longtime blues musician who performed with greats


Henry Townsend, a heralded St. Louis blues musician who recorded with several blues giants, died Sunday night in Grafton, Wis., according to John May, chairman of the St. Louis Blues Society. Mr. Townsend was 96.

Mr. Townsend, a blues singer, guitarist and pianist, was in Wisconsin preparing for a blues festival when he was hospitalized Friday night for complications of pulmonary edema, May said. He died about 9:25 p.m. Sunday.

Mr. Townsend was born in Shelby, Miss., grew up near Cairo, Ill., and moved to St. Louis when he was about 12 years old, May said. He had lived in St. Louis ever since.

In the 1930s, Mr. Townsend played with several blues greats, including Walter Davis, Roosevelt Sykes, Robert Johnson and Clarence Johnson, who died in March. Another longtime St. Louis bluesman, Bennie Smith, died Sept. 10.

Mr. Townsend wrote hundreds of songs and accompanied musicians on hundreds more. He produced recordings that span eight decades, making him one of the only artists known to have done so, May said.

In 1985, Mr. Townsend received the National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts recognizing him as a "master artist."

In 1995, Mr. Townsend was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame, which features stars on the sidewalks of the Delmar Loop with names of local greats. Funeral arrangements were pending.

Offline Johnm

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Re: Henry Townsend passes away
« Reply #1 on: September 25, 2006, 08:49:26 AM »
Hi all,
I am so sorry to hear of Henry Townsend's passing.  He was a tremendous musician and a warm and very thoughtful man.  He and his wife, Vernell, were at the first Port Townsend Country Blues Workshop with their son Alonzo.  Henry had to go to the hospital early in the week and Vernell had to go towards the end of the week, but they were always in good spirits and pleasant to talk to.  I remember a couple of Henry Townsend revelations from that week and interviews with him I have read since then:
   * He said he did not know a single song as a set piece.  He would start playing and play blues.
   * He said he improvised most of his song lyrics.  This was amazing to hear, for his lyrics were exceptionally strong and original.  It was a pretty humbling thing for those of us who have a hard time coming up with lyrics to hear.
I remember Warren Argo, who ran sound at Port Townsend for the concerts the first couple of years, and was later Program Director, telling how when Henry was having his sound check prior to the show, Warren asked him if anyone else would be playing with him during his set.  Warren said Henry looked at him and said, "Would you like to play with me?"
Henry's music is well represented on the Juke, with his original solo cut recordings, pieces accompanying Walter Davis, and post-rediscovery recordings, including his rare Prestige Bluesville album, the recently posted "Mule" and a tremendous CD recorded by Bob West for the Arcola label, "The Real St. Louis Blues", Arcola A CD 1002, which has a review in the Reviews section of the Forum.  In addition, Henry's autobiography, discussed in the "Blues In St. Louis" thread is still available, I think from the University of Illinois Press.
To say that Henry will be missed is an understatement.  He was the last remaining link to and survivor of the first generation of Country Blues musicians to record in the 1920s.  His first recordings set the standard for all one-chord Country Blues to follow, and have never been surpassed.  And apart from his qualities as a musician, he was an interesting and interested person to talk with and spend time with, full of thoughtful observations that he imparted with a very light touch.  You never felt like he was holding forth.  I miss him already.
All best,

Offline Peter McCracken

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Re: Henry Townsend passes away
« Reply #2 on: September 25, 2006, 09:22:43 AM »
Here's a youtube link to Cairo -


Offline uncle bud

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Re: Henry Townsend passes away
« Reply #3 on: September 25, 2006, 12:19:15 PM »
Here's some of Henry's story in his own words, from

Henry Townsend

Born 10/27/1909 Shelby MI

"Our mother raised us til the age of nine then me and two other brothers stayed with Grandparents. We lived with Grandparents all in a house in Cairo. I left home at age 9 reason for that I intended to play a trick on my cousin, and it was going to backfire. I was blowing snuff out of the can, and my cousin was blowing in the other end of the cane. It came back at me and got all in my face and eyes. My father got mad. Didn't like the attitude I took toward him. Never got whippins but was always afraid of them. The threat of a whippin, I couldn't handle that. I thought that punishment was too severe.

That's when I came to St. Louis. I stayed around about Jefferson and Market. stayed with Earl Keys, who's parents were wealthy, was a doctor. He was the only black man in St. Louis to own a Rolls Royce. His son I stayed with. Then I stayed over on Eugene street with some people named Watts for about eight months.

At age thrteen or fourteen, caught up with David Perchfield. I met him in Cairo. David showed me how to handle the guitar and started teaching me tunes, how to tune it up and all that. We started playing standards, blues, and eventually we started playing tunes that David and myself wrote. We practiced anywhere people could stand for me to make my noises. Later on of course it wasn't a long a deal that I was run off.. When I started getting a dime or 15 cents, I knew then that something was happening.

I found my way being able to sit in with guys who made it and were respected as a musician. Henry Brown, Ike Rogers... Aaron Sparks, "Pinetop".. we played a lot of speakeasys over the city. There wasn't no reknowned clubs at that time. Occasionally every 5 or 6 months the blues musicians would come through. But no real blues goin on in St. Louis, this was the top of the twenties and thirties. We kept crowds going, and we played what we called the house rent parties.. people were being evicted. We would raise money so they could pay the rent. We would have fish fries, serve alcohol and water.

You couldn't buy whiskey legal, but you could buy corn whiskey all bootleg. There were several places around town, every body knew it but they were hardly bothered. Hush money, hush mouth money. Don't see me money. That lasted until it was opened back up for whiskey . You could buy charters for private clubs. but couldn't buy alcohol. That was always that under table. They warned of raids in advance, you see, so there was plenty of warning and they would get raided but they admitted nothing. Sometimes they would be arrested, everybody in the club. Owner of the club would pay bail, then pay everyone double when they came back to work. The clubs that were generous to the customers and employees were the most popular. When alcohol was legal more clubs opened and there were more opportunities to play.

Around 29 or 30, I started recording. First recording was for Columbia Records.. In Chicago, 66 Lake Shore Drive. A scout negotiated a deal through Sam Wolf who owned a music store on Biddle Street. There was a verbal contract between Sam and myself, but Sam had a written contract. It was for 4 songs, 2 '78's. One was "Long Ago" another was "Henry's Worried Blues" the other one "Mean Mistreater". Record sold good, but I was not compensated. Just three hundred dollars and a hotel room. spent that three hundred dollar before I got back. They wanted me to go back and record, but that was when the bottom fell out.

At that point I worked back up for other musicians. At that time there wasn't any big breaks. Count Basie was getting the same thing I got for years. Most artists was being ripped off . How much you didn't know was the price you had to pay. I was never too excited about the prestige of being a recording artist. I wrote songs on paper but didn't do me know good because it takes something out of my thinking. I find myself doing a lot of ad lib poetry. The foundation that I needed I didn't have it.

I was with two people that seemed to me to benefit from my services, Walter Davis was one, and Roosevelt Sykes was another. I was always paid more than union musicians. First real tour started in Memphis at a club at Triggs and Florida. I played with Roosevelt Sykes at that time. Travelled to Helena Arkansas, West Helena, and Biloxi Mississippi, New Orleans Louisiana. Was always better received out of town. Roosevelt was a renowned name at that time. But you are always better received when you are out of town, they tend to take you for granted in your home town.

Started playing with Walter Davis. I was on just about 70% of his recordings. More or less playing guitar. I done a little writing for Walter, this piece that John Mayall played not too long ago "Tears Come Rolling" was mine, it was a piece he picked up from my wife. In time I wrote over 300 songs.

It started with the record companies for recognition. A few time Walter was asked to record and I was with him. The money I asked Walter was out of his bracket and the company would pay the rest. They either had to pay Walter a few dollars more, he wanted $1,000 and I asked for $800.00, so it was cheaper to pay me. Bluebird, Bullet Records.. I was first getting checks from those record companies.

I Worked with Robert Johnson a short time. We worked together at speakeasys here in St. Louis, he was a solo guitarist and so was I. Never recorded any material with Robert, though we were open with each other. By the time you realize, it's too late you know.."

Best I can recall - It was early 30's and of course, I was soloing and so was Robert, at that time. I really don't recall anyone playing with him. I don't know that he did any recording with anybody. During that time as musicians as such as we were we more or less had to create our own thing. It was jam session, who ever would come in would go to playing. If we played anybody elses tunes we would have to do it our way, it wouldn't be a copied pattern, you know. One would take the vocal and the other would strive to keep the sound.

At that time, I was playing with Davis and Sykes working with Aaron Sparks. I also worked Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Nighthawk. Oliver Cobbs. We went to I believe it was Grafton Wi, and we recorded there for Vocallion.

I was just doing solos around different places myself after that point and of course time to time I'd work on recording. Did lots of recording with Walter Davis, not so much with Sykes, we did a lot of local works. His title was the Honeydripper. Ether Johnson came up with that name. He was owner of the Deluxe Cab company and owned one of the finest restaurants in town. He was a scout for record companies. I did do some recording for him, he selcted me for one of his trips to Louisville Ky.

Shortly after I was drafted into the war. I was in the Air Corps - Greenborough. I had no desire to fight, I couldn't find anything I wanted to fight for. Had no intention of being in the army, none if whatsoever. I was asked about that, about how did I feel about fighting. This was about 45. There was a few things that did fall out in my favor. The colonel who was the head of the whole camp, we didn't get along so well. The lieutenant was on my side, gave me the opportunity to knock him down, and of course I didn't. The colonel would have been in my infantry and I think that because he knew I would be there with a rifle, he felt a little uncomfortable being on the front with me, knowing how I felt, you know.

Every time was drillin I would drill wide and fall out "Get in line soldier" "Goddammit didn't I tell you to get in line". Then I'd make a remark "Goddammit didn't I tell you my legs hurt".. he ended up stopping the marching and praising me because I stood up to him.

I worked in music when I came back. I played more or less at the speakeasys.. people's house, basements. There was still restrictions. Black club owners had a hard time getting licenses.

A friend of mine came out of service, he and I were pretty good pals. We both got to the same camp, and when he was discharged we got back together again. We left here and went out on jobs. Went to work for Clark Equipment worked on the assembly line. We quit work and was staying in an apartment that was made for workers. He went for hustling. I was not a hustler but had a lot of knowledge and could help him out. The owner of the apartment, she ran us out of town. We left for Memphis and then Chicago.. then eventually came back to St. Louis.

"Most black clubs wasn't licensed to sell alcohol. They was most at people's houses and basements. There was a few bars that was built for entertainment. Charlie Houston's on Locust was one. Everybody knew where to go get their favorite taste for drinking, you see. One of the best in town was a lady known as Big Whopping Mary. She had a beer place. You could go there and sit and drink or bring it back home. I always wondered how she could stay in business so long, but I know now because the people she was hooked up with are still in power.

There was a lot of things you could get at speakeasys. I never was curious about marijuana. Curiosity never would let anything control me, made me drink more than I needed, I didn't like that.

At that time the white owned clubs would not hire blacks. You didn't hear about whites and blacks mixing. But there was Club Revere on Delmar. It was the most prominent place in every aspect, size popularity. People were allowed to mix. One of the most famous black men of St. Louis made that possible. He was an undertaker. Christmas time come he would give out baskets to the less unfortunate. He got a name with that when the politicians came into office they would consult him. He had the people behind him. If they didn't know him, they wouldn't get elected. He was the guy that opened that club. I know this to be true, if I wanted a job and he knew me to be responsible, any kind of job, all I had to do was have him sign this paper and I would have the job.

On being a musician:

If you are a musician it is pretty hard to put a package together. When you go to play with other musicians, they wants to stand out momentarily or too much where they aren't supposed to. One of the things I found in music, some music. Loud is not the game at all. It's got to be at a certain level. If one wants to take a solo, the rest of the band needs to dop out. Hard to find musicians to do that. On tour, I let you go. If you wear yourself down, I'll back you, keep you going.

Davenport I had a class. I told them there is no such thing as a bad note. They come over to execute that. It's simple to me. All notes are relative. How could a note be bad? You just don't put it into the right place. If one sounds out of tune, you got to blend it. I was a bad stumbler. I didn't know how to make a minor or a major, had to seek that out."

Advice to musicians:

"If you like it stay with it. Don't procrastinate because time expires, and you can't recall it" "A lot has been omitted because I have gone into great detail in my book. It is five years in the works and will be called "Henry Townsend: Blues Life". It will be published by The University Of Illinois in Chicago."

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Henry Townsend passes away
« Reply #4 on: September 26, 2006, 08:44:46 AM »
An updated Henry Townsend obituary from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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