St. Louis, Missouri
If there is an artist who could be said to truly connect the past, present and future of the blues, it is a 25-year-old bluesman named Marquise Knox. Born and raised in St. Louis with family roots in Grenada, Mississippi, Marquise burst onto the blues scene at the age of 16, astonishing veteran bluesmen and audiences alike with performances that evidenced a musical spirit and understanding well beyond his age. “The blues was passed to me through the blood,” he declares proudly. He learned guitar from his grandmother, Lillie, a former sharecropper whose ancestors were slaves, and played with his Uncle Clifford, a major influence in his early years. As a teenager, he was mentored by revered St. Louis bluesman Henry James Townsend, a National Heritage Fellow and foundational figure in the history of blues in St. Louis. Marquise has also performed with other blues greats—B.B. King, Pinetop Perkins, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, and Hubert Sumlin, among others. Having absorbed from the masters the essence of what made the blues one of 20th-century America’s quintessential musical traditions, Marquise is carrying the torch into the 21st century.
Like many bluesmen of earlier generations, Marquise has strong family ties to Mississippi, in his case the town of Grenada, a place where the Delta and the Mississippi hill country meet. Since the 1920s, Grenada musicians followed various paths to success, many joining the migration of Mississippians to Memphis, St. Louis, Chicago and Detroit. Musicians whose talents were nurtured in the Grenada area have included St. Louis pianist Walter Davis, a major blues recording artist of the 1930s (and a musical partner of Henry Townsend’s), Chicago blues guitar legends Magic Sam (Maghett) and Magic Slim (Holt), and world-renowned singer-harmonica player Big George Brock, a relation of Marquise’s.
Marquise still spends a lot of time visiting relatives in Grenada, where the family church and cemetery are located. He used to spend time playing with Brock, a former boxer turned bluesman, but was too shy to join him on stage. It was when he fell in with Henry Townsend that Marquise began to come into his own. "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,” Marquise recalls. “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."
In 2007, Knox played in Clarksdale, Mississippi, a mecca of Delta blues. While there, Knox impressed Sam Lay, a drummer who has played with such iconic figures as Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, and John Lee Hooker. Lay insisted Chad Kassem add Knox to his well-known “Blues Masters at the Crossroads” festival in Salina, Kansas. Crowds there flocked to hear Marquise, while the elder performers at the festival, such as blues harp great James Cotton, adopted him as one of their own, immediately recognizing Knox’s talents and reverence for the tradition. Marquise now commands the stage with a presence befitting his mentors, these days adding harmonica to his imposing vocals and accomplished guitar playing—a rising star channeling the spirit and soulfulness of old-school blues masters.