Standing At The Crossroads – St. Louis Music History
How it all began:
Located at the crossroads of the country, St. Louis soaked up the diverse assortment of musical styles and sounds that traveled to, from, and through the area. When the earliest forms of the blues migrated north from their birthplace in Mississippi Delta, they melded with the ragtime strains popular in St. Louis at the time and the result is what’s known as the St. Louis blues. Later, American music icons like Chuck Berry, Miles Davis, Ike & Tina Turner, Albert King, and Little Milton would hone their craft in St. Louis, creating new versions of the traditional genres of blues, jazz and R&B.
In 1914, W. C. Handy published his immortal song “St. Louis Blues,” which he allegedly wrote while sitting on the St. Louis riverfront, and it would become the most popular blues song in history. The late St. Louis musical legend Henry “Mule” Townsend defined the blues: “If I was a rich man, had all the money I needed, and suddenly all that money left, my feeling would be what they call the blues.”
Defining the indefinable and playing for the people, Townsend and countless other musicians have made their living in St. Louis singing songs about real people with real problems. Despite the term “blues,” Townsend cautioned that the music doesn’t always have to be sorrowful. “To me it’s not necessarily the saddest thing in the world, it tells a lot of stories about natural life – how people live.”
Many credit the ribbon of river running along the edge of St. Louis for transporting the blues “upriver” from the genre’s birthplace in Mississippi. “Around World War II there was a great migration of blues musicians who came up the river,” says John May of the St. Louis Blues Society. “Ragtime was very popular in St. Louis and the integration of blues music from Mississippi created what became known as the St. Louis blues.”
Ragtime king Scott Joplin was a regular in the night spots of St. Louis at the time of the 1904 World’s Fair. Joplin’s music was the rock ‘n’ roll of its era – the music of the counterculture – and he spent some of his most productive years in St. Louis at the turn of the 20th century. Ragtime was a huge hit with the thousands of people who flocked to hear him perform at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and at the Rosebud Café. The Rosebud was located near St. Louis Union Station, and Joplin and his contemporaries are said to have taken over the café regularly to practice their new compositions for the crowd.
Today the Scott Joplin House State Historic Site, a National Historic Landmark, offers a glimpse into the young pianist’s life in St. Louis. Joplin lived at the home from 1900-1903, which is considered his most productive and creative period. The restored, post-Civil War structure has re-created the feel of Joplin’s home during this period, and includes player piano rolls of “rags” cut by Joplin himself.
Jazz influences also steamed into St. Louis aboard northbound riverboats from New Orleans. Once here, they blended with established ragtime and Mississippi blues music to enhance the St. Louis blues. African-American music in general was a quintessential element in the city’s nightlife as early as the late 19th century, and the famous ballad “Frankie and Johnny” is said to be about the murder and mayhem that were once an everyday occurrence in this then raw river port town.
The musical legacy continues into the 21st century, with a star-studded roster of popular musicians calling the region “home.” Jazz saxophonist David Sanborn grew up in St. Louis, as well as former Doobie Brother and acclaimed solo artist Michael McDonald, and “American Idol” Nikko Smith.
Cornell Haynes Jr., better known to hip-hop fans as Nelly, grew up in University City, along with fellow U-City rappers Chingy (Howard Bailey Jr.) and Murphy Lee (Torhi Harper). Country music songstress Gretchen Wilson hails from nearby Pocahontas, Illinois, and REM front man Michael Stipe grew up in Collinsville, Illinois. Kennett, Missouri native Sheryl Crow spent several years teaching music and performing in St. Louis before heading for Hollywood in the early 1990s.
Today’s Music Scene:
In addition to hip-hop, dance clubs and a handful of dueling piano bars,
St. Louis currently boasts a thriving live music scene, with dozens of clubs showcasing local and regional bands nightly. National headliners of every genre make St. Louis a regular tour stop with shows at such state of the art venues as: Chaifetz Arena, The Fabulous Fox Theatre, Jazz at the Bistro, The Pageant Concert Nightclub, The Roberts Orpheum Theater, Scottrade Center, The Sheldon Concert Hall, Touhill Performing Arts Center, Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, and Powell Symphony Hall, which is also home to the renowned Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.
Each year, St. Louis strikes up the band for a variety of music-related events, both large and small. On Tuesdays in May and June, free “Twilight Tuesdays” concerts take place on the lawn of the Missouri History Museum, and Laumeier Sculpture Park’s Music + Movie Series offers free movies and live music every Friday night in June.
Memorial Day weekend welcomes the annual Rib America music and barbecue festival to Soldiers Memorial in downtown St. Louis. In June, Jefferson Barracks Park hosts local bands for “Blues on the Mississippi” on Friday nights, and “Oldies on the River” on Saturday nights. The Missouri Botanical Garden features free summertime jazz and pop concerts in the garden on Wednesday nights in June and July at the Whitaker Music Festival. Fair Saint Louis offers free concerts from national headliners during the region’s annual Fourth of July festivities, followed by the Celebrate St. Louis weekend concert series that runs from early July through early August.
The free St. Louis BLUESWEEK Festival, which takes on the last weekend of August, features top local blues artists and is held on the steps of the historic Peabody Opera House in downtown St. Louis. On Laclede’s Landing, the Big Muddy Blues Festival is held over Labor Day weekend each year, and the free, two-day event showcases blues bands on multiple outdoor stages. Taste of St. Louis, a three-day celebration of St. Louis art, culture, food, and music, featuring free concerts by local artists and national headliners is held each year in early October.
From October through May, the St. Louis Cathedral Concerts offer an opportunity to “experience great music in a great space.” The breathtakingly beautiful Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis hosts world-class musicians from around the globe for a variety of afternoon and evening performances. The Gateway Arch Riverboats cruises Old Man River year-round, featuring a variety of live entertainment cruises with blues bands.
Updated: August 16, 2010
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