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The sounds of St. Louis

Blues, rock, and R&B still rule in a city that's rich with music history

Email|Print| Text size + By Betty Lowry
Globe Correspondent / July 1, 2003

ST. LOUIS -- Chuck Berry is playing his monthly gig at Blueberry Hill, and the Duck Room is sold out. The 76-year-old rock 'n' roll icon still packs them in even on a rainy night. In this city, Berry's hometown, the history of American music is long and unbroken.

Congress has declared 2003 the Year of the Blues, but in St. Louis you won't find so much as a token memorial to W.C. Handy (1873-1958). The city knows full well that his "St. Louis Blues," created in 1914, has become a signature song of the blues -- not to mention the name of the city's professional hockey team, whose logo is a winged musical note.

But with so many musicians working the city in the here and now, the blues is beyond memorializing. Stop by places like BB's Jazz, Blues & Soups on any night, and you hear it being created.

The blues may have been born in Memphis or on the Mississippi Delta, but St. Louis is one of the places that cradled it. And this city did give birth to another purely American musical form: ragtime.

In the Scott Joplin House museum on Delmar Boulevard, "The Maple Leaf Rag" is background music. Joplin (1868-1917) moved into this house in 1900 with his bride, Belle, and took the upstairs flat. What you see is pretty much the way it was when Joplin lived here, though none of the furniture actually belonged to him.

"Everything is secondhand just the way it would have been," says Carlotta Lewis, guide to the National Historic Site. "The house is as much a history of ragtime as it is of the man."

"The Entertainer," the Academy Award-winning theme song from 1973's "The Sting," was written here, on a piano much like the one in the museum. So were "Elite Syncopations" and "The Easy Winners." Some of the player piano rolls were cut by Joplin himself.

Next door is the re-created Rosebud Cafe, where Joplin and his friends tried out new compositions on the lunch patrons. The original cafe was near Union Station; this one has room for concerts.

Joplin came to St. Louis around 1890; he made his living playing piano in brothels and saloons while creating tunes on the side. He studied in nearby Sedalia at George R. Smith College for Negroes and worked at the Maple Leaf Club, a black men's social club there. He began to make money after local music-store owner John Stark agreed to publish his sheet music for a penny a sheet (reselling it for a quarter). Stark's advertisements said it was "as high-class as Chopin." Lewis says it was "the first sheet music a black person ever received royalties for."

Visibility came when Joplin played "Cascades" at the 1904 World's Fair.

Joplin was serious about his music. In 1903 he formed an opera company, which ended in disaster when one of the company members stole the receipts. His ragtime opera "Treemonisha," performed only once in his lifetime, earned him a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1976.

The St. Louis Walk of Fame on Delmar Boulevard pays tribute to Joplin in "the Loop" section of the neighborhood University City. Bronze stars mark the names and accomplishments of 107 famous St. Louis residents, from poet T.S. Eliot to pitcher Dizzy Dean. Along with Joplin, it honors such current rag, rock, and blues performers as Tina Turner and Berry, as well as the late Miles Davis and Josephine Baker. There's no star for Handy, who wasn't born here, but then neither was Joplin. New names are added each May.

For more tributes to musicians, head to Blueberry Hill: Part club, part cafe, part museum, it is the landmark of the six blocks of bars, clubs, and restaurants named after an old street car route called the Loop. In addition to live music, Blueberry Hill has an Elvis Room full of Presley paraphernalia, displays devoted to the Beatles, and Berry's first Gibson guitar. Anyone with a lot of time to spare can work through the 2,000 songs on the antique "world's greatest jukebox." In 2002 Blueberry Hill was voted to have the city's best burger by readers of The Riverfront Times.

St. Louis is part of what's being promoted as America's Music Corridor, a tri-city region that includes Memphis and New Orleans. The promotion points up music venues old and new, such as the century-old St. Louis Union Station, once the world's largest and busiest train station, where blues and rock concerts are held spring, summer, and fall.

The bridge from rag and blues to rock 'n' roll was rhythm and blues, personified by Berry. In the 1950s, he was working as a hairdresser by day and playing local R&B clubs at night. His breakthrough was prompted by a meeting with bluesman Muddy Waters in Chicago; Waters sent him to Chess Records, and his "Maybellene" sold over a million copies.

Today more than 30 music clubs, restaurants, and taverns line the streets of Soulard, the city's oldest and most ethnically diverse neighborhood. The oldest blues tavern is Mike & Min's, where Inner City Blues Band and Rx Blues play Wednesday through Saturday night; John D. McGurk's, meanwhile, is so Irish it flies in bands from the Old Sod for four- to six-week stints.

Just walking around is a course in the city's music history, and the sound that stirs this neighborhood's soul these days is the Soulard Blues Band, which blends blues, R&B, and zydeco weekends at the Grizzly Bear, Monday nights at the Broadway Oyster Bar, and also at BB's.

At Laclede's Landing, where tobacco and cotton were once unloaded on the old waterfront, the 19th-century warehouses are now home to blues and jazz in spots such as Hannegan's Pub and the Big Bang. Legend has it that Handy was leaning up against a lamppost on the landing when a black woman deserted by her husband told him, "Ma man's got a heart like a rock cast in de sea"; her anguished line became part of "St. Louis Blues," which Handy later composed in a Memphis bar.

Down where the boats still come in, The Landing (on the National Register of Historic Places) is the site of the Rockin' on the River fete every July Fourth and Big Muddy Blues Festival every Labor Day weekend.

Historic preservation aside, if there's no room for a statue on the waterfront, maybe someone could at least find the approximate spot where Handy heard the lament that became the theme of the song that has made St. Louis famous. A plaque might read simply, "Here you could hear the blues."

Still can. Just listen.

Betty Lowry is a freelance writer who lives in Wayland.

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