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St. Louis Blues Legend Bennie Smith Dies at 72

Even on the day Bennie Smith died, the gig went on.

Smith, a guitarist and St. Louis blues legend who played with stars like Chuck Berry and Ike and Tina Turner, died Sunday following a heart attack. He was 72.

Smith, Kim Massie and the Soulard Blues Band were to perform Sunday night at a club in suburban University City, but when the musicians arrived onstage without Smith, harmonica player Tom "Papa" Ray told the crowd that Smith had died earlier that evening.

He said Smith, lying in bed Saturday after a heart attack, wanted the show to go on without him. And it did.

"He was still conscious on Saturday. He informed his saxophonist to do the gig, and I was joking that Bennie didn't want to get a reputation as a no-show," Ray told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the newspaper reported Tuesday.

Smith was diagnosed with lung cancer earlier this year, and had a heart attack in 2004, the same year his guitars and amps were stolen by a burglar. Still, friends said he didn't let any of the real-life blues get him down.

"I spoke with him Thursday, and he was very upbeat in a lot of ways," said St. Louis Blues Society's John May. "He had been really elated."

Smith wasn't a huge recording act. But he contributed to countless sessions and played with artists including Aretha Franklin, Little Milton, the Drifters, Albert King and Rufus Thomas.

Smith is credited with teaching Ike Turner how to play "Okie Dokie Stomp" on guitar, which Turner turned into his own hit called "Prancin'." Smith also played guitar on Ike and Tina's "Boxtop" when Tina Turner was still going by Little Ann.

Despite his ill health, Smith had been very active recently. His "The Bennie Smith All Star Session" live CD was released two weeks ago, and he performed at the Big Muddy Blues Festival in St. Louis on Sept. 2, with Mayor Francis Slay proclaiming it Bennie Smith Day. Later that evening, he played at BB's Jazz, Blues and Soups — his last performance.

Big Muddy organizer Dawne Massey was glad she could showcase Smith.

"He was one of those older guys, and you'd wonder if they could still play. Then they get up there and suddenly they're 40 years younger," she said.