ST. LOUIS — Blues guitarist Tommy Bankhead rubbed shoulders with some of the genre’s royalty, from Howlin’ Wolf and Elmore James to Albert King and Sonny Boy Williamson.
But visitors to the overgrown St. Louis cemetery where Bankhead was buried more than a decade ago would never know his musical legacy. Or his name.
Be it neglect, inattention or hard times, Bankhead’s family never added a grave marker to his burial plot. That will soon change thanks to the Killer Blues Headstone Project, a nonprofit effort to bring belated recognition to long-forgotten blues musicians.
Though the group has posthumously honored musicians as far away as California, its efforts are concentrated in a fertile blues corridor that stretches from the Mississippi Delta through St. Louis, north to Chicago and Michigan.
“These guys gave so much to America via music,” said Aaron Pritchard, the project’s vice president. “They deserve a headstone.”
Pritchard, 33, grew up on rock ‘n’ roll and discovered the St. Louis blues scene after high school but stopped playing music for a living to raise his two small children. A retail manager by day, Pritchard must be equal parts musicologist, cultural historian, archivist and Internet detective for the blues genealogy project.
Several years ago, he met a kindred spirit in Steven Salter of Whitehall, Mich., whose own search for his musical idols began with a detour to the Chicago area while en route to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
After stopping at the graves of McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters, and Chester Burnett (aka Howlin’ Wolf), Salter found an unmarked grave for blues pianist Otis Spann. A letter bemoaning Spann’s fate to a blues magazine ignited a successful fundraiser and convinced Salter to launch the headstone project in 2008.
“I figured if I didn’t get to see them while they were alive, I could at least stop by their gravesites and pay my respects,” the 62-year-old said. “When I got there, there was nothing but a piece of grass.”