When Kirk West got a camera as a gift he began shooting his life. What started with model cars and toy tracks grew to muscle cars, drag strips and hippie dreams of rock music and girls. His camera took him from small town Iowa to the Chicago blues scene, Nashville, arenas, twenty years with the Allman Brothers Band and a book and exhibit, The Blues in Black and White, at the National Blues Museum.
West grew up listening to country music but by the mid 60's he heard the siren songs of the summer of love. San Francisco, The Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Byrds and Chambers Brothers called to him but so did another sound. It was an album a high school friend played: "Paul Butterfield's East-West album changed my life," Kirk says, "it hooked me, hooked me good. It blew my mind. It was very much like what the Allman Brothers became."
Chicago was closer than San Francisco so after high school in 1968 West moved there and shot his first rock concert, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. Being entrepreneurial, he mounted his Grateful Dead photos on cardboard and sold them outside the shows. Eventually he and his Nikon hit the road taking odd jobs, shooting concerts and selling pictures but always returning to Chicago. It was more a hobby than a career plan until he crashed and burned in Florida.
Clean and sober he returned to Chicago in 1976 with the idea that he could make a living through photography. Over the next 24 years he would become a well-known portrait, country music and concert photographer because "that's where the money was" but his passion was the Chicago blues scene.
At night he would hit the club scene shooting and learning with a group of other photographers. He went to north and south side clubs "stepping lightly" as he says, "because I didn't know any black people growing up." He found friends like Willie Dixon "who was warm, friendly and wanted to teach and share" and Junior Wells who "was tough and wanted to test you."
He became a regular at Buddy Guy's Checkerboard Lounge and spent time at Elaine's, the Delta Fish Market and other clubs. It led to lifelong friendships with the musicians and their extraordinary level of comfort with him shooting them in formal and informal settings. West says to capture the energy and honesty of a performance or performer, "you need to be invisible as a photographer and know when not to take pictures."
It also takes skill to capture skin tones, images in a club lit by a 100-watt bulb, and faces covered by hats. And, pre digital era photos like these required serious dark room hours to define the shadows and shades of gray that tell a story. The skills and the stories shine through West's 65 photo exhibit.
You can see it in the sweat dripping off Etta James's chin as she hunkers over belting out the blues or Bob Marley's dreadlocks in full flight as he throws his head back in song. The Delta Fish Market photos take you to the honesty of the people, streets, and music of a Chicago neighborhood. St. Louis's Albert King, who West says, "always got my vote as greatest living guitarist," is there puffing his pipe as he plays. And, there is the unforgettable sequence of James Cotton and Buddy Guy at Muddy Waters wake toasting him and dissolving into laughter. Talk about capturing a moment.
One of West's favorite photos in the show is the one he shot for the Allman Brothers 1991 album Shades of Two Worlds. The setting is the porch of a shotgun shack he found in Memphis with the band, homeowners, neighbors and a couple of women and kids dressed up for their church services down the street. He was there because he joined the Allman Brothers tour bus in 1989 as a photographer but ended up riding it for 24 years as their tour manager. "I never stopped shooting but it meant less time in the pits ... even worse," West says, "it was my job to enforce the photographer rules that I hated as a shooter."
When he finally got off the bus for the last time Kirk began to think about what next. He and his wife Kirsten had relocated to Macon GA in the early 90's. They bought the old Victorian mansion the Allman brothers rented when they first started. Eventually they restored it and turned it into a museum. It was there he looked at his 45 years of archives he realized "my past is my future."
His first effort was a Kickstarter financed photography book about the Allman Brothers years, Les Brers -- Kirk West's Photographic Journey with The Brothers. It took a year and sold over 4,000 copies. He approached the 200 photo newly published The Blues in Black and White the same way. He is thrilled to be exhibiting at the National Blues Museum because "it is a teaching museum that tells the story of the blues and the trajectory of the music."
West first approached the National Blues Museum staff during its April 2016 grand opening. Jacqueline Dace the Director of Internal Affairs was interested: "We try to think a year ahead about our traveling exhibits. I particularly like black and white images because they force you to look closer and see the expressions a little more and this is a personal collection so there are stories behind every picture." You can hear Kirk tell a few of those stories on the NBM podcast.
Kirk West will always keep his Nikon D750 and 28-55 lens ready but for now his future will be residing in the National Blues Museum Scott and Diane McCuaig and Family Gallery through February 4, 2018. Blues in Black and White is an intimate insider's camera lens view of the world that will appeal to photographers and blues fans alike. Don't miss it.
When you feel the air chillin' and see the leaves a fallin' then you know the Baby Blues Showcase is about to come callin'. The 16th annual showcase has its usual reservation in place at BB's Jazz Blues and Soups for the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Our chef, Jeremy Segel-Moss, has put together another delectable menu for the end of the holiday weekend.
The November 26 show will once again feature some of St. Louis's best young blues talent. Its line up will mix some well-known Baby Blues graduates like, Marquise Knox, Aaron Griffin, Matt Lesch, Beulah Flakes and with an interesting group of new faces. The School of Rock will lead off at 5 PM with its ever evolving group of talented players.
The Second Time Around
Matt Lesch and Beulah Flakes both had their first and only Showcase experiences in 2013. Matt has been active ever since working as Big George Brock's lead guitarist and with his own band while attending Webster University. Matt says he "was really excited to get the call from Jeremy asking him to headline this year" and that he "ordered a new red blazer for the show." One of the songs he plans to play is an original composition "Rattlin" that he recently recorded for the STL Blues Society upcoming 17 in '17 CD. He will be joined onstage by Doug Foehner/guitar, Tecora Morgan/bass and Riley Coatie, Jr./drums.
Beulah Flakes, the daughter of Sharon and Doug Foehner, says "I have been singing with my parents as long as I can remember." She also points out that "I was mentored by Bennie Smith and Henry Townsend (piano lessons) and went to many blues clubs along the way." A five-year stint in the Army after high school and three kids took her life away from the music. Her 2013 appearance in the Showcase singing her own song "Injured Hearts" showed her potential but other priorities held sway.
Flakes signaled her emergence with her recording on the STLBS 16 in '16 compilation on which she sang Sharon's song "Homeless Child." Her real coming out party was a stellar performance as the vocalist for her Mom's band, Sharon Bear and the Golden Licks at this year's Big Muddy. She wowed the crowd and made her folks proud.
Beulah says she has learned that "I am more dynamic than I thought" and that she felt "Big Muddy was a rite of passage for me in the St. Louis blues scene, a confidence builder." She'll promises to bring her "emotional/sultry style" to the stage where, backed by her Mom and Dad, she hopes to honor them "by having everyone see the fruits of their labor."
This year Baby Blues attendees will meet Little Dylan Triplett a 17-year-old vocalist and honors senior at Edwardsville High School. His father, Art Pollard, is a local saxophonist who encourages his son's education and musical development. Dylan has been singing gospel in church choirs since he was five, classical with the Edwardsville Chamber Choir as well as playing organ and keyboards. It is his command of R&B, Soul and Blues that has caught everyone's attention.
It led to opportunities to sit in with The Carol Mason Band, Rolland Johnson and Skeet Rodgers and in recent months a regular set on Sunday nights at the Red Door in East St. Louis. Dylan says that experience "has helped him learn different styles and how to work a stage." It caught the attention of Marquise Knox and Michael Battle who invited him to sit in with the band. They will be backing up Dylan for the Showcase where he "hopes to leave a legacy with an experience people will remember."
The Blues Society has its own new entrant into the Showcase. The St. Louis Blues Society Youth Band is a creation of Michael Battle a STLBS board member/education director and drummer for the Marquise Knox Band. The current band consists of four youth between the ages 12-16: Nathan marks/bass, Marcus Lane/drums, Keller Anderson/guitar/vocals and Sam Castro/guitar.
The Youth Band is part of a bigger vision for Battle and the STLBS to engage kids in creative activity. Additional components include Blues in the Schools and working with Paul Niehaus and his Lotus Studios to give kids an inside look at song writing and production. KDHX and the National Blues Museum are also partners in these efforts. The Youth Band uses the museum's Legends Room stage for practice. They have played at the NBM, Blues in the Schools, and the St. Louis Art Fair.
The STLBS efforts go hand in hand with Battle's creation of a non-profit, The Center for Artistic Expression. With music at its heart the idea behind the Center is to help kids identify and develop their artistic interests. It isn't only about playing music; It's about all forms of creative expression from writing, photography and performing to radio and stage production and more. "The point is to help kids find their interests and help them pursue it," Battle says, "this gives kids something to do, it teaches them discipline and commitment and helps build the life skills kids need."
Jeremy Segel-Moss looks back with pride at 16 years of Baby Blues Showcases: "I believe in building institutions that outlast my own performance. Each year continues to reaffirm our belief that we are doing the right thing by cultivating young musicians helps build the St. Louis music scene." The Baby Blues Showcase is all about the Blues Society mission to support and advance the blues. And, as you can see there's quite a sampler platter to enjoy.
Come on down and keep the tradition alive at BB's Jazz Blues and Soups on Sunday, November 26 from 5-11 p.m.
Editor's note: This article is an extended version of the one published in the Nov/Dec issue of the St. Louis Blues Society BluesLetter.
A dozen years ago Marquise Knox served notice that the prodigy had arrived with his Baby Blues Showcase appearance at BB's Jazz, Blues and Soup. Over the next decade, mentored by the best of the old Delta bluesmen, Knox would hone his musical, songwriting and stage skills and surround himself with some of the best musicians in town. His new album Black and Blue -- the release of which was celebrated at the Pageant on Friday, September, 29 -- shows that the prodigy has truly grown into the bluesman.
As a teenager Knox was embraced by the blues community. Locally Henry Townsend and Big George Brock were mentors. A meeting in Clarksdale with legendary blues drummer Sam Lay led him to Chad Kassem and a record deal. He recorded his first CD, Manchild at 16 with the Michael Burks Band at the Blue Heaven Studios in Salina, Kansas. It would be followed by Here I Am in 2011.
In the following years Knox toured and playing regularly around town. He tapped season pros like Matt Lawder on guitar and Michael Battle on drums to join him. Bass player Gus Thornton joined in 2013. They call each other family. You can see their love and respect they have for each other while performing.
Black and Blue, recorded at the September 2016 Bowlful of Blues Fest in Newton Iowa, gives us what Marquise Knox fans know best -- the sweat, grit, power, improvisation and emotion of his live performances. Like all their shows, they did not have a playlist because as Marquise says, "I like to gauge the crowd and play what I feel will work." It was a concert full of surprises.
The first was the band didn't even know that it was recorded. Iowa Public Radio had gotten Knox's permission to record months earlier but he forgot about it. After the show they found out by listening to the tape. They liked what they heard. It fit with Marquise's desire to self-produce on his own record label and his awareness that "you can't make no money until you write your own stuff."
Black and Blue showcases all Knox's skills along with those of his talented bandmates. The opening with riffs on "It's Not Right" put you in a Stevie Ray Vaughn frame of mind. The up-tempo "When My Baby Moves" pairs nicely with his R&B flavored love song, "Sweet Smell." The song ends by morphing into the hard electric blues "Commit a Crime" with Marquise's harp at the steering wheel.
The next two track start on the same chord but head in different directions. "You Keep Asking Me" takes off in an upbeat style to tell a tale about love gone wrong. "Shine in the Rain" slows things down for a song about love, loss and rescue. The final song "One More Reason (To Have the Blues)" with its references to the lead poisoning tragedy in Flint Michigan echoes the social consciousness of the Delta musicians that sang about the floods and tragedies of their times.
The last surprise in Black and Blue comes when Marquise asks and answers the question with a B.B. King style "Can a Young Man Play the Blues." The next track, "Bluesman," is about who Marquise has become. The band was surprised by his choice of this Skip James song because they had never played it. But they are pros as Matt Lawder says, "I know how to follow progressions and we did it." This has become Marquise Knox's signature song. He often leaves the stage greeting his fans and filling the rooms with his powerful voice. He and the band have embraced the song. "It fits me," Marquise says, "This is who I am. I am a bluesman."
Click below to see all of Bob Baugh's photos from the evening.
When Chase Garret got a small keyboard with two free lessons and a Scott Joplin CD for Christmas his mother told the nine-year-old, "Make grandma happy, listen to it." He recognized "The Entertainer" because the local ice cream truck played it. Eighteen years later St. Louis gets to enjoy the fruits of those gifts at Chase Garrett's 8th Annual Piano Stomp.
Garrett grew up in Iowa City with parents who loved the blues. James, Taylor, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Eric Clapton, Tracey Chapman and B.B. King were all part of the music collection. The free piano lessons morphed into years of them. By his teenage years Chase says, "My lessons were more my bringing in tunes and getting help in learning how to play them." Otis Spann's Chicago style and hall of famer Ricky Nye's boogie-woogie piano became favorites.
An email to Nye from the 16-year-old Garrett turned into an opportunity to see him play at a house party in Iowa. Ricky invited him up to play with him and even asked him to do another short song. Chase laughs at the memory because "I had no idea of stage presence or time and I played an 8-minute song." A friendship blossomed and Nye invited him to his own 8th annual Blues and Boogie Summit in Cincinnati where other players also took him under their wings.
When Chase was 19 his mother died. A small inheritance inspired him to do something positive in tribute to her. Thus, in 2010 the first annual Piano Stomp in Iowa City. He rented a hall and passed out thousands of flyers and 625 people came. A tradition was born and even as he pursued his blues and boogie passion around the world, Chase would always return home to produce the Piano Stomp.
Over the next six years Garrett would live and play in France, New York City, Boston, Austria, and Madison, WI. The piano bar scene in La La Land is the La Caveau de la Huchette in Paris where he plays every year. While in Boston he became a certified piano technician. In NYC he met his good friend Ethan Leinwand. Ethan's St. Louis experience encouraged Chase to move here in 2015.
Early on he met Emily Richards, a vocalist looking to put a band together. It was the beginning of something beautiful. Today Sweetie and the Toothaches style of KC Swing and Jump Blues attracts a real dance crowd. Chase, the band's musical director says, "The music is influenced by our love for Count Basie, Errol Garner, Oscar Peterson and always, Otis Spann."
Chase found a piano town in St. Louis with its blues and barrelhouse tradition of great players like Lonnie Johnson, Johnnie Johnson who themselves built on generations of earlier players. "Bringing the Stomp here just made sense," Garrett says, "This is a town with an audience that will really appreciate it." After a night in Iowa City, the Stomp is bringing a full band including vocalist Emily Richards, four horns and four piano players including an extraordinary Parisian, the fourteen-year-old Nirek Mokar. "That," Chase says, "is part of playing it forward like Ricky Nye did for me."
Dion Brown the Executive Director of the National Blues Museum shares Garrett's enthusiasm: "We are happy to partner with Chase because music and history are a match for our mission and the Legends Room with its intimate space and state of the art acoustics is a perfect venue for the 8th Annual Piano Stomp." Along with the NBM, the St. Louis Blues Society and Blues City Deli are also helping to sponsor the journey to St. Louis for two concerts on Saturday, November 11, an afternoon showcase at Blues City Deli at 1 p.m. and the evening show at 7 p.m. at the NBM.
So get ready to Stomp. The stages are set. The Steinway B Grand Piano will be open at the Blues Museum where the dance floor is waiting, and all those fingers are already itchin' to hit those ivories. Let the good times roll.
Click the image below to see all of Bob Baugh's photos of the evening at the NBM.
Editor's note: This article is cross-published with the Nov/Dec issue of the St. Louis Blues Society's BluesLetter.
When Gus Thornton's Momma showed him the Christmas catalogue he told her he wanted the $3 Lone Ranger and Tonto guitar. Little did he know then that nearly sixty years later his choice would lead him being on the Legends Stage at the National Blues Museum with David Dee where both were honored for "Keeping the Blues Alive."
The September 8, 2017 recognition event was part of the museums Howlin' Friday show that featuring George Brock who received the first "Keeping the Blues Alive" award last April. Dion Brown, Executive Director of the NBM, says: "We started this award as a way to recognize the invaluable contributions of our local musicians to blues music. At the same time, we recognize it takes more than a front person to keep the blues alive and we intend to honor those folks too." Gus Thornton, Marquise Knox's bassist and one of premiere players in the country, provides a perfect example.
Thornton isn't a frontman, never has been. But he is a bass man and in Marquise Knox's words "a bedrock, my bedrock." His longtime bandmate in Kim Massie and the Solid Senders, guitarist Steve Martin, agrees: "Bass players in general don't get credit. They're in back. That's the way it is. But, you sure notice when they're not there because the bottom falls out. The bass is the glue that holds a band together." B.B. King knew that. His daughter, Shirley King, says, "Look at the pictures. My Daddy always kept the bass player next to him. He said 'the bass was the most important instrument for keeping the music together.'"
Learnin' the Licks
Influenced by Memphis, Motown and the Beatles on their home radio, Gus's career started out with living room concerts with his brothers and sisters and writing a song, "Cincinnati Blues." The only problem was the guitar wasn't tuned properly, he didn't know how to play and he played it upside down. By middle school, a real acoustic guitar, picks, and Webb Pierce and Homer and Jethro albums became part of the self-learning process. Gus says, "I learned hip country music." Lessons from Dan Jones at Sonny Shields music store in East St. Louis also helped.
An attempt to play in the junior high l band didn't work out. They didn't need guitars. He was told he didn't have an embouchure for trumpet. He wanted to try sax but they said he would have to learn clarinet. "Clarinet," Gus says, "No way I was doing that. The clarinet section was all girls." He quit the school band and looked for other outlets.
Playing with friends became one of those outlets but when they went to form a band there was a problem. Like most kids they all started out on guitar so they found themselves with three guitars and no bass. Gus became the bass volunteer picking out the notes on four strings of his guitar. Turns out it was a pretty smart move.
The other outlet was a gospel group he joined at 14. The Illinois Special recruited Thornton, who when he told them "I'm not that good," responded "that's okay, we'll teach you." And they did according to Gus: "They helped my ear out by having to listen to harmony, the lead singer and understanding changes and how to hear them."
From Young Disciples to Albert King
The road to Thornton's success came in 1968 during high school when the auditioned at the South Side Center in East St. Louis for the Young Disciples. This legendary model cities program (1967-72) was developed by Allen Merry a woodwind player who had toured or recorded with Curtis Amy, Ray Charles, Hank Williams Jr., and Little Richard. It was designed to help keep kids off the streets in the troubled times of the late '60s but it became much more. It became an opportunity for kids to tap and develop their talents in a mini Motown.
Merry exposed kids to all kinds of music. Thornton says, "We got it all -- Motown, Memphis, Big Band -- I saw Stan Kenton, Ray Charles, James Brown and more." The 80 members of the Young Disciples had multiple singing, dance, music groups and even a comedy act. They learned how to perform, book shows, manage, wire equipment, start a record company, and make records even booking time at Sun Studios in Memphis.
Gus's first record credits come from those days as he performed as part of the rhythm section backing up various groups like Primes, the Primettes (after the Motown groups), the Debonaires and the Debonettes, The Georgettes, the Gents and the Meditations. It was an exciting time that included teenage friends like Renee Smith, Marsha Evans, and Sharon Clarke all of whom later worked with Oliver Sain.
The Disciples came to an end in 1972 and Gus took his Fender Precision to form his own band, F Troop and later the Free Spirit Band which included Oliver Johnson a horn player. Johnson got a job with Albert King's band ('75-'81) when that Free Spirit broke up. Thornton would go with him by to watch them practice. He had met Albert during the Disciple days. In 1977 King asked him to join the band for a West Coast trip. Gus thought, "I want to see California and there's knee deep snow here," so he went.
The rehearsals were cool but onstage everything went off the rails as Albert showed a side that many musicians had seen: "King was yelling at me onstage. I couldn't do anything right. He was saying, 'I'm gonna pull the trigger (fire him).'" By Chicago Gus thought it was over and he planned to quit but he says, "Albert got nicer the closer they got to home. So I decided to stay a few more weeks." It turned into years of traveling the US and Europe. He became close friends with King and another young guy who used to come and jam with them, Stevie Ray Vaughn. Those relationships would prove pivotal in coming years.
In 1979 another bass player, Frank Dauber, joined the band. He also was a bus driver, mechanic and brought his own band. Gus was appointed the road manager which taught him money management and booking skills but he became a part time player. He eventually left the band and came home. It turned out to be a good move. He began freelancing and found he had become established. Everyone wanted Gus Thornton. He had the chops and the rep after touring with one of the greatest blues talents in the country.
In 1983 Albert King asked him to return to the band. Again, what Gus thought would be a few weeks turned into years and three albums: San Francisco 83, I'm in a Phone Booth, Baby and In Session (with Stevie Ray Vaughn). Over the next two decades he would record with the best in the business including: SRV and Blues at Sunrise with Stevie Ray Vaughn, Two Fisted Mama with Katie Webster, two albums with Johnnie Jonson -- Blue Hand Johnnie and Johnnie Be Eighty! And Still Bad, and Can't Stop Now with Kenny "Blues Boss" Wayne. He has more than 25 albums to his credit with the new Marquise Knox release Black and Blue being the latest.
It was the early albums with King that Thornton says "taught me how to make real records by getting closer to the actual production and learning how to do professional photo shoots." He says "friendship with Albert and Stevie, jamming with Stevie's band and meeting other famous musicians" are all part of his special memories of those times.
You Gotta Have Heart
Thornton is a guy that gets all the good adjectives -- nicest, kind hearted, sweetest, friendliest, calm, cool, laid back, easy going, effortless, encouraging, etc. Marquise Knox says that every time he tells Gus "you're too cool," Gus says, "No, I'm just careful."
He has a soft spot for young musicians like Marquise when he was a kid and the up and coming Matt "The Rattlesnake" Lesch. Matt was star struck when Knox invited him to sit in with the band four years ago. "I knew Gus was the guy on In Sessions and I still watch it. I asked him for an autograph and he asked me for mine. We have stayed in touch ever since."
Don't let the descriptions fool you. There is a tenacity and focus in his seemingly effortless playing style and as Steve Martin puts it a personal "strength in the face of diversity." St. Louis saw the latter when he suffered a stroke onstage at the 1996 Big Muddy Blues Fest. When the EMT's arrived Gus realized, "I couldn't tell them where the pain was. I couldn't talk. I couldn't point. Half my body was paralyzed." Their quick actions helped save his life. However, it was the beginning of a long journey to a 2011 heart transplant.
Today he works in support of heart research. One of his fellow transplant patients who works with him is an old Disciples alumnus, Sharon Clark. They have played fundraisers together to raise money for the research. He also remains close to the family of his heart donor Anthony "Tony" Mather. Just prior to appearing at this year's Big Muddy he held an emotional reunion with them in Wisconsin. Thornton is still overwhelmed and grateful to St. Louis Blues Society Mission Fund and the blues community for their support though his heart related health issues.
Gus came back from the transplant to rejoin the Kim Massie and the Solid Senders. A couple of years later Marquise Knox asked him to become part of his band. He had known and admired Gus since he was a kid. Gus had encouraged him because he wanted to pass the torch and keep the blues alive. It was a great match. The band, which includes Matt Lawler (guitar) and Michael Battle (drums), all say, "we are a family." They look out for Gus on road trips making sure he gets the appropriate rest and has comfortable arrangements for long drives.
There is a symmetry in seeing Thornton with Knox. Gus started as the talented young guy playing with the old pro, Albert King. Now the tables are turned. He's the old pro working with the talented young gun. Their love and respect for one another was obvious on the Legends Stage. As Knox puts it at the ceremony: "Gus is living history. He is a legend and it is time he got the recognition he deserves. I hope I'll be as good as a man as those I've learned from, David Dee and Gus Thornton."
There was a lot of blues history jamming on stage following the ceremony. Gus and David Dee joined George Brock for a rousing rendition of B.B. King's "How Blue Can You Get." Then Marquise came up taking Matt Leach's guitar for "Two Trains Running (Still a Fool)" and "Walkin' the Dog" while Ben Wells, Tommy Bankhead's drummer, kept the beat. Gus was there playing his style of "being in the groove, not getting in the way," and loving every minute of it.
Yes, it was a night to be remembered for a guy who has contributed mightily to "Keeping the Blues Alive" in St. Louis. Gus's humble response to the evenings accolades was to recognize his partner, Lisa Carr, his family and to offer up these words: "I have always tried to treat others the way I would like to be treated. It would be a better world if we all treated each other that way." Amen, brother.
Click below to see Bob Baugh's photographs of the event.