Posted: Sep 26, 2006 7:20 pm
Henry Townsend, said to be the last surviving musician to record for Paramount, died on Sunday while visiting Grafton:
Blues guitarist Henry Townsend, who fled to St. Louis as a boy then stayed for a prolific career that spanned eight decades, died Sunday of pulmonary embolism in Grafton, Wis., where he was being honored. He was 96.
Townsend, who wrote and published hundreds of songs and accompanied musicians on hundreds more, began recording in 1929 and continued every decade since, an accomplishment that put him in rare company, said Mark O'Shaughnessy, president of BB's Jazz, Blues and Soups.
"He was the patriarch of St. Louis blues," O'Shaughnessy said. "He wasn't in it for the money. He believed in the music. It told a very honest story."
Townsend, living in the same brick bungalow he shared for 40 years with his late wife, Vernell, who performed with him, was in Grafton to be honored as the last surviving artist with the old Paramount Records. The label recorded one-fourth of all the blues material produced from 1929 to 1932, including "race records" by black artists for black audiences.
He arrived Thursday, and was hospitalized Friday evening. The Grafton Blues Association brought a plaque honoring him to his hospital room hours before he died.
"He was quite a guy," the group's president, Kris Marshall, said. "We listened to his stories. He was very excited to be back here."
Townsend was born in Shelby, Miss., grew up in Cairo, Ill., and left for St. Louis as a 9-year-old to avoid a whipping from his father, after he had "blown some snuff," he told The Associated Press in an interview in June.
He said his father played a button box accordion, but young Henry loved the guitar, and bought himself one. He also learned the piano.
While working as a shoe shine boy in St. Louis, he came to know a generation of piano players who had grown up on ragtime and were teaming up with guitarists to experiment with the blues.
He decided on a career in blues guitar after hearing budding bluesman Lonnie Johnson, the Jimi Hendrix of the 1920s, perform in the old Booker T. Washington Theater in St. Louis.
"He had fiddled with it before, but when he saw Lonnie, he knew it could be a lifetime pursuit," said Kevin Belford, St. Louis blues historian. "Henry made the decision to make it his career."
In the 1930s, Townsend played with blues greats Roosevelt Sykes, Walter Davis and Robert Johnson at neighborhood parties and fish fries. Townsend recalled they'd "jam up and down the street" on top of a coal-hauling truck during the Depression to help raise rent money for people being evicted.
"If you got $2 to play somewhere, you were doing well," Townsend recalled.
In those days, record label scouts gathered up local musicians in cities like St. Louis, and took them to a studio for a recording session, Belford said.
Townsend and other blues musicians deemed worthy of studios' investment survived the Depression. But they fell into near oblivion when the juke box replaced live music, and the materials needed for the war effort slowed down the record industry.
It wasn't until the late 1950s, when the old blues "race records" were rediscovered during a growing folk revival, that Townsend, Lonnie Johnson, Big Joe Williams and others found renewed popularity. They toured the U.S. and Europe and found new audiences, Belford said.
Townsend, who won a National Heritage Award in 1985 that recognized his being a master artist, never stopped performing.
He told the AP he'd paid a price for staying in St. Louis, and lost some good breaks, but had no regrets.
"I never had an agent in my life," he said. "Just being me has got me where I am."
Townsend is survived by three children. Funeral arrangements were pending.