The city of St Louis, Missouri is situated on 61 sq miles (156 sq km) at the confluence of the Missouri, Illinois and Mississippi rivers. It is the center of a twelve county, 7,000 sq mile (17,900 sq km) metropolitan area, including parts of Missouri, Illinois and Kentucky.
A settlement was founded at the confluence of the three rivers in 1764 by French explorers as a fur trading post, and named after Louis XI of France. St Louis was transferred to Spain in 1770 and returned to France before it joined the United States in 1803 as a result of the Louisiana Purchase. St Louis was incorporated as a city in 1823 and, in the nineteenth century, it grew rapidly as a center of trade and commerce, attracting immigrants from Germany, Ireland and elsewhere. The city became an important railroad hub with lines to Chicago, Indianapolis, Kansas City and Memphis. St Louis became rapidly industrialized in the late nineteenth century, when it was the fourth-largest city in the country.
In 1904, over 20 million people attended the World’s Fair in St Louis and the song ‘Meet Me In St Louis, Louis’ became a national hit. The World’s Fair was the setting for the 1944 film Meet Me In St Louis starring Judy Garland and, in the same year, Harold Arlen composed the music for a Broadway musical titled St Louis Woman.
In the twentieth century, St Louis became a center of heavy industry including steelmaking and automobile manufacture, attracting large-scale black immigration from rural Missouri, Arkansas and Mississippi. However, in common with other old industrial centers, the city of St Louis suffered a decline in employment and population during the last third of the century.
St Louis’s geographical situation has made it a meeting point for musicians and one of the most important performance centers in the country, notably for African-American music. In particular, it is associated with two major piano styles, ragtime and boogie-woogie.
The ‘founder’ of ragtime, Scott Joplin, moved from Sedalia, Missouri to St Louis in the early twentieth century, playing piano in the red light district above Market Street as did fellow ragtime pianist Tom Turpin, composer of ‘St Louis Rag.’ John Stark, Joplin’s publisher, was based in the city. The leading figures in the St Louis school of boogie-woogie included Speckled Red (Rufus Perryman), Roosevelt Sykes, Henry Brown and Walter Davis. It was in this era that the teenaged Josephine Baker learned to dance in St Louis before emigrating to France in 1925.
‘St Louis Blues’ is one of the most performed and recorded blues and jazz numbers. Its author, W.C. Handy, claimed to have composed it in 1914 after an encounter with a black woman in St Louis itself. In the 1920s, St Louis became a base for many ‘territory bands’ that toured the Midwest, South and southwest of the country. Among the first was the Fate Marable band, whose New Orleans-born leader played on the riverboats that plied the Mississippi between the two cities. Others included the orchestras of Charlie Creath (the ‘King of Cornet’), Dewey Jackson and Oliver Cobb. These groups were succeeded in the 1930s by the St Louis Crackerjacks and the Jeter-Pillers Orchestra. The main venues of this era included the Castle Ballroom, Plantation, Jazzland and the Arcadia.
There was a strong local tradition of jazz brass playing. St Louis-born musicians included trumpeters Clark Terry and Miles Davis, while Lester Bowie grew up in St Louis, playing with local R&B bands before moving to Chicago to help form the Art Ensemble of Chicago. In the late 1960s, the Black Artists’ Group (BAG) of St Louis included Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake and Hamiet Bluiett, future members of the World Saxophone Quartet. The US Bank St Louis Jazz Festival has been held annually since 2001.
In addition to the pianists, St Louis had a high reputation for guitar and vocal blues from the 1920s onwards. There were numerous venues and rent parties, particularly in the black township of East St Louis across the river in Illinois. Among the best-known figures who were for a time based in the area were singers Peetie Wheatstraw (who called himself the ‘High Sherriff from Hell’) and St Louis Jimmy (James Oden), guitarists Lonnie Johnson and Henry Townshend and the renowned singer/guitarist Big Joe Williams. The city’s most noted female singers were Alice Moore and Mary Johnson. OKeh records visited St Louis four times between 1923 and 1926, recording such artists as gospel singer Sara Martin, classic blues singer Victoria Spivey and guitarist Lonnie Johnson.
The St Louis club scene continued to thrive after World War II, but the city did not establish itself as a recording center because its small labels could not compete with the bigger companies with national reputations to be found in Cincinnatti, Memphis and Chicago. A number of St Louis-based acts made their debuts on labels owned by local band leader and radio personality Gabriel and on the Bobbin label before signing contracts with companies such as Chess, King or Modern. Another important label was Delmar (later Delmark), founded by white jazz and blues enthusiast and record store owner Bob Koester.
Under the director of band leader, composer and producer Oliver Sain, the Bobbin roster in the late 1950s and early 1960s included guitarist-singers Albert King and Little Milton (Campbell), as well as vocalists Fontella Bass (daughter of the gospel singer Martha Bass) and Bobby McClure. The soul singer Ann Peebles sang in St Louis churches and clubs before signing to the Memphis-based Hi label in 1969.
The two most important figures of this era were undoubtedly Ike Turner and Chuck Berry. St Louis-born Berry played local clubs with a trio including pianist Johnny Johnson before he found national success through Chess Records in 1956. He later operated a nightclub and country club in the St Louis area. In 1954, Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm moved their base to East St Louis from Memphis. St Louis teenager Annie Bullock joined the band and as Ike and Tina Turner they had their first big hits before moving to Los Angeles in 1962.
St Louis’s white working-class population was served by local country music radio stations and, after World War II, a small country and western scene developed associated with K-Ark Records. Owned by John Capps, its roster included Onie Wheeler and the Dillard Brothers.