Bankhead....a legendary name synonymous with St. Louis Blues
music. Just mention his name to any true St. Louis Blues lover, and
you'll see what I mean. Mr. Bankhead was kind enough to grant
this interview, and selected BB's Jazz, Blues and Soups as
the site of the interview (another name synonymous with St. Louis Blues
Born in Lake Cormorant, Ms. on October 24, 1931, we are certainly
blessed that this talented man chose to make St. Louis his home. Mr.
Bankhead has a history that reads like a Blues " Who's Who", beginning
with his early days playing with Woodrow Adams and the 3 B's, Joe Hill
Louis, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Elmore James, and of course,
our local Blues Patriarch Henry Townsend. From his beginnings here with
his group 'The Landrockers", Tommy then went on to form his locally
famous group The Blues Eldorados, and could be seen playing down in
Soulard every weekend for over 17 years. Give a warm
St. Louis welcome to Mr. Tommy Bankhead, a STLBlues legend!
First let me thank you for taking the time to come and grant STLBlues
Let's start off with the standard question "where were you born"?
In Lake Cormorant, MS., in 1931
How were you exposed to music?
Well, my dad used to play guitar, but he quit before I was born. I remember
crawling under my mom & dads bed and hitting the strings. My mama whupped
me (laughs), and my dad sold the guitar! We'd have musicians come in
from out of town, like Howlin' Wolf & different guys, and play on the
corner. Well, I used to skip out at night and go hear some of the guys.
That's how I got started.
So Howlin' Wolf was a big influence on you?
I just loved his music, but I didn't have no special one......actually,
I liked B. B. King a lot
How old were you when you actually picked up an instrument and started
Oh, I'd imagine I was about 9.
Who do you credit with inspiring your love of music?
A man by the name of Woodrow Adams. I used to sneak into juke joints
around town, and that's when I first saw him. I was probably 14 or 15
at the time. I would get with him every chance I could, he taught me
Was the guitar your first instrument?
I started on the Jews harp, and then I went to harmonica, and I was
trying to learn guitar at the same time. I think that's what started
me playing in a one-man band. I played drums, harmonica, and guitar
at the same time.
I can't imagine that, I can't play one instrument at the same time.
That's incredible! So did you start playing just for fun around the
Yeah, well, I couldn't play around my house, my mother wouldn't allow
it. So I'd go over to a friends house. We had a guitar, and I'd play
over there. We'd take it in his room, and we'd play. We made a band,
Where did your band play?
Juke joints.....people would go out on Saturday night, they'd come in
and dance & drink (laughs).
Now this was all down in Mississippi, in the Delta area?
Yes, all through Mississippi and Arkansas.
Some of your early gigs include some with Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice
Miller), Elmore James, legendary names.
Yeah, played with all of them (laughs)
What were they like to perform with?
Well, Sonny Boy, he was kinda rough, because when he wanted you to learn
something, you had to rehearse it. You didn't eat, you did not drink,
you didn't do ANYTHING until you got it right, you were just there(laughs)!
Elmore wasn't bad. He didn't want to quit at night. We'd be playin'
this club, and he'd want to go way out in Chicago Heights someplace
and get drunk, and I'd be wanting to go to bed (laughs).
How old were you when you moved to St. Louis?
I came to East St. Louis in 1949. Ned Love sent for us. I came up and
told him "if he wanted a band". So, they called us, and we were on the
Who did you come up with?
I came up with Floyd Gilmore and Jessie Davis.
Was Memphis a stop for you on your way to St. Louis?
Yes, I lived there for a while, and played around town. After I came
here I went back to Memphis a couple of times and did a couple of shows.
I did quite a bit of touring all over the country.
What are some gigs that stand out in your mind?
In the early 1940's I played with Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller)
all around Helena, Ark. (home to the King Biscuit Blues Festival and
the Sonny Boy Blues Club) and throughout the south. I played all over.
Ned Love's place over in East St. Louis, I loved playing there.
What was Howlin' Wolf like to play with?
He was strictly business when you'd come on stage, you know. When you'd
come up there, you'd come up to do a job! I really appreciated that
part, that's the main thing, you know.
Where have you played recently?
I opened up right here at BB's for Jimmie Lane. (son of Chicago Blues
legend Jimmie Rogers)
For years you were a fixture every weekend down in Soulard
Yeah, 17 years (laughs), played at Mike and Min's, and at the Oyster
Tell us about some of the recordings you've been involved with.
Well, I did some recording earlier, but it didn't get anywhere, they
sued me!. I didn't know the fine print, and I went and recorded again,
and that broke the contract, so they sued me for it. Then later I was
introduced to Tom Ray, and they was talking about recording a record.
I said, "that's fine", and we recorded under the "Deep Morgan" label.
Is that album still available?
No, they said they lost the master, I don't know. Then I went and recorded
a CD over in Austria.
Wasn't there a party held here at BB's in your honor, celebrating your
recent retirement from the City Sheriff's department?
Yes, (laughs) I served almost 20 years with the Sheriff's department.
Yeah, it was fun....most of the time. In a job like that you have to
make it fun. You know what you're up against, you just can't let it
get in front of you.
What are you doing now that you've retired?
Looking at TV (laughs). Haven't went fishing yet, but I'm planning on
Tell us about your family. Is it large or small?
Well, I have a bunch of kids (laughs)
Do you have any musical plans?
No, I quit planning, just take each day as it comes. If the price is
right, I'll still play...I did all those low paying jobs when I was
Do you have any plans to travel?
Well yeah, I plan on going on up to Chicago, and Memphis. I want to
see my sister in Chicago. I haven't been to Memphis since B.B. King
opened his place there. Been a long time since I've been down there....(laughs).
On behalf of STLBlues, thanks for granting this interview, and enjoy
All right, thank you.