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Artist Interviews!
Oliver Sain

The Man with the Golden Horn

The Man with the Golden SaxBorn in Dundee, MS. in 1932, it was almost inevitable that Oliver would become a musician. His stepfather was pianist Willie Love, and his grandfather was guitarist Dan Sane, a partner of Frank Stokes in the Beale Street Sheiks (the difference in spelling of the surname resulted from a birth certificate error). His early days in music consisted of sitting in on sessions with legendary artists such as Sonny Boy Williamson, and Howlin' Wolf.

Saxophone player, band leader, songwriter, producer, studio owner and all-around St. Louis music legend, Sain has been making music since the late 1940s."I came in 1959 to play a weekend with Little Milton, and I've been stranded here ever since."

Here's our latest interview with Oliver, as we spent an afternoon with him at his Archways Studio in near North St. Louis

STLBlues: Oliver, your name is synynomous with St. Louis R&B history. Thanks for spending some time telling us your story. Let's begin at the beginning. Tell us a little about your childhood.

Oliver: Well, I lived in Greenville Ms. most of my youth. I actually even lived here in St. Louis for a time, as a kid, and used to make my own horns - bugles, trumpet. In 1946 I moved to W. Memphis, Ak. I moved from there to Greenwood, Ms., and ended up back in Greenville.

STLBlues: Who do you remember as an early musical influence?

Oliver: 2 musicians! Charlie Parker and Louis Jordan. I really liked these guys. Louis did what we call R&B today, more bluesy. Charlie had more technical skills, so I tried for something between there. I began playing drums, messed around with the piano, and then took up the sax. In 1950 I was drafted into the Army.

STLBLues: Did the Army appreciate your musical skills?

Oliver: They put me to work as a switchboard operator! Had thier own needs (laughs). I spent my boot camp at Ft. Sill, Ok. I played a little, not much. From there I went to Korea.

STLBLues: Korea! Being a baby boomer, my perception of Korea is largely based on episodes of MASH. What was that experience like?

Oliver: Oh, I dodged a few shells. I spent about 1 year there, near Seoul, Korea. I remember one night I spent at the front line, peeping through a hole in the side of a mountian, using a scope to watch a fire mission below. It was cold! My sergeant told me "Sain, you're not the worst soldier , but you're a long way from the best" (laughs). I didn't really care for it.

STLBlues: How long did you serve in the Army?

Oliver: I got out in 1952, and came back to Greenville for a few years. We (Willie Love, Sonny Boy, Little Milton, Charlie Booker) played joints around the area. Clarence Hines (a drummer) had heard about a band (Ike Turners band) from Clarksdale, Ms, and I finally decided to go hear them play in Indianola, Ms. at the Club Ebony. Man, these guys, when they started, I thought "that's the tightest band I've ever heard!" Very impressive!! I got to know Ike later. In 1955 I headed to Chicago, and began playing on the South and West side.

STLBlues: Did you hook up with some Chicago musicians?

Oliver: I played with Howlin' Wolf, and a guy by the name of "Cool Breeze". We played white joints mostly, played lots of Jazz standards. I also played with Elmore James and Little Milton.

STLBlues: What memories stand out from that time?

Oliver: I was a young guy, didn't pay much attention, and didn't realize until years later how significant that time was. Wolf was a wonderful guy to me. I played drums for Howlin' Wolf when I was 18. I know I'm somewhere on "How Many More Years," that, and playin' for Sonny Boy Williamson. That Sonny Boy was a character though, a guy you could never forget. I remember one time in West Memphis, Junior Parker and I were pretty young and playin' for Sonny and we weren't hardly makin' any money, three, maybe four dollars a night and Sonny Boy, he would drink every night, drink up all the money 'til the money was gone. Now, Junior and I, we didn't drink, so I went up to Sonny to tell him how we felt about it and Sonny Boy, well he thought about that a second and said, "well shit, you better start drinkin."

STLBlues: What brought you to St. Louis?

Oliver: When I was livin' in West Memphis, I would go to Greenville, Mississippi to see family and that's when I met Little Milton and Ike Turner. Then in the mid-50s I heard how well they were both doing in St. Louis, and I though they must have somethin' goin' on, so I came to play one weekend in 1959 with Little Milton at the club Manhattan in East St. Louis, and found lots of opportunity here. Well, Ike and Milton were changin' the music scene here completely, and I was the front man in Milton's band. Milton had a great band, with a really hot 4 piece horn section.

STLBlues: Who did you record?

Oliver: I recorded Little Milton; a song I wrote for Milton called "Same old blues". Recorded it at the old Technisonic studio, used to be on Brentwood, where the Galleria is now. Recorded it on the Bobbin label, they also had Albert King on the label. But, eventually I moved on and started writin' songs and recordin' others for the Bobbin record label here. Let's see, there was also Albert King, Fontella Bass, Barbara Carr, Bobby McClure. I hired Fontella as a piano player when I was Little Milton's band manager, and found out she could sing her ass off (laughs). After that, well, I knew the Chess Brothers that owned Chess Records in Chicago from my Memphis days, and they got a hold of me and asked me to bring Albert and Fontella, Barbara and Bobby up there to record also for Chess. That's where a song I had written, "Don't Mess Up a Good Thing" was a hit for Fontella and Bobby.

STLBlues: Not only are you gifted as a musician, you've made quite a name for yourself as a songwriter, bandleader, producer and promoter. When did you decide to open up Archway Studios?

Oliver: I began Archway in 1965. I knew nothing about recording, I'm just one of these people that just get started. I designed my first board, and had a guy come by to wire it up for me. He took one look at it and started laughing, said "it won't work!" (laughs). About that time I got a royalty check from "Don't Mess Up a Good Thing", and had some friends steer me to some good eqiuipment. When I began recording, we recorded lots of Blues & Gospel. Ike and Tina cut in here! Cleophus Robinson, the O'Neal twins, Zella Jackson Price, lots of gospel. David Dee recorded his hit "Goin' Fishing" here, and I recorded two hits of mine here, "Bus Stop" and "Feel Like Dancing". Since rappers took over, we don't have as much recording goin' on. Still have my old equipment, a 16 track 2" analog tape machine. The studio used to be in the storefront of my building, where Ruby's salon is now.

STLBlues: You recently married Ruby, congratulations! How did you both meet?

Oliver: I met Ruby 10-12 years ago (she won't fuss if I don't remember). I saw her around, and we got to be friends.

STLBlues: Do you have any children?

Oliver: With my first wife. The kids are grown, and now I have 4 grandchildren! My son Nathaniel went to Cornell, and played basketball there. I look at him now and think " I can't beleive he used to sleep on my stomach" (laughs).

STLBlues: What do you think about the state of Blues music in St. Louis?

Oliver: Not enough Dixieland! And this is a river town! They (city leaders) should have street musicians everywhere, but instead they sell everything but music! I think the future of St. Louis blues music looks good, but we need to get younger talent involved, although I see a lot of younger musicians are latchin' on and learnin' to play the blues. The blues in St. Louis are strong; people want to hear this music, but we need to promote the great talent in this city more. The city fathers don't value blues like they do in Memphis and New Orleans. Those cities sell their music as part of their product and St. Louis needs to do the same. But here it's not like that. They don't care! they're strictly politicians.

STLBlues: What are your plans for the future?

Oliver: I enjoy playing a little, I get down to BB's on thursdays. Marsha Evans sings for me. Doing a little recording.

STLBlues: Oliver, thanks for taking some time out to share your story. Look forward to seeing you next time.

Oliver: You're welcome

Editors note-As kind and humble of a man as he talented, Oliver is a living legend here in this river town of music. Make sure you don't miss an opportunity to witness the magic that is Mr. Oliver Sain

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