The Blues in St. Louis: Notes from an Evolving—and Very Active—Music Scene
St. Louis was home of the blues long before it ever hosted a hockey team. Famed composer W.C. Handy even made the city the subject of one of his most famous tunes, “St. Louis Blues.”
Over the years, though, other metropolises like Chicago and Memphis have overshadowed the Gateway City.
“We’re not defined by recordings because we don’t have any,” says Jeremy Segel-Moss, one half (along with musical partner Kari Liston) of blues duo Bottoms Up Blues Gang, which just celebrated its 18th anniversary in August. “St. Louis is the place (the music) got mixed up, but it was recorded elsewhere.”
Consequently, artists like Albert King, Fontella Bass and others who helped shape the blues scene here made records elsewhere, and their St. Louis connection was lost.
But while St. Louis might not be seen by some as a blues destination anymore, those in the know recognize the area has a rich history that has been essential to the birth and the growth of the music.
“Henry Townshend was the only musician who recorded in nine consecutive decades,” says Segel-Moss, offering the late St. Louis bluesman as an example.
“St. Louis was a central force in shaping piano blues,” says Ethan Leinwand, pianist for Miss Jubilee and the YAS YAS Boys. “St. Louis has its own style of piano playing. This has always been a piano town. On my first day visiting [St. Louis], people came up and told me things I’d never heard.”
Segel-Moss says that about 15 years ago the scene started losing many of its elder statesmen like Johnnie Johnson, Henry Townsend, Tommy Bankhead and Oliver Sain. Luckily, he says, they passed on their legacy to those fortunate enough to play with them, including acolytes like Art Dwyer and Tom Maloney of the venerable Soulard Blues Band, who keep the flame burning.
St. Louis has also attracted musicians from other areas who want to become immersed in the blues. East Coast transplant Leinwand moved here in 2014 from New York City, where he struggled to get noticed, after being inspired by Kevin Belford’s seminal book “Devil at the Confluence: The Pre-War Blues Music of St. Louis, Missouri.”
“As a player, to move here is the perfect logical choice,” Leinwand says. “In New York City I was just trying to get anybody to care. The love of piano blues is still here. Generations of people here know what I’m doing.”
“The music brought us to St. Louis,” agrees bassist, guitarist and vocalist Sharon “Bear” Foehner. She moved to St. Louis in the mid-1980s with her husband, Doug, from upstate New York after becoming enamored of artists like Oliver Sain. She now plays regularly around town with her husband as well as with groups like the Rhythm Renegades.
While many of the bars that featured blues musicians in areas like The Landing, Soulard and the Delmar Loop have been supplanted by ticketed concert venues, Segel-Moss said opportunities are still here for blues musicians looking to play live.
“It’s very healthy, it’s just evolving,” Segel-Moss says of the current blues scene, adding that full-time blues musicians can still make a living in St. Louis, unlike musicians in some other genres. Leinwand says he plays out six nights a week with Miss Jubilee and other projects, including The Bottlesnakes and St. Louis Steady Grinders. He’s also worked with Jackson Piano and St. Louis Vintage Piano Company installing pianos in venues around town to provide an infrastructure so musicians from anywhere can come here and perform.
Segel-Moss, who is also chairman of the board of directors for the St. Louis Blues Society, produces the annual Big Muddy Blues Festival, St. Louis’ longest running music festival at 24 years and counting. He also started the Baby Blues Showcase in 2001, which promotes local blues artists under the age of 30.
In recent years, some national and even international attention has begun to be directed back on St. Louis’ blues heritage. The National Blues Museum opened Downtown in 2016, attracting tourists and offering educational programs as well as performances, seminars and exhibits. Last year, St. Louis’ own Ms. Hy-C and Fresh Start won the The Blues Foundation’s International Blues Challenge, and local favorite Marquise Knox has been tapped to tour with ZZ Top this fall.
While the rest of the world seems to be taking notice again, Segel-Moss says St. Louis can still do a better job of recognizing and promoting its incredible musical legacy, noting New Orleans has an airport named after one of its musical icons, Louis Armstrong.
“Our huge pedigree isn’t seen seen as an economic commodity by the city,” Segel-Moss says, though he’s optimistic this will change. Regardless, he believes the music will endure.
“I don’t think it’ll ever go away,” Segel-Moss says. “Blues is the root of all American music.”
“I’m happy to carry this art form into the 21st century,” Foehner says, adding she hopes to inspire other black women to participate in the blues—the way Memphis Minnie and others sparked her to pick up a guitar—and help make St. Louisans more aware of their musical heritage.
“I’d like to see the history of blues expanded upon here,” Foehner says. “I’d like to see people be prouder of their blues history. I’d like them to know where Johnny Johnson’s house was or talk about the studio where Oliver Sain recorded Fontella Bass like people mention famous places in New Orleans.”
The National Blues Museum hosts live music Thursday through Sunday as part of its educational programming. In addition to the museum’s main stage, its intimate listening room holds 110 people, giving audience members a closeup view of the musicians. The online calendar has all the details on upcoming shows. The museum’s Thursday night Sittin’ on the Porch open jams are also streamed live on Facebook.
Featured image of Uvee Hayes performing at the 2019 Big Muddy Blues Festival, courtesy of Reed R. Radcliffe at Triple R Photography.