Smokestack Lightnin' Home Page -- The Blues Profile Page
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."
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.