Henry Townsend, the only blues artist to have recorded during every decade from the 1920s to the 2000s, was born in Shelby on October 27, 1909. A longtime resident of St. Louis, where he was hailed as a patriarch of the local blues scene, Townsend died on September 24, 2006. Other performers from the Shelby area have included singers Erma Franklin, Jo Jo Murray, the Kelly Brothers, and Hattie Littles, jazz legend Gerald Wilson, and bandleader Choker Campbell.
Townsend, a master guitarist and pianist, played an integral role in the vital St. Louis blues scene of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. His earliest years were spent in Shelby and then near Lula; the family was in Cairo, Illinois, when Townsend ran away from home and settled in St. Louis as a preteen. He made his recording debut in 1929, and during the 1930s he recorded in the company of leading blues artists including Roosevelt Sykes, John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, Robert Nighthawk, and Mississippi-born Big Joe Williams and Walter Davis. A prolific and spontaneous composer, Townsend claimed credit for writing the first version of the blues standard “Every Day I Have the Blues,” recorded by Tupelo native Aaron “Pine Top” Sparks in 1935.
Townsend continued to record with Davis after World War II but began working more outside of music as a hotel manager and debt collector. In 1961Townsend recorded his first album for folklorist Sam Charters, and over the next decades he toured, recorded several albums, and mentored younger artists in St. Louis. He received a prestigious National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1985. In 2008 he was awarded a posthumous Grammy for his participation on the album Last of The Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen - Live in Dallas, which featured fellow nonagenarians Robert Lockwood, Honeyboy Edwards, and Pinetop Perkins.
Shelby was also the birthplace or childhood home of a number of performers who achieved later fame in Detroit, Chicago, and California. Erma Franklin (1938-2002), older sister of Aretha Franklin, recorded the first version of “Piece of My Heart,” later popularized by Janis Joplin. Singer Hattie Littles (1937-2000), once billed as the “New Queen of the Blues,” and saxophonist-bandleader Walter “Choker” Campbell (1916-1993) both recorded for the Motown label group in Detroit. Trumpeter-bandleader Gerald Wilson (b. 1918) became an elder statesman of West Coast jazz after decades in the Los Angeles area. The Chicago area was the destination of the Kelly Brothers and their cousins, the Johns Brothers, as well as singer-guitarist Gus “Jo Jo” Murray and blues singer-bassist Willie Kent. Andrew (1935-2005), Curtis (b. 1937), and Robert Kelly (b. 1939) recorded gospel music and rhythm & blues and were billed both as the Kelly Brothers and the King Pins. Tenry “T. J.” Johns (b. 1946) led the band T. J. and the Hurricanes in Shelby and later recorded in Chicago under the name “The King Kong Rocker.” Kent (1936-2006), a favorite figure on the Chicago blues scene, recorded several albums and won numerous Blues Music Awards. Jo Jo Murray (b. 1947) remained a familiar figure in Shelby with frequent homecoming appearances at local clubs.
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