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Marquise Knox learned blues from the masters

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 15, 2011 - At the age of 20, St. Louis singer/guitarist Marquise Knox has already achieved several milestones that would be the envy of musicians twice his age.

Knox has played major music festivals in Texas, Mississippi, New York, Arkansas and Missouri - as well as appearing at events across Europe. He has three CDs as a leader to his credit, including the recent recording, "Here I Am," which Knox will highlight this Friday at a CD release concert at BB's Jazz, Blues & Soups.

He's also been named as the winner of Living Blues magazine's award for "Best Debut Artist" for his first recording as a leader, "Man Child," and is currently up for several other awards.

Yes, 20-year-old Marquise Knox is a blues musician. It's a musical style that he's been immersed in since his birth in 1991 in Grenada, Miss., and since his family moved to St. Louis.

Some blues fans may wonder how the music will survive as more and more aging patriarchs such as Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin and St. Louis' own Henry Townsend, Benny Smith and others pass away. But it's clear that with prodigious young talents like Marquise Knox arriving on the scene, blues music is in good hands.

I recently caught up with Knox on a rainy afternoon at Blues City Deli for a conversation about his blossoming career and the unique path he followed that turned him toward the blues.

"I still have a lot of family down in Grenada, and there's even a family church and cemetery there," Knox says as we sit at a table in the Deli. "And there was always blues music playing in our house here in St. Louis. I grew up listening to the blues. It was always there. And I had relatives who played it, too."

Knox recalls that the first blues song he can remember singing was Jimmy Reed's "You Don't Have To Go." And the first time he can recall playing the blues live was in front of his 5th grade class.

"It was one of those days when everyone was supposed to get up and show off whatever talent they might have, recalls Knox. "So I brought my guitar and got up and sang 'Rock Me Baby.' I remember all the girls in the class came up to the front to listen. That's when I thought that maybe singing and playing music might be a good thing!"

As he grew up, Knox was influenced a great deal by his uncle Clifford, who played blues. And he also became friends with the legendary Henry Townsend, who made time to talk to Knox about music and what it was like to be a musician. He also learned from another relative, St. Louis blues great Big George Brock.

"When I got a little older, I used to hang out with Big George Brock, because he was a relation of mine," says Knox. "And I had an aunt who used to go out with Boo Boo Davis, so I got to know him, too. Big George would ask me to come up and sit in, but I was really shy back then."

Eventually, Knox began performing as a guest musician with guitarist Billy Barnett at the 1860 Saloon in Soulard. He then began working with vocalist Erika Johnson, who helped him establish more connections in the blues community.

"Erika put me in touch with Jeremy Segel-Moss of the Bottoms Up Blues Gang, and he invited me to be on a CD called Mississippi Delta Boys. And I met John May at BB's," says Knox. "After he heard me play, John told me I was welcome to come by any time. That was a great thing."

BB's was also the scene of Knox's first big splash as a performer on the area blues scene. He was asked to perform at the annual Baby Blues showcase at the club in 2005 at the age of 14. Veteran blues musicians and fans were impressed by Knox's ability to sing and play in an authentic blues style with an emotional depth and feeling rarely heard in anyone so young.

Knox soon began playing every Thursday at Beale on Broadway, working as the opening act for vocalist Kim Massie. That regular slot led to increased awareness for Knox, and he soon began traveling to out-of-town festivals, where he made key connections with veteran blues artists.

"I went to some festivals in Texas and other places," states Knox. "But the festival that really changed things for me was in Clarksdale, Miss., in 2007 and had the chance to meet Sam Lay. After I met, him, I decided to play some Lightin' Hopkins songs for him, and he really liked that. He told me he was going to call a friend in Kansas who ran a festival and get me on it. I didn't really expect anything to happen, but sure enough, he told me a little later that I was booked for it."

Lay -- whose blues resume includes drumming for everyone from Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley and John Lee Hooker to performances with the Butterfield Blues Band and Bob Dylan -- was good friends with Chad Kassem, who produced the Bluesmasters at the Crossroads Festival every year at his Blue Heaven Studios in Salina, Kan.

At the festival, Knox met blues harp great James Cotton and impressed Kassem enough for the producer to sign Knox to a three record contract. Knox's first CD, "Man Child," was recorded there with the help of blues musician Michael Burks and his band - and earned Knox the "Best Debut Artist" award from Living Blues.

The critical acclaim for the CD led to Knox's repeat appearances at the Bluesmasters Festival, as well as eventual performances in Europe.

"Earlier this year, I went to Europe in March and April and played in Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands," says Knox. "Then I came back and we finished and released my latest CD, 'Here I Am.' To me, it's a big jump forward from 'Man Child.' I've been getting good feedback so far, and I'm really looking forward to playing at BB's this Friday. I'm going to do some things with my band and some solo music too, so it's a chance to showcase everything I do musically."

Knox's musical development has benefited tremendously from his association with blues elders such as Townsend and other now-departed legends such as Pinetop Perkins, Honeyboy Edwards and Hubert Sumlin. Knox has a deep appreciation of what those formidable musicians passed along to him.

"It was a great experience for me to know Henry, and then people like Pinetop and Hubert. They told me a lot of personal stuff that was beyond music that's really helped me along. I remember Hubert told me one time after hearing me play, 'You've got tone, Marquise. Something that's your own. Don't ever lose that.' So that's something I always concentrate on and make sure I don't lose."

And those personal relationships with blues legends have had an impact beyond music on Knox. He's intent on making things better for young people coming up behind him in terms of education and opportunity.

"Music is very important to me," concludes Knox. But it's just one-fourth of me. The rest is very spiritual. I remember when I was growing up that I was told by some people that I was playing the devil's music. And that messed me up. That was very negative, and I think there's too much of that. You can make a difference. You can try and make things better for everyone. And that's what I want to try to do."

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer who covers music regularly for the Beacon.

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. He has written for the St. Louis Beacon since 2009. Terry's other writing credits in St. Louis include: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis American, the Riverfront Times, and St. Louis magazine. Nationally, Terry writes for DownBeat magazine, OxfordAmerican.org and RollingStone.com, among others.