Smith honed his unmistakable musical style during a career that spanned more than 50 years. He is often credited with creating the "St. Louis Sound" of blues guitar, and his playing by turns raucous and melancholy, but always deeply personal has influenced several generations of St. Louis guitarists.
His solos, whether pulling plaintive tones from his Stratocaster or racing through the top of the guitar's register, were models of elegance, restraint and musical expression. Other guitarists may have played louder or faster, but Smith's gift was his ability to reach deep within a song to retrieve the golden notes that relayed its true meaning.
"Bennie understood that you didn't need to play a lot of notes, just the right ones," says KDHX (88.1 FM) radio host Gabriel, who at one time played trumpet with Smith. "When Bennie went on stage, a lot of guitarists wouldn't go on after him. They'd try to copy his licks, but he would certainly show them up."
Known for his self-effacing demeanor, Smith certainly didn't try to show anyone up. Musicians remember Smith as a generous player whose main concern was the song: He demanded consistency from his rhythm section, but he always allowed each player, in turn, to shine. "When I play music, I try to make the people feel it, so they feel good. I try to please the people," Smith said earlier this year when asked to explain his approach. "If they don't like it, it ain't no good to me."
Born the seventh son of fourteen on October 6, 1933, Bennie Lee Smith first learned to play the ukulele, a gift from a brother who'd recently returned from military service in the Pacific. His technique blossomed under the tutelage of Ace Wallace, the legendary blind guitarist who held court at the intersection of Jefferson and Chouteau Avenues.
Smith was a natural talent, and it wasn't long before he was gigging around town with George and Doc Perry, also students of Wallace. Money was tight, and Smith amplified his guitar through a converted cathedral radio.
Though his mentor was a blues guitarist, Smith came of age in the 1950s, just as soul music was beginning to sweep the nation. He joined the Roosevelt Marks Orchestra, which at the time was picking up the work a young Ike Turner was too busy to take and which was the first black band to perform on local television. During that decade Smith also led a combo at the Dot Club that included an upstart guitarist named Chuck Berry. In 1958 he backed Ike Turner on "Boxtop," a song that featured the debut of vocalist "Little Ann," who eventually became known as Tina Turner. Smith is also credited with teaching Ike Turner Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown's "Okie Dokie Stomp," widely regarded as the inspiration for Turner's 1961 hit, "Prancin'." In 1963 Smith's band, Bennie and the Sportsmen, recorded "Shook Up Over You" with Jimmy "Soul" Clark.
Over the next 40 years, Smith honed his craft in the bars and clubs of St. Louis and southern Illinois, sometimes playing as many as three shows a night and only packing up his guitar as the sun began to rise. His innovative style made him a sought-after commodity; he shared the stage with blues talents including B.B. King, Matt "Guitar" Murphy and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown Smith's greatest influence. Jazz players also caught on to Smith, and St. Louis-born musicians like Oliver Lake and Grant Green are said to have sought out the guitarist whenever they returned home.
During the 1990s Smith took several trips to Europe, playing to audiences in Italy, Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands. He also recorded two albums with his band, Bennie Smith & the Urban Blues Express: The Urban Soul of Bennie Smith and Shook Up.
For all his talent, Smith determined early in his career to stay in St. Louis, where national fame eluded him. He was the consummate musician's musician, and took great pride in the fact that when he shared the stage with his idol Gatemouth Brown during the 2004 Big Muddy Blues Festival, Brown was so impressed with Smith's playing that he accompanied Smith to a gig after the festival.
"Musicians all over the world knew Bennie Smith and recognized him and loved him it's just that the record companies never came to Bennie," says Bernie Hayes, a local radio personality, one-time manager of blues guitarist Albert King and author of the recently published book The Death of Black Radio. "It wasn't just limited to Albert King: Everyone I know who heard him play was influenced by Bennie Smith. Oftentimes they'd talk about it, sometimes they wouldn't, but they'd certainly go home and try to imitate him. He was a genius."
In his later years, Smith was plagued by poor health. He suffered a heart attack in 2004 and was diagnosed with lung cancer earlier this year. That didn't stop him from playing, and in July he recorded a third album, The Bennie Smith All-Star Session, released September 1.
During the recent Big Muddy Blues Festival, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay read an official proclamation declaring September 2, 2006 "Bennie Smith Day."
"Bennie Smith has been an icon for many, many years," Slay says. "He is one of the reasons why St. Louis is known for its blues and its music."
Smith was one of the last of his generation of bluesmen, a dwindling coterie whose ranks have been thinned by age. Since 2000, St. Louis has witnessed the deaths of blues legends Johnnie Johnson, Oliver Sain, Tommy Bankhead and Big Bad Smitty, to name but a few.
Though Smith never married, he was well loved. He is survived by three daughters: Valerie London, Sonja Vauters and Benita Smith, as well as a host of grandchildren, nieces and nephews.
In his last years, Smith seemed to become increasingly aware that his generation and an entire musical genre was verging on extinction. Each time he performed his signature song, "Drown in My Own Tears," he would end with a simple tribute to the aged and fallen:
"Ain't but a few of us left."
Editor's note: A musical tribute and wake for Bennie Smith is scheduled for noon to 7 p.m. Friday, September 15, at the Ronald L. Jones Funeral Chapel, 2161 East Fair Avenue. Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, with burial following at Laurel Hill Cemetery. Donations to the Bennie L. Smith Memorial Fund can be made at any Bank of America branch.