|By Jake Weisman 1/6/11
Although there is a very rich history of blues music in St. Louis, many people overlook the significant of the musical genre. With artists dating back to Scott Joplin, W.C. Handy, and Miles Davis; to more modern ones such as Chuck Berry, Johnnie Johnson, and Ike and Tina Turner, blues music in St. Louis truly is here to stay.
“The blues is a difficult thing to define. It’s a genre of music, but it’s a very serious topic that goes back to the history of slavery. When guitarist T-Bone Walker sang, ‘They Call it Stormy Monday, but Tuesday’s Just as Bad’, that meant it was time for the slaves to go back to work. The lyrics to the blues have very important meanings,” vocalist/harmonica-player, George Brock, said. “I first got into the blues in 1948 in Mississippi, when my dad bought me a harmonica. I grew up with guys like BB King, Albert King, Howlin’ Wolf, and Jimmie Reed, so I’ve always been around the blues!”
Brock, 78, was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi; but has called St. Louis his home for decades. When he was a youngster, Brock worked on the same plantation as Muddy Waters, and forged a lifelong friendship with that blues legend.
Tom Maloney, the current guitarist for the Soulard Blues Band, was born in St. Louis and has played music here for many years. Formed in 1978 by Art Dwyer, the Soulard Blues band is one of the most well-known local bands around.
“When I was growing up, the music that is now so legendary was just club music to us. When different groups came to St. Louis, such as Albert King, Little Milton, and Ike Turner; they really became urban myths,” Maloney said. “The most memorable experience for me in my music career has been playing behind the famous blues musician, Johnnie Johnson. For 17 years, I had the luxury of standing on stage next to a guy who forever changed rock and roll—who influenced the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and countless others. Even those who aren’t musicians can really appreciate the history of blues in this city.”
Bassist Gus Thornton truly has lived a blues musician’s dream. In the last 40 years, he has traveled around the world recording and touring with blues greats such as Albert King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Katie Webster. After years of touring, Thornton currently lives here with his family in St. Louis.
“I’ve lived in many different places throughout my life, and nothing can compare to St. Louis. I’ve seen it myself and I’ve talked to other people who live in different cities. As far as blues music goes, St. Louis is the best,” Thornton said. “I was born in East St. Louis into a musical family. My parents and grandparents grew up with the blues, and I’d like it to always be a part of our culture. Music has always been a way of uniting people, even back when we had stronger racial issues, and I think that’s something we should focus on.
Thornton is modest about his success in the business and is very surprised, yet honored, to know people admire him. In 1963, Thornton had the honor of playing bass on a well-known blues album, “Albert King with Stevie Ray Vaughan in Session.”
“At the time, I was the touring bassist for Albert King. When Stevie Ray Vaughan was a kid, he used to sit in with the house band at a club called Antone’s in Texaas. Later on, when Stevie was touring with his band, Double Trouble, he called us up to record with him. Albert remembered him from Antone’s, and we got together to record this album,” Thornton said.
With the many musicians that play in the city of St. Louis, there is a need for people to help promote local artists. Much credit should be given to music promotion companies, and the prevalence of blues music in this city is only made possible through their support.
“We have over five-hundred bands in this city making a living, and St. Louis is a place where bands actually can make a living. As a music promoter, putting together festivals and events as a way to give opportunities to musicians is one of my goals in life,” Co-Owner of Entertainment St. Louis, Mike Kociela said.
In addition to Entertainment St. Louis, www.stlblues.net does a great job to fund and promote local talent. With over 10 million hits last year and 150,000 views a month, the website has proven to be quite the success.
“On the website, there is a live calendar with information regarding what bands are playing at different venues,” John May said. “In addition to being chairmen of the board for the St. Louis Blues Society, I am also the manager of BB’s Jazz Blues and Soups. Along with the Broadway Oyster Bar and Beale on Broadway, these three venues form the Broadway triangle. Seven nights a week, live music comes to each one of these venues and is played until as late as three in the morning!”
May notes that support for live music can be low at times, and encourages people to support live music and follow local bands.
“In St. Louis, people tend to focus more on sports, but the focus of the Blues Society is the music. People just need to be educated and realize that live music is only made possible through their support. Of course music is an art form; but it’s also a job,” May said.
In addition to performing concerts at venues, bands in St. Louis host weekly open-mike nights that are open to all musicians. Open-mike nights at the Broadway Oyster Bar, the Roadhouse, Robbie’s House of Jazz, and Backstreet Jazz and Blues, to name a few, are open to anyone who plays an instrument.
“Every Monday night, the Soulard Blues Band hosts a jam session downtown at the Broadway Oyster Bar. There are open-mike nights all over this city, and they are a great way for musicians to have a chance to play with each other,” Maloney said.
Though the history of blues music may be overwhelming and new, this genre of music cannot be forgotten. Luckily, in a city such as St. Louis, there are plenty of ways in which you can get involved in this local music scene. Going to an open-mike night, checking out a new local band, and spreading the word to your friends and family are great first-steps to take in order to keep music in St. Louis alive for years to come.