November 29, 2020

Jazz and blues ring through Old Webster

Blues legend’s wife hails up-and-coming artist’s chance to revive the genre

Marquise Knox of the Marquise Knox Blues Band plays in front of a packed crowd on Gore Avenue Saturday, Sept. 17. With the recent deaths of blues legends David “Honey Boy” Edwards and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Knox’s music is set to revive the genre. PHOTO BY BRITTANY RUESS

Frances Johnson sat offstage as the sun set at the Old Webster Jazz and Blues Festival. She listened to the bands perform on the same stage her husband once took years ago.

Her husband, Johnnie Johnson, was a pianist and blues musician up until his death in 2005. He inspired Chuck Berry’s 1958 hit “Johnny B. Goode.”

She reflects on their time together before his death.

“Johnnie loved it here,” Frances Johnson said. “I love being here.”

The couple met in 1984, but did not marry until 1991 because of Johnnie Johnson’s struggle with a drinking problem.

But once he stopped drinking, Frances Johnson said, the beautiful man showed through more than ever in his personality. He was finally able to enjoy life.

“I got to know the man,” Frances Johnson said. “And, he was so much more than rock ‘n’ roll.”

Frances Johnson remembers a common debate between her and her husband — which one was luckier to have the other. It wasn’t until the morning of his death that Frances Johnson realized who won the debate.

Three-year-old Fin Clark (left) tries to cut in and dance with Courtney Cannon, 5, and her brother Delvin Cannon, 3. The Cannon siblings eventually let Clark join in, and they held hands and spun in a circle. Clark’s mother, KT Clark, is a 2002 Webster music composition graduate. PHOTO BY BRITTANY RUESS

“I was the lucky one,” she said.

When they first met, Frances Johnson did not know the fame and celebrity of Johnnie Johnson. Even when Frances Johnson was told who he was, she said she still wasn’t impressed.

This was for two reasons. One, she preferred jazz over blues and rock and roll, and two, she is a self-proclaimed harsh critic.

Early in their relationship, Frances Johnson would openly judge Johnnie Johnson’s performances.

“He would say, ‘They all said I did good,’” Frances Johnson said. “I would tell him, ‘They lied to you.’”

When Frances Johnson got to know her husband better, however, she started appreciating his music more. To Frances Johnson, the most special of all Johnnie Johnson’s songs is “After Hours.”

“‘After Hours’ is Johnny,” Frances Johnson said.

At the festival years ago, Frances Johnson remembers Johnnie Johnson playing “Kansas City.” As he sang the lyrics, “I might catch a train,” a train passed behind him in Old Webster.

She doesn’t listen to the song her husband inspired, though. “Johnny B. Goode” is rarely played in her home because of the memories attached to the song. When she visits Jefferson Barracks Cemetery, however, the tune will come on the radio.

“Somehow, either going to or coming from that place, I’ll hear, ‘Johnny B. Goode,’” Frances Johnson said.

In addition to Johnnie Johnson’s death, other blues legends have followed such as David “Honey Boy” Edwards and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. Edwards died on Aug. 29 and Smith died on Sept. 16 of this year. Before their deaths, Edwards and Smith were able to hear 20-year-old Marquise Knox perform. Knox headlined at the festival.

The Webster Faculty Jazz Band performed at the festival. They played jazz songs from 1961. PHOTO BY BRITTANY RUESS

David Beardsley, co-founder of the National Blues Museum, said these blues legends fell in love with Knox, a St. Louis native.

“They said, ‘Kid, you are the next generation,’” Beardsley said.

The Marquise Knox Blues Band hit the stage at about 9 p.m. The crowd had already piled in front to dance to the rhythms of his guitar. People of all ages flocked to the stage. Frances Johnson and Knox hugged as he took the stage.

She said at 15 and 16 Knox showed talent, but now at 20, he is definitely an up-and-comer. She has faith he will be the one to revive the blues culture.

“He’s good,” Frances Johnson said. “Like I said, I’m a critical person.”

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