Teens discover St. Louis' rich, historical blues music scene

Teens discover St. Louis' rich, historical blues music scene
November 10, 2010
By Jake Weisman
St. Louis Jewish Light

St. Louis has a rich and storied history of blues music, dating back to artists such as Scott Joplin and W.C. Handy, to more contemporary ones such as Chuck Berry, Big George Brock and Tina Turner, who launched her career here. With all this homegrown talent, teenagers have a unique opportunity to educate themselves, and become involved in the local blues scene.
"The blues is a difficult thing to define. It's a genre of music, but it's a very serious topic and goes back to the history of slavery," said local bluesman George Brock. "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.
"I first got into the blues in 1948 in Mississippi, when my dad bought me a harmonica. I've always been around the blues."
Brock, 78, was born in Clarksdale, Miss., but has called St. Louis home for decades. When he was young, Brock worked on the same plantation as legendary blues musician, Muddy Waters, and forged a lifelong friendship with him.
Another local musician, Tom Maloney, is currently the guitarist for the Soulard Blues Band. Maloney was born in St. Louis, and has played here for many years.
"When I was growing up, the music that is now so legendary was just club music to us," he said. "When different groups played around St. Louis, such as Albert King, Little Milton, and Ike Turner, they really became urban myths. The most memorable experience in my musical 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 music and 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 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," Thornton said.
In 1963, Thornton had the honor of playing bass on the well-known blues album, "Albert King with Stevie Ray Vaughan in Session."
"At the time, I was the touring bassist for guitarist 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 Texas. 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.
Just like Vaughan did in Texas, young musicians in this city can be found playing music with the older ones quite frequently. For example, various open-mike nights around town welcome anyone, including teenagers, who play an instrument.
"Every Monday night, the Soulard Blues Band hosts a jam session downtown at the Broadway Oyster Bar. It isn't uncommon for teenage guitarists, drummers, or bassists, to sit in with the old-timers. There are open-mike nights all over this city, and teenage musicians are starting to find out about them," Maloney said.
Rabbi Randy Fleisher from Central Reform Congregation says that he was very interested in the blues as a teenager.
"I have been to many of the blues clubs in St. Louis over the years," he said. "When I was in high school, my friends and I used to go down to the Checkerboard Lounge in Chicago, which was owned by Buddy Guy. Buddy hosted his own open-mike night, which included regulars such as Junior Wells and Lefty Dizzy.
"Certainly, blues music can be seen as a part of the historic Black-Jewish alliance. There's an interesting book called ‘The End of the Jews,' by Adam Mansbach, that deals with Jewish appreciation for blues, hip-hop, and graffiti culture."
Luckily in St. Louis, there are plenty of ways in which teens can get involved in the local blues scene. Nightspots such as BB's Jazz Blues & Soups, the Broadway Oyster Bar and Beale on Broadway offer live music - mainly blues - nearly every night of the week. At www.stlblues.net, a music calendar lists which bands are playing where around town.
Going to an open-mike night, checking out a new local band and supporting live music are great first-steps to keep music in St. Louis alive for years to come.
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