St. Louis: A Brief History Of Singing The Blues

While there has been a resurgence of interest in blues, one cannot avoid the toll time has taken on the blues artists who kept the flame burning through the years.


St. Louis has always been fertile ground for music. It is associated with the blues internationally through the song “St. Louis Blues,” written by W.C. Handy, who was influenced by a short stay on the St. Louis riverfront. Many musicians passed through or made their home here and helped shape the sounds that we know as “the blues.”

We are fortunate to have had some of the real innovators of American music develop here and transform the blues into rhythm and blues, soul, and rock and roll with a distinctive sound. On any given night, there is a wide selection of live blues percolating throughout the city. Over the years, many of us have seen and heard many of these innovators perform closeup in smaller clubs throughout the city. These opportunities have exposed a wide audience to some exceptional talent and have kept the music alive through their support and enthusiasm.

Music lovers have been increasingly educated through the continuing efforts of KDHX 88.1 FM radio. The station is a conduit for information regarding special events and helps promote performances that might be overlooked. Its dedication to the local music scene brings awareness and appreciation to artists whose music would not otherwise be heard. The station programs a diverse selection of blues to a discriminating audience. In addition to enhancing the knowledge base of its listeners, it provides a well of influences for musicians to draw from.

The cyber world has opened its doors to the blues community through the efforts of This resource has provided much-needed exposure to many St. Louis musicians by providing Web pages and sound samples to the community. It has become a source of information for blues enthusiasts and promotes special events regularly.

In addition to these assets, public awareness of blues and its significance has grown through the efforts of the St. Louis Blues Society. The society’s productions and festivals are inclusive of the music community and respectful to the music that it promotes. Now in its nineteenth year, it continues to bring St. Louis artists to the forefront and present them to an appreciative audience. The society’s publication, The BluesLetter, is dedicated to documenting artists and sharing information and stories related to St. Louis music history.

The county parks department continues its Blues on the Mississippi series at Jefferson Barracks Park throughout the summer featuring local and national acts. The Blues Cruises on the Becky Thatcher continue to be a sellout and a great way to experience the blues. This year’s Big Muddy Blues Festival will feature three days of blues on multiple stages, presenting over 35 St. Louis blues acts.
Although blues can be found throughout the city, South Broadway and the Soulard neighborhood have become well-known areas to experience a taste of St. Louis–style blues music. The concentration of music venues provides an opportunity for people to walk from club to club and sample different acts. The musical influences are diverse and can be heard in the ever-changing combinations of musicians performing each night. If you want acoustic, delta, R&B, soul, or rockin’ blues, you can find it. All you need to do is listen for the style that moves you and jump in for a while. Because the blues can be interpreted in so many ways, it is hard not to listen to each group and measure their abilities and progress. It is always a pleasure to find musicians that have learned their craft and develop their own material or unique takes on songs.

It is not uncommon to find St. Louis legends Henry Townsend, Chuck Berry, Johnnie Johnson, or Oliver Sain performing in clubs of all sizes. As musicians, they have made this city their home and are comfortable with knowing they can bring people to their feet in their hometown after all these years. Within the last few years, several St. Louis artists have achieved international acclaim with their recordings and performances: Arthur Williams, Erskine Oglesby, Boo Boo Davis, Big Clara McDaniels, the Soulard Blues Band, Fontella Bass, and, of course, Johnnie Johnson. Their success has focused attention on our city and its wealth of talent, and I hope the gate has been opened for more in the future.

There was a time when you could count the active blues bands on one hand and the venues that supported blues on the other; it truly appeared that blues was a dying art form. Today, there are clubs and venues around the city and county that are receptive to blues music. While there has been a resurgence of interest in blues, one cannot avoid the toll time has taken on the blues artists who kept the flame burning through the years. Ace Wallace, Earthquake, Tommy Bankhead, James DeShay, Big Bad Smitty, James Crutchfied, Billy Gayles, and Doc Terry all shared their blues with another generation. They will not be replaced, but left something to remember: the blues will never die…they will always be in transition.

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