Crutchfield (May 25, 1912 – December 7, 2001) was an American St.
Louis, Missouri based, barrelhouse blues singer, pianist, and songwriter,
whose career spanned seven decades. His repertoire consisted of original and
classic blues and boogie-woogie and depression-era popular songs.
Known as the 'King of barrelhouse blues', Crutchfield's better known songs
include 'I Believe You Need A Shot' and 'My Baby Cooks My Breakfast'. He
worked with Elmore James and
There is no record of James Crutchfield's birth: 'My mama never know'd what
day it was, she never know'd what month it was, but she always know'd what
year it was. 'Lotta folks back in them days never even know'd that much, but
my mama always did. She told me I was born in '12, in Baton Rouge, when the
high water was highest.' James Crutchfield said his mother Sarah was a
'Geechee' - a descendent of slaves of the Georgia/Carolina sea islands and
said he much resembled her. His father, Tom Crutchfield, he described as a
large copper-colored man from southwestern Mississippi, whom he'd never met
until he was eight years old and with whom he maintained a cordial
relationship with thereafter. An only child, James and his mother, a farm
worker, migrated through Louisiana and east Texas with the cotton and
sugarcane seasons, moving often and sometimes living in tents. His earliest
memories were of the boys coming home from World War I and the silent
westerns of William S. Hart, whom he idolized.
Around 1920, his mother married and settled in Bogalusa, Louisiana. In his
early teens, while employed as the janitor in a theater, Crutchfield began
to teach himself to play on the house piano. Also around this time, curious
about the exact day of his birth, he went to the Baton Rouge library and
told the story his mother had told him to an intrigued librarian. Together
they looked through the 1912 newspapers and found that indeed, there had
been a flood then, which crested on May 25. From that time on, he used that
date as his birthday.
In 1927, working as an under-age employee for a local railroad, James
Crutchfield lost his left leg below the knee in a coupling accident. The
railroad settled out of court for twenty-thousand dollars. Part of the money
was used to buy his mother a house in Baton Rouge and the rest, considering
his now diminished employment opportunities, was used to subsidize his
fledgling musical career.
By the end of the 1920s, James Crutchfield had begun traveling a rough and
tumble circuit of Louisiana lumber camps, Mississippi levee camps and east
Texas juke joints; performing as The M & O Kid in deference to his mentor -
the barrelhouse bluesman M & O, of whom Crutchfield in later years said was
the best he's ever heard. The establishments that served the lumber and
levee camps typically stayed open all day and night and provided food, drink
and lodging for two piano players who each played a 12-hour shift for tips.
Competition for these jobs was cut-throat and Crutchfield developed his
life-long habit of playing for hours without a break, out of fear that
somebody better would sit down and play in his absence and steal his job;
which had evidently happened.
Another early influence was Papa Lord God - a Texan: 'Oh Papa Lord God, he
was bad, man, he was baaad!'
Little Brother Montgomery showed him '44 Blues' when the Montgomery
brothers performed in Bogalusa; and he traded techniques in after-hours
sessions with Champion Jack Dupree
when they played at rival nightclubs on the same street in Baton Rouge,
early in their careers. James Crutchfield worked as accompanist to Joe
Pullum in the early 1930s and performed with him in Texas and Louisiana;
occasionally hopping freight trains for transportation. He was to play
Pullum's hit 'Black Gal' for the rest of his life. Shortly after the end of
World War II, Crutchfield performed with Elmore James and Boyd Gilmore in
the Goodman, Mississippi area.
In 1948, James Crutchfield moved to St. Louis, Missouri; a city with a
venerable blues piano tradition dating back to the ragtime era. He worked in
the Gaslight Square entertainment district at various venues, including a
decade residency at 'Miss Rosalee's' Left Bank. In 1955, Crutchfield was
appearing with Bat the Hummingbird (drums) at a bar located at 2220 Market
Street that was formerly Tom Turpin's Rosebud Saloon, where Scott Joplin had
performed half a century earlier. He was found here by Bob Koester on a tip
from policeman Charlie O'Brien, and recorded a few days later along with
Speckled Red. One of the songs ('Levee Blues') was released several years
later on an anthology album Barrelhouse Blues and Stomps on the Euphonic
record label. Six selections can be heard on the compilation album Biddle
Street Barrelhousin'; released in 2000 on Delmark Records.
The decline of Gaslight Square in the late 1960s was also the decline of
James Crutchfield's musical career. He was professionally inactive in the
1970s, and worked as a cook at the State Hospital for a number of years. In
the early 1980s he was collecting and selling junk tires and running a
In 1981, Swingmaster, a new Dutch record label, was interested in recording
any of the old-time St. Louis barrelhouse piano players that might still be
alive. They contacted the same Charlie O'Brien who was instrumental in
Crutchfield being recorded a quarter century earlier, and he reported that
Crutchfield was still around and in fine form. Swingmaster visited St. Louis
that year, but had no luck finding him. They returned in 1983 and this time,
with the assistance of bluesman Henry Townsend, they were successful.
Crutchfield traveled to the Netherlands later that year and recorded the
album, Original Barrelhouse Blues, which was re-released on CD in 2001 as
St. Louis Blues Piano. He appeared at several venues in the Netherlands,
notably a concert in a stadium in Utrecht that he later said was the largest
crowd he had ever performed for.
Back in St. Louis, local impresario Mark O'Shaughnessy guided Crutchfield's
comeback, and introduced him to the contemporary blues scene. He received a
publicity boost when he was selected as the first recipient of the Lillian
Carter Award for Outstanding Senior Citizen in 1984. Crutchfield and his
wife Ernestine moved to the Soulard neighborhood, an area known for its many
nightclubs, and he played weekly at Broadway Oyster Bar, 1860 Saloon and
Mike & Min's, among other engagements. In the late 1980s, Crutchfield was
regularly performing with a back-up group: Guitar Frank, Papa John (washtub
bass) and Rosceaux (washboard). He played the 1988 St. Louis Blues Festival
at the Jefferson Memorial; appeared every weekend at Allen Avenue; and began
playing every Wednesday night for the next 12 years at Venice Cafe, where
many of St. Louis' top blues and jazz musicians would often sit in.
During his performances, Crutchfield would sometimes improvise lyrics on the
spot, about individual audience members while smiling and winking at them.
It was usually well-received.
In the early 1990s, Crutchfield replaced the 'tub' and 'rub-board' with
Sharon Foehner (bass) and Bill Howell (drums), and added Andy Milner
(harmonica). In addition to weekly engagements, one-nighters, parties and
weddings; he appeared at the 1993 St. Louis Blues Festival on the
riverfront; Harp Attack at Mississippi Nights; and the Casa Loma Ballroom. A
well-known and popular character around the neighborhood, Crutchfield's
annual birthday celebration at Molly's began the summer beer garden season
Crutchfield appeared at the 1997 St. Louis Blues Festival and continued
working regularly, performing with local rock and roll pioneer Bennie Smith
and the Urban Blues Express in his last years. Ironically, the sources
differ on the exact day of his death from complications from heart disease.
He died on December 7, or 8, 2001 in St. Louis; almost the last bluesman of
his era. An impromptu parade through the streets of Soulard was held in his