A Thursday night in early summer. The weather is still tolerable, devoid of the humidity that will come in a few weeks. The night is lively, the Cardinals are in town, and the area around the stadium buzzes with life. The game is going well.
A few blocks south of Busch, on a one-block stretch of Broadway, three different bands at three different bars are unpacking their gear and testing their sound. Patrons are dining, watching the bands idly, asking their servers, “When does the band start?” and then, inevitably, “What kind of music do they play?” followed by, “Are they good?”
They play the blues. And, yes, they are good.
There is something magical going on in the South Broadway blues district on Thursday nights. History, in the firm of blues legends Bennie Smith and Oliver Sain, comes to life. The up-and-coming Brian Curran, joined on harmonica by Eric McSpadden, proves that the blues are still alive and well. At the Broadway Oyster Bar, BB’s Jazz, Blues and Soups, and the Beale on Broadway, these three groups take the stage every week, delighting those who love the blues, those who always thought they hated the blues, and even those who just stumble in after a baseball game.
Bennie Smith and the Urban Blues Express start the night off, beginning at 8 p.m. at the Broadway Oyster Bar. Bennie is a St. Louis treasure, born in our City in October of 1933. His musical resume includes teaching Ike Turner to play some guitar, playing with Chuck Berry, and recording with Little Ann—later known as Tina Turner. He played with the first black band to ever appear on local television. He toured Europe five times with his group, Big Bad Smitty. Now, as he approaches 70, Bennie plays locally with the Urban Blues Express, a group that includes bassist Sharon Foehner, drummer Chuck Wolters, and a revolving group of musicians.
Bennie is, above all else, a guitar player. For a three-dollar cover charge, you’ve bought yourself the chance to see a master at work. Bennie sits in a plastic chair onstage, a cup of coffee filled with sugar or a cold soda near his feet. He wears a tie, no matter what the weather is. Sitting near the stage, beneath the strands of party lights, you can watch his fingers move over the strings, knowing that he’s played these songs a thousand times before in a thousand different venues, and yet feeling that there’s nothing mechanical or rote about Bennie Smith’s performance. He sings crowd favorites like “Stand By Me” in his strong, weathered voice, and you get the chills. When Sharon Foehner takes the mic to belt out “Built for Comfort,” Bennie looks up at her and nods slightly before looking back down at his guitar and continuing to play.
Bennie Smith has been in dozens of bands throughout his career, but the Urban Blues Express is special. John May, chairman of the St. Louis Blues Society and music producer at BB’s, says the group is so interesting because of how mixed it is. “You have old, young. Black, white. Men and women. You don’t get any more mixed than that.” More than just their mixed composition, the band is a group of bandleaders, all willing to put their own egos aside to play with one of the best. And Bennie is still one of the best. May, who has been a Bennie Smith fan for 20 years, says he’s better now than he was when he was in his 50s. “This is what he does and this is what he loves. And when you see him, he’s got total energy and a real sly with and a smile. He’s having fun. And it sucks people into having fun with Bennie Smith.”
Bennie Smith’s music is versatile, but when he plays the blues, it’s the blues like you imagine them to be, heartfelt and soulful. At the Oyster Bar, the candles on the tables flicker and you swing your feet off a bench that’s too high off the ground. You feel like you’ve been transported to another place and time. The smells of Cajun food are in the air, oyster shells are scattered on the ground around the trees, and Bennie Smith’s voice fills the night.
It would be easy to stay at the Oyster Bar all night, until a band’s final song ends at midnight, but there is more to see up the road. After a few hours, when the baseball game is starting to let out and fans in red start entering the bar, it’s time to move on.
One block north, on the other side of the street, the Beale on Broadway is just heating up. The powerful sound system ensures that you can hear the music well before you reach the door to the patio and pay your four dollars for admission. Brian Curran and Eric McSpadden go onstage at nine, and as you grab your drink and pass the hanging ferns to a table near the front, you realize this is a totally different style of blues. This is country blues, the blues of the Mississippi delta.
The Beale is a gritty little bar, with tables lining one side of the narrow patio, a small dance area near the front, and a raised stage with the lights of Highway 40 in the background. Brian sits onstage; two other guitars in their stands sit next to him. Eric McSpadden also has a chair, but he’s just as likely to stalk the stage as he plays his harmonica. This is a strange collaboration of musicians. Brian is a white kid in his twenties, about a half-century younger than Bennie Smith and Oliver Sain. He wears his hair long under his black cowboy hat and spends much of his set telling stories, doing shots, and smoking cigarettes. Eric McSpadden is a black man in his fifties, a harmonica player with international experience. He talks rarely between songs and only drinks coffee. Brian’s raspy vocals are soft and melodic, while Eric’s voice cuts to the heart, screams into the night, beckons passers-by to stop and come in. When asked how they ended up on stage together, Eric shrugs and says, “We just decided to do the gig together.” As you listen to them tonight, you’re glad they did.
Brian is one of the best picker and slide players in the area today. He plays most of his gigs around town alone, just him and his guitars. He is endearing as he stops between songs to do a shot of peppermint schnapps and talk about his most recent trip to his parents’ for dinner. When he picks up his guitar again, he stomps out the beat with his foot and sings, cover songs like “Stagger Lee” or original tunes like “Jesus on the Bass.”
With Eric McSpadden’s accompanying harmonica, Curran’s songs are given added texture. McSpadden has been playing professionally for over 30 years, and he can be found haunting the Broadway blues district almost any night of the week. He is what May calls a “sparse player,” someone who doesn’t feel the need to fill every second of a song with extra notes and superfluous playing. He plays crisp solos that invite the listener in. On this night, as he goes into one of these solos, Brian looks up and smiles. Later, when the two do a rendition of “Mind Your Own Business,” Eric yells into the microphone and Brian actually laughs out loud. You can’t help but laugh out loud, too.
As the hour approaches midnight , there is one stop left on your Thursday tour of South Broadway. You drop a few dollars into the band’s tip jar, nod goodbye, and cross the street to BB’s Jazz, Blues and Soups. Oliver Sain is playing and the doorman asks you for five dollars. It’s not much to pay to see a man who’s played with Elmore James, started his own St. Louis–based recording studio, and written and performed in a number of songs that hit Billboard’s R&B charts. Sain has been on Good Morning America and NPR, and has received numerous lifetime achievement awards. Like Bennie Smith down the block, Sain is one of the St. Louis blues legends.The music at BB’s goes until 2:30 a.m., and as you grab your drink and find a table near the band, the place is starting to get crowded. It’s a bar where musicians gather after their own gigs; later, you’re certain to see Brian Curran wander over after his show ends at 1:00. Sharon Foehner has been known to stop in after the Oyster Bar closes, and other musicians playing down the road in Soulard will make an appearance.
In addition to the musicians gathered around the bar, there is always an impressive assembly of musicians on the stage. The band is billed as Oliver Sain’s R&B All Stars, and anyone who’s anyone is welcome. Fontella Bass, Ike Turner, and Little Milton stop by whenever they’re passing through town, and these unadvertised, spontaneous sessions become the stuff of legend. Local stars like Marcia Evan, Jimmy Hines, and Matt Murdick take the stage, ensuring the shows are never the same two weeks in a row. Oliver Sain is known for his eye for talent, and many weeks he introduces new musicians to the stage for the first time.
This is your third style of blues in one night, and you’re starting to appreciate how broad the term “blues” really is. Oliver Sain was playing R&B before it was known as R&B. Born in Mississippi in 1932. Sain started his musical career playing the drums, sitting in with acts like Howlin’ Wolf. It wasn’t long before he switched to the saxophone, and in 1955, he moved to Chicago where he played jazz standards at many of the area’s white clubs. He eventually met Little Milton and Ike Turner, both of whom were playing in the St. Louis area. Little Milton’s gig was at the Club Manhattan in East St. Louis; Oliver is often quoted as saying, “I came in 1959 to play a weekend with Little Milton, and I’ve been stranded here ever since.”
Since being “stranded” over 40 years ago, Oliver Sain has become one of the city’s most famous and beloved musicians. He has been a staple at BB’s in its three separate incarnations, filling the bar on Monday nights in the ’70s and returning every time the bar has reopened since. In 1996, BB’s opened in its present form, and Oliver Sain was given Thursday nights for life.
On this night, Oliver Sain sits in front of a keyboard with his keyboard slung over his neck. He pounds out the opening notes to a song and the crowd howls. BB’s is the most polished bar you’ve been to tonight, with a shiny wooden bar, photos and paintings of blues and jazz masters carefully hung on the walls, and tablecloths on the tables, but the crowd here is just as rowdy as those in the other two. Oliver leans into the microphone and sings, “Put on your red dress,” and several people get up to dance in the small area in front of the stage. In your corner by the bar, you start to dance, too.
The hours with Oliver Sain pass quickly, and before you know it, the house lights have been turned up and last call has come and gone. Out on the street, in the quiet of an early Friday morning, you smile to yourself, thinking of something John May said earlier in the evening. “We’re very special in St. Louis, because we’re not competitive as musicians. We’re nurturing.” Brian Curran agreed. “When I started, I sucked. But all the musicians here are so supportive, willing to give you constructive criticism.”
It’s a good thing to know. Thursday nights with Bennie Smith, Oliver Sain, Brian Curran, and Eric McSpadden won’t go on forever, but the blues in St. Louis aren’t going away any time soon.