Valerie and I are going to a blues festival downtown this afternoon. We’re going to see Dave Black, Leroy Pierson and the St. Louis Social Club. They are all friends of ours, and all were part of the great Broadway Oyster Bar 80s music scene.
The place was half as big as it is now.
There was no heat in the winter. We had two fireplaces and threw sleeping bags over the doors. Stains on them gave an uncomfortable impression. If you brought a log, you got a free drink.
There was no AC in the summer. I used to set a bus pan full of ice on the bar with a fan behind it. We had to close for two weeks every year when the heat got unbearable. That’s when I went on some of the greatest travel adventures of my life.
Thursday nights was Tommy Bankhead and the Blues Eldoradoes. Tommy was a legend.
He had backed musicians such as Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Elmore James (his cousin), Joe Willie Wilkins, Robert Nighthawk, and Joe Hill Louis.
My first encounter with Tommy was when I was 17 at a small bar called Sadie’s Personality Lounge on north
told the story in one of my first posts.
Sadie’s was part of the actual Chitlin’ Circuit. The place was so outside of the law, cops wouldn’t go near the place. No one even blinked at the fact that my friends and I were obviously minors.
I had to get over my uptight, repressed bullshit as soon as I walked in the door. A three hundred pound
vet, who had lost both arms, grabbed me with a claw and pulled me into the
dance floor. I looked around the room and decided, “I’m gonna dance!”
My friend Freddy talked us into coming. He was jamming with the band. At one point, he handed me his guitar and said, “Play with Tommy.”
I was playing away when I looked over at Tommy. He asked, “You went to music school, didn’t you?” I was crushed. I couldn’t get off the stage fast enough.
I haven’t had the balls to jam spontaneously since. I really regret it because I was asked to sit in with Chuck Berry once at the Oyster Bar.
Years later I told Tommy the story. He didn’t remember it at all, but he thought it was funny. I used to change the name of the bands. I called them Tommy Bunk Bed and the Blue Avocados. Tommy didn’t think that was funny.
The best sax player I’ve ever seen anywhere was in Tommy’s band. “Big” Joe Enloe. There’s just no way to describe him. He just made life bearable. If you walked in while they were playing, he made laughing sounds through his horn and you just had to laugh. Out of nowhere he tongued his reed and it sounded like the Roadrunner. The man lived and breathed through his horn.
Dominic asked him for lessons. He said, “Man, you can’t teach this!”
When he died, he had one of the most incredible services I’ve ever been to in
East St. Louis.
I can’t begin to go through the list of Blues luminaries who arrived. Everyone
Tommy’s drummer Ben Wells cried like a baby. I don’t think anyone in the band ever got over it. They were never the same after that.
Mark O'Shaughnessy (owner of BBs Blues and Soups) told me he got an 8 track recording of the band at Mississippi Nights with Joe. It’s become one of those mythical projects that have disappeared into the ether.
The Blues Eldoradoes came out with an LP about a year later, but they just didn’t capture what they were live. Joe was really missing.
Tommy was a sheriff for the City of
Louis. He used to transport prisoners. It was strange
running into him on the street. A cop’s uniform just didn’t fit his outlaw
When my friend Sharon and I would count our cash register receipts at the end of the night in the back room, Tommy would show up knocking on the window while his
idled behind him. He wanted to party on the East Side. I
was welcome, as long as the girls were with me.
At the end of his life, he became revered as one of the greats. BBs still has giant posters of Tommy papering the walls. Tommy would show up wheeling a canister of oxygen behind him.
He died in December 2000 from respiratory failure due to emphysema. I found out about it on NPR. He had become a national figure.