Throughout the recent history of the blues, dozens of players who are barely into their teens have emerged from the masses, attempting to stake their claim as stars for future generations. Most of them streak across the heavens and disappear into the void from which they emerged. But virtually no one is making the impact of St. Louis-based singer/guitarist Marquise Knox.
Catch him in performance and you’ll quickly realize that this gifted young man who’s spent more than half of his life on stage truly is a modern-day bluesman with old-school temperament and stylings. But he’s far more than that.
Now 27 and a highly respected international recording artist, renowned for his stylish guitar playing and booming baritone voice, he’s one of the deepest thinkers on the circuit today, someone who’s not afraid to speak out against injustice when it comes to current events, civil rights and other matters as he voices support and encouragement for his own community and the blues world in general.
“The world don’t owe me nothing,” he says. “I ain’t never felt no kind of privilege in this world. Mules have kicked me, but didn’t damage my pride. The rattlesnake bit me, but just crawled off and died. I represent St. Louis blues like no other. I am the blues.
“I get inspired by the people and the struggle and the stuff I see.”
Marquise speaks the truth. Unlike the multitude of poseurs filling the blues world today, Knox’s roots run as deep as any person of color who’s ever made a name for himself in the industry. Anyone who’s ever caught his act knows that he’s an accomplished acoustic guitarist whose style comes straight out of the Delta. And when he goes electric, his music his modern, but squarely tied to the past – even when he jumps from the stage to deliver an occasional verse or two acapella and hip hop. And once in a while, he shows that he’s a rock-solid blues harp player, too.
Although he was born in the Gateway City on Feb. 8, 1991, Knox’s grandparents, parents and uncles hail from the cotton fields in the country near Grenada, Miss. Unlike many of their peers, the family has a real understanding of its roots, which extend to New Orleans and South Carolina and can be traced to the early 1800s — long before the Civil War or the birth of Memphis Jug Band founder Ace Cannon and Magic Sam, both of whom came into the world in the city. Bukka White, Mississippi John Hurt, piano great Walter Davis and more recent transplants Magic Slim and Big George Brock, a Knox cousin, also plied their trade there before moving on.
Knox’s great uncle Clifford, whose social circle Boo Boo Davis, Big George and other Grenada bluesmen, was a talented amateur in his own right. He captured Marquise’s attention during frequent visits with guitar in tow. When Marquise started playing seriously, Clifford showed him the ropes. But that was only after other relatives had hands in starting to put him on the path he walks today.
“My great uncle Joe brought me my first guitar – a plastic Mickey Mouse guitar — when I was three,” Marquise recalls. “I played around with that, but busted it up against the wall. After that, my father, who had seen how interested I was, told my grandmother’s brother: ‘If that boy had a guitar, he’d learn how to play.’ Those words stayed on my uncle’s heart.”
But the young boy didn’t really learn how to play until a few years later. “I was in the third or fourth grade and doing a black history program,” he recalls, “and I told my teacher I knew how to play the guitar – but I didn’t! And she wanted me to perform at the concert. I went home and told my grandmother Lilly Mae: ‘I’m in trouble!’”
After he explained the situation, she admonished him for lying and chased him out of the house. A few minutes later, however, he was watching from the yard as she opened a chifforobe. A skilled musician in her own right who, like Clifford, played in a country blues style, she brought out a six-string and started picking as Marquise watched through an open window from the backyard.
Soon, she started teaching him the basics. You can still hear their influence in the way he attacks R&B and other material that’s not traditionally country blues. “I put those twists on it because that’s where I come from,” Knox says, noting that “the official song I learned was ‘You Don’t Have To Go’ by Jimmy Reed. That’s a family nickname they have for me. Some of them call me Jimmy because of it.
“My great uncle went from there and told my mother: ‘All right, let’s get him a guitar.’ And I went on…2002 until now.”
Knox received his first paycheck as a pro at age 13 after playing at a senior citizens’ complex near St. Louis’ DePaul Hospital. Before long, he says, he was hustling gigs in the thriving underground blues community in the city. While it’s played home to the legendary Chuck Berry, Larry Davis and Henry Townsend and served as one to Albert King, Little Milton and Lonnie Johnson, dozens of other local talents toiled off the beaten track, including Frank “Spanky” Perry, Charles Harris, Dan Taylor and Charles Taylor as well as Charlie Sweet, who gave Marquise his first recording gig with his Mississippi Delta Boys.
Knox played with Perry in his group, Spanky And The Gang And The Secret Weapon when he first started out. “I was the secret weapon,” he says. “One night, Spanky’s wife told him: ‘One day, Marquise is gonna branch out on his own.’ After that, he and I talked and we agreed it was time for me to start my own band. I told him: ‘I’ve gotta go make me some money!’”
It was Townsend who was the first major blues artist to take the teenager under his wing. Born in Mississippi and raised in Cairo, Ill., Townsend ran away from home at age nine in 1918 and began his career under the tutelage of Walter Davis. A Grammy honoree affectionately known as Mule, he was a national treasure. Of all the bluesmen who recorded in the 1920s, he was the last man standing, playing guitar and piano without a career break for the better part of eight decades before passing at age in 2006.
Marquise met Henry at a birthday party. “The next thing I knew, Mr. Townsend says: ‘Come over to my house,’” Knox recalls. “I did, and we got to talkin’ – and he liked me. We sat down and played guitar for hours on end.
“That’s how I learned how to write songs. I’d just listen to him, and he’d make up songs about anything. We’d play one 10 or 20 or 30 minutes if we wanted to.”
The pair played the Kansas City Street Blues Festival and a couple of other gigs together, but spent far more time together talking to each other in what became an intimate friendship. “He said: ‘There’s a lot of blues out there now,’” Marquise recalls, “’but what I’m gonna teach you is how to make sure that they don’t screw you over.’
“I didn’t listen to it all. I wish I would have. That makes the lessons even more important to me now – not only to listen to, but to pass it on.
“He was the first guy who told me I was worth $2,500 (laughs). I got to talking to (Earwig Records owner, harmonica player and longtime David “Honeyboy” Edwards manager and partner) Michael Frank one day in Dallas. We were talking about Honeyboy. And Henry had made me feeling so good about myself, I told Michael that Honeyboy should make $2,500 at least every time he shows up. We laugh about that. But I’ve never lost sight of the fact that I’ve got to make some money out here.
“Henry also taught me how to form the music…not necessarily just play it, but make sure you sing about something worthy, make sure the second and third verse go with your first verse.”
Townsend also taught Marquise sound lessons about the business side of the music. “When recording, I always try to hold on to the masters,” he says. “If not that, then I make sure that I own the publishing, the copyrights…so much stuff. Eventually, I started my own publishing company.”
Another lesson came in the form of album construction with Townsend advising that it’s always a good idea to use your own tunes and limit the number of covers – a practice Knox has maintained since releasing his first CD, Man Child, which received a Blues Blast Music Award nomination in the best new artist category along with nomination in the the Rising Star Award category. “There are some guys out here that don’t even write,” he says. As a result, they limit themselves financially.
Another musician who took Marquise under his wings was the Michael Burks, the burly Alligator recording artist known for his intense two-hour sets that earned him the nickname The Iron Man. Burks — who was based out of Little Rock, Ark., where Marquise has kin — mentored Knox for years until his untimely death at age 54 when he succumbed to a heart attack in the Atlanta airport while returning from a European tour.
“We met when I was playing down at B.B.’s Blues And Soups (one of the top clubs in St. Louis),” Marquise says. He’d just won a competition with his new band and was booked for a 30-minute showcase with other groups. It was past time for his unit to break their set when Burks approached.
“He told my bass player: ‘Get your ass off the stage right now.’ The bass player was so scared said: ‘I can’t do that,’ and I looked at Mike and I looked at the crowd. They were bringing all that money up (to the tip jar).”
When Marquise finally did come down, Burks approached him again. “’Kid, you got some balls,’ he said. ‘I didn’t like it…but I admire it!’
“I loved Michael so-o-o much,” Marquise says. “He took me in the studio and showed me how it’s done. He taught me that sometimes what you hear and the band hears, they can compete. So you’ve got to make sure that you give him (the producer) what he wants while it’s still sounds good to you and you have your groove. After all, it’s your product at the end of the day.
“If he saw me uncomfortable doing a song, he told me not to do it at all. He taught me how to speak up. When we lost him, we lost somebody who was really reaching out to the younger guys like me and Kingfish (Ingram). He would call you. He had a presence.
“The first time I drove down to the King Biscuit Blues Festival on my own, I didn’t have enough money to get back. He reached in his pocket, gave me $200 and said: ‘I know you’ll get back now. He was like that. It wasn’t just about the music.”
On his part, Knox takes a lot of things seriously, first and foremost, family and the importance of having a good work ethic, something he learned at home from childhood. “My family’s hard-working people, and they passed it to me,” he says. “I look back on the fact that they worked in the cotton field and ate cornbread every day. Now they have a house they own.
“Grew up in the house that they built and became a man. That’s what I try to relate in my story: that it’s not easy for black people to do that and have that. And it’s definitely not easy for these blues guys that they love so much to obtain that and have a relationship with their families while, at the same time, be out here trying to make a living.”
A proud man, Marquise is concerned about the state of the blues today. “I just want to make sure that the blues community understands that you have to reach back into the black community – the people who gave you the music in the first place. Don’t just use their resources and stories as people without directly understanding that you’re gonna have to go back to the inner cities to support them.”.
In essence, he says, the music is a living, breathing entity that needs to be fed at its source, not blues meccas like Clarksdale, Miss., or the 32-mile stretch of highway leading to Helena, Ark. While the artists make good money at those venues, they can’t be expected to have to support their families off of the proceeds of one or two good paying nights a year – a lifestyle that, for many, exists today. It’s vital to support them on their own home ground, and it’s essential that people in the blues world work to establish artists’ communities where the musicians live and work.
It’s something even more important now than ever. With the passing of so many great, elder bluesmen during the past few years, we need to nurture the younger generation of future stars.
“We have to stop the exploitation instead of building multi-million dollar businesses off of their contributions by making bad deals with the musicians and taking 80 per cent of the profit,” Marquise says. “We have to do right by those artists. Some of them they find in poverty or want loans, and people don’t want to do business with them. It might be a hard axe to grind in the beginning. But once that ship comes to dock and everything belongs to him, he’s gonna feel much better!
“Playing music is novelty for some and a way of life for others. The blues is about life, love and death of black folks. It means that you must have respect for the craft and its people. Simple. Any man claiming to know the blues should automatically know that.”
Despite being a professional musician literally since youth, Knox is a deep-thinker who’s both well-read and experienced beyond his years. From childhood, he’s been fascinated by the life histories of U.S. presidents and political science in general, a curiosity that continues today. He’s shocked that so many folks in the blues world support an administration that is working to erode all of the social progress America has been making since the 1960s.
“I’m completely torn that we have people inside this community – a promoter or whatever — that have a certain undertone about this President that they defend him. When President Obama was in office and I disagreed with him, I made it known.
“But you can’t overlook what this man stands for. I don’t mind a fan saying something. But when it comes to promoters or blues society member doing it, it makes me worried.
“I fear that they might not use me – not because I didn’t play worth a damn. You might not use me because I might bring too much realness, too much real blues to your people. You just can’t be talking about this guy the way they do and be supporting the blues. The two just do not go together.”
And don’t get him started about the current administration’s attempt to throw religion into the mix. “I haven’t seen this much hate in my lifetime,” Marquise observes. “I’ve seen tears in my grandmother’s eyes and my great uncle get upset, but there are times now that I want to grab something and twist it or break it to keep from exploding.”
Even so, Knox maintains friends on both sides of the political spectrum and urges that they talk to – not at – each other. “There’s nothing wrong with spirited debates,” he insists. “Never lose sight that that’s the American way. You might want universal health insurance and military spending. I want universal health insurance and affordable college. But we should still want to be friends at the end of the day.”
And he urges caution when you’re scrolling through social media. “Don’t let these fake profiles and memes destroy what little common sense we have,” he says. “Do your own research on anything you share. Period. The trolls are out in full force and the end goal is chaos amongst the people. It’s important for folks to educate themselves.”
The lessons about life and music continue for Marquise. Even though he’s established himself as one of the top young bluesmen in the world today, he surrounds himself with seasoned bandmates who continue to pay what they’ve learned forward. His bass player, Gus Thornton, is a St. Louis Blues Hall Of Famer who toured and recorded with Albert King for years and appears on albums with Stevie Ray Vaughan, Johnnie Johnson and Katie Webster. His drummer, Michael Battle, one of the top percussionists in St. Louis, recently started a non-profit organization that aims to point troubled youth in the proper direction. Rounding out the sound is the talented Matthew Lawder, a stinging, stylish guitarist in his own right.
And Marquise is attempting to pay it forward himself. He recently formed a record label, Knox Entertainment, in partnership with Alonzo Townsend, Henry’s son. They’re currently in negotiations a St. Louis radio station, planning to make use of a studio to produce album for deserving, but underexposed area musicians – either for local distribution or to take them to the next level.
“When that news finally breaks,” Marquise says, “folks are going to be taking what we’re doing more seriously.”
And he just announced plans for a dinner styled after a block party to honor Big George Brock in order to give the city of St. Louis a chance to honor the 86-year-old legend and show their appreciation for his longevity in the blues.
Fortunately for music lovers everywhere, Marquise will be carrying his tradition on for decades to come. When he says “I am the blues,” he isn’t kidding!
Visit Marquise Knox’s website at: www.marquiseknoxblues.com
Interviewer Marty Gunther has lived a blessed life. His first experience with live music came at the feet of the first generation of blues legends at the Newport Folk Festivals in the 1960s. A former member of the Chicago blues community, he’s a professional journalist and blues harmonica player who co-founded the Nucklebusters, one of the hardest working bands in South Florida.