Charles Stewart, better known as Chali 2na, has been one of the most recognizable voices in hip-hop for over two decades. Originally from Chicago, he spent his later youth in South Central Los Angeles, where he and high school friend Cut Chemist were originally part of a group called Unity Committee that lead to the formation of the iconic Jurassic 5. With a fluid, baritone flow, Chali 2na boasts a solo LP, a series of EPs and dozens of collaborations and feature parts with artists of many genres across the globe. Additionally, he was a founding member of the Latin-Funk band Ozomatli. A genuine creative, Stewart is also a passionate visual artist with extensive portfolios in spray-paint and photography.
With a performance at the Atomic Cowboy Pavilion on Thursday, August 17, Chali 2na took the time to catch up on current projects and passions with KDHX's Wil Wander of Elevated Rhymestate.
History and music come together Labor Day weekend, September 1-3, on the cobblestones of Laclede's Landing when the 22nd Annual Big Muddy Blues festival docks by the Eads Bridge with an all local crew. The success of last year's festival and the 50 plus local bands playing this year are a testament to work begun more than 30 years ago and carried out today. KDHX is a proud sponsor of the 2017 Big Muddy Blues Festival. Look for KDHX DJs at the Lucas Stage and the KDHX Blues Band, performing from 3-4pm at the Main Stage.
Thinking Blues and Community Building
As documented in the second volume of Bruce Olson's wonderful history That St. Louis Thing, Big Muddy traces its roots the 1980s and a time of change in the St. Louis music scene. By the beginning of that decade Gaslight Square had been extinguished and the club scenes in North St. Louis and East St. Louis were in decline. However, new opportunities were opening up south of the racial divide of Delmar Ave.
New clubs like Broadway Oyster Bar, Mike and Mim's, BB's, Mississippi Nights, and The Venice Café became mainstays for Tommy Bankhead, Silvercloud, Bennie Smith and many more. Capturing that energy and opportunity led to the 1984 formation of the St. Louis Blues Society. It grew out of conversations with John May, Ron Edwards, Frank Babcock and Sam Valenti. John says their goals were simple: "to organize blues fans, musicians and clubs with events to keep the music in motion." They would also be helped by the seeds of an old community radio station, KDNA, that sprouted again in 1987 as KDHX with blues musicians like Ron Edwards, Art Dwyer and others at the mike keeping the blues alive.
Their first big event came in 1986 with first Blues Fest, a 14-hour 17 band show, held at Mississippi Nights that featured a who's who of the St. Louis Blues scene. Its success led to series of Benson Hedges Blues fests but the Blues Society wanted a larger event. So in 1992 the Society with John May and Mark O'Shaughnessy in the lead organized the 1st Annual St. Louis Blues Heritage festival on the steps of the closed Kiel Auditorium. "We made magic," May says, "with people who were magic and we did it together."
As May can tell you in detail "putting on festivals takes money, organization, experience, crisis management and having friends help." Most people don't know that the 1993 festival was almost cancelled. Dave Beardsley remembers it well: "I was still a working fireman. That year all the Red Cross emergency services you need to have available for a festival event were tied up with the flood and unavailable. That meant no insurance. No insurance, no festival. They called the Fire Department and I helped organize a big group of volunteer doctors, nurses and paramedics to help and the show went on."
There's the crisis moments and then there are the times when everything comes together. John May smiles when he talks about the first Heritage Festival: "I booked Lowell Fulson from California to headline. The schedule was tight so there was no practice or dress rehearsal and he was really worried about the backup band. I kept telling him 'don't worry we got it covered.' When he went on stage, Oliver Sain, Bennie Smith, Gus Thornton, Kenny Rice, Tom Maloney and Johnnie Johnson, were waiting. When they hit their first notes Lowell just stared. Slowly a huge gap toothed grin spread across his face. It never left. He couldn't believe how great they were and after the show he said 'I want to do this again.'"
Blues Heritage to Big Muddy
While the first Blues Heritage festival was a rousing success attracting thousands the city's response was a blanket refusal for any future access to Kiel or Forest Park. But Laclede's Landing with its historical authenticity and atmosphere would fill the bill. Moving there opened the door to more stages, more talent and more days. The festival quickly grew to two and then three days. The STL Blues Societyhad succeeded in solidifying the music community as the festival incorporated jazz, gospel, R&B, rock and blues as a community.
The rapid growth also brought problems. Working out of offices in Laclede's Landing, John May and Mark O'Shaughnessy were trying to run a major festival with volunteer labor. Even with debts rising to $150,000 in 1996 the Laclede's Landing group refused to charge any entrance fees to help offset the costs. As a result, the Blues Heritage festival rights were sold to eliminate the debt and Big Muddy was started.
The new promoters ignored everyone's advice and moved it to Fenton. The event went bust with the promoters leaving town soon thereafter. At the same time the Laclede Landing buisinesses realized they had lost a golden goose. That led to the formation of the current Laclede Neighborhood Association which took responsibility for organizing the Big Muddy. They built a new relationship with the Blues Society which benefitted both. It gave the association ties to the music community and the society a purpose but not the fiscal and organizational responsibility.
John May is proud of what the thirty-one years of festivals have achieved: "The festivals helped do what the founders intended. They encouraged local musicians to grow with the community of music lovers -- more professional, dress the part, act professional, play original music, and recording. That created a real product for the export of STL music."
Great Recession to Local Direction
The Big Muddy enjoyed a good run until the Great Recession hit in 2007. Laura Tobey the Executive Director of the Laclede Neighborhood Association and Big Muddy co-producer spelled it out: "Sponsorship dollars had dried up in the years that followed. The crowds were smaller and the demographics were 50+ in age. The Laclede Merchants were considering dropping the event. They had to find another way."
Ann Chance from the St. Louis Office of Special Events encouraged the Association to consider other options. The city recognized the benefits of the revenue generating event but even more Chance says, "these events strengthen the city. People in neighborhoods coming together in their communities and parks eat together, listen to music together and become friends. Police say it really helps. The more active the neighborhood the lower the crime rate."
They asked their partner the St. Louis Blues Society for suggestions. Their president, Jeremy Segal-Moss, came in with a locally oriented plan. He told them, "doing it with an all local talent base that built upon the local community and each bands fan base was the way to go. We have national touring acts and headliners like Jeremiah Johnson, Marquise Knox and Pokey Lafarge but this is their home. They are also local homegrown bands."
Moss outlined the problem with the traditional festival structure: "Most festivals around the country operate with a model that is 2/3 national/big name acts and 1/3 local. It's expensive." He also noted that the "Bug Muddy was still operating as a free event covered by sponsor fees and the association. There had to be an agreeable price point to raise revenue."
The Association with encouragement from many others slashed the budget and rolled the dice. With Laura and Jeremy serving as co-producers they took the model and ran with it booking 45 Acts on 6 stages. They needed to work with lots of partners beginning with the bands who could help promote the festival. The Blues Society, KDHX, STLBlues.net, The Missouri Arts Council and private sponsors and vendors all stepped up to help.
The newly opened National Blues Museum promoted the festival and sponsored pre events honoring St. Louis legends Johnnie Johnson and Henry Townsend. The Lumière Place used their Jumbotron to post festival notices and provided a fireworks show at the end of the festival. Ann Chance and the city worked them through the permitting process and obtaining services from stages and barricades to water, trash and security.
Success, Community and a Buzz
When Labor Day weekend arrived the weather cooperated and the crowds returned in numbers the Landing hadn't seen in years. The estimated 30,000 people who came over the two days was more than double the number of previous years. The $10 admission fee didn't keep people away from a peaceful crime free family event. The age demographics skewed younger with a range of 25-75 and it played to the theme of a family event on a holiday weekend with free admission for kids under 15. The only reported incidents were two purses that went missing and even those were returned fully intact. The gamble had paid off big time with the festival turning a small profit.
Alonzo Townsend, the MC for the 2016 festival, loved every minute of it. The son of Henry Townsend and newest Blues Society board member saw the fest as a chance to "build a community by breaking down the barriers." So in concert with Jeremiah Johnson who was playing the last set, he says, "We called the people to stand elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder, all together as a family. We mixed the entire audience from the front of the stage to the cobblestone street with pumping fists. It showed what we can do together, have together. It captured a moment in time that defined the future of Big Muddy and this city going forward."
Looking back, Tobey says her best memory of 2016 "was seeing the first day crowd and knowing it worked and seeing the full hillside off people chillin and enjoying the whole vibe." Ann Chance was just as happy: "Last year was the best blues fest in the country, all local. No complaints about the lack of national names. People loved it. They came out in very big numbers and saw what great local talent we have. There is a buzz for this year." For the Blues Society it was acknowledgement that going local worked because in Moss's words, "The city turned out and stayed."
Bigger and Better in 2017
Big Muddy 2017 co-producers Laura Tobey and Jeremy Segel-Moss are working full tilt to deliver an even bigger and better product this year. The planning got underway the week after the close of the 2016 festival. While Tobey, Segel-Moss and the sponsors were ecstatic about the success of the event they had learned a few lessons and it shows.
The 2017 Big Muddy offers a stellar line up of more than 50 local bands and solo performers appearing on six stages. The co-producers have made a few tweaks that allowed them to expand the offerings and provide a better listening experience for the fans.
There will be pre events on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The National Blues Museum will again host tribute shows on their Legends Room stage starting at 12:30 pm events on Saturday for Tommy Bankhead and Sunday for Albert King. Dion Brown, the Executive Director of the NBM says "this is a great partnership that recognize these musicians while giving the thousands of fans coming to the festival a chance to hear something up close and intimate at the Blues Museum." There will also be a Friday night Lucas Stage show on the Landing that features Boo Boo Davis and Kim Massie and the Solid Senders.
The shift to three indoor stages (Big Daddy's, Morgan St. Brewery, and Joey B's) will help in case of bad weather while avoiding having one stage play over another. Joey B's will offer a smaller more intimate setting for solo and acoustic performers. The second floor at Morgan Street Brewery has a nice wooden floor which is perfect for dancing and dance oriented bands like Sweetie and the Toothaches, The Sidney Street Shakers, Tommy Halloran's Gorilla Swing and more. The Main Stage will shut down at 11pm but the festival continues at Morgan Street Brewery with performances from 11:00pm to 1:30am.
The broad line up features our homegrown national acts and a number of newcomers to the Big Muddy stage. It highlights the unique nature of this blues festival. There are very few cities of any size with a pool of quality talent big enough to cover a festival of this scope and size. As Segel-Moss notes, "Variety is what makes St. Louis special. We are trying for an all-encompassing expression of the blues. There will be a little something for everyone." That should sound familiar. It's just the kind of community John May, Mark O'Shaughnessy, Ron Edwards and so many others set out to build thirty years ago.
And Now a Word from Some of the Players...
Torrey Casey has been to the last 16 Big Muddy's but this year he and 5-piece R&B band, The South Side Hustle, will be struttin' their stuff on stage for the first time. Casey has been performing all over Jefferson County for over 20 years. Torrey says, "Every Big Muddy has been a blast, but this year we get to play." "We are excited and ready," he says, "We'll be bringing our new 5 song EP Can't Knock the Hustle and our awesome vocalist Teec'a Easby." Torrey promises to deliver "plenty of soul, James Brown and lots of energy." Torrey Casey and the Southside Hustle will play Saturday 4:45-6pm at Morgan Stage.
Brian Curran is no stranger to the Big Muddy stage with a history that goes back to playing with harmonica master John Erblich at Blues Heritage festivals. He really "appreciates what Jeremy Segel-Moss and the St. Louis Blues Society have done for blues and the community," and says "This year feels good if not better than last year." His band, The Dust Covers, are planning a "more blues oriented selection with new material from the early '20s but nothing after 1935." See the Dust Covers Sunday 5:15-6:30pm at the Morgan Street Stage. See Brian solo Saturday at Joey B's from 4:30-5.
Eugene Johnson has great memories from last year's festival. While performing with his R&B oriented Eugene and Company Band they went into the audience and began dancing with the crowd. A picture taken at the time ended up in a calendar. He says, "I'm excited for the opportunity to play again this year and do my original music." He plans to do "That's Albert King" his new song now on iTunes and others from a CD he is working on tentatively titled Play One More. Johnson and company will play Sunday 8:15-9:30pm at Big Daddy's.
Al Holliday loves "the completely organic St. Louis music scene," he says, "we have a real thing here, a good thing." He's really excited to bring his East Side Rhythm Band for the first time: "Lots of my favorite acts will be on stage at Big Muddy. It's so cool to appear on stage with them." The full 12-piece band is coming and "a bunch of new music that may even include a reggae version of 'Summertime." Al Holliday will play Sunday 8:30-9:45pm at Lucas Stage.
Alice Monroe and the East Side Revue Band will be making their first appearance at Big Muddy. The tight three-piece outfit with its rock 'n' roll, R&B and blues focus features Alice on drums and vocals. Bassist Nate Logan and John Higgerson, who played with David Dee for a decade, also take their turns on the vocals. Alice says she is "really excited to be on stage" and promises part of the show to be in tribute to the Allman Brothers." Alice Monroe performs Sunday 3-4:15pm at Morgan Stage.
The Ground Floor Band has been a mainstay of the St. Louis music scene for more than 20 years playing regularly at Beale on Broadway. Every member contributes to their mix of blues, R&B and soul with individual vocals and sweet four part harmonies. Bandleader Charles Hunt says, "We are excited to be at Big Muddy again and want to do a 'just' job and do what we gotta do." For the festival they plan to play some originals like "Poor Man" and "The Older I get the Better I Get" as well as some Albert King and B.B. King. The Ground Floor band takes the Morgan Stage from 4:45-6pm on Sunday.
Sweetie and the Toothaches will be playing Big Muddy for the first time and hope to fill the Morgan St. dance floor with dancers for their jump blues. Sweetie, Emily Richards, says "It's such an honor and a privilege to be asked to play. We have worked really hard the past two years and now we get to showcase our music." The Toothaches pianist and arranger, Chase Garret, echoes Emily's excitement and says, "We are already practicing to get our stuff up to snuff and we may showcase some new original material we are working on for a CD." Sweetie and the Toothaches will play Saturday 3:30-4:45pm at the Morgan Street Brewery Stage.
This year Marsha Evans & the Coalition will take the Main Stage with their blues, R&B and jazz. Marsha has played nearly every Big Muddy and Jimmy Hinds, her spouse, bassist and band leader, goes back to the first Mississippi Nights blues fest. Marcia is reminded annually why she loves this family oriented fest: "One family who brought their kids to my first appearance (she was their teacher) comes back every year. Now those kids bring their children." Jimmy remembers how shocked out of town musicians would be to find their local backup band was filled with all stars. They both appreciate the renewed local spotlight of Big Muddy. Marsha says to tell he fans, "We can't wait to perform for all of you." Marsha Evans & the Coalition play the Main Stage from 8-9:15pm on Sunday.
Editor's Note: This article was first published in the July/August 2017 BluesLetter by the St. Louis Blues Society.
When you see the Real Macaws you've entered a funhouse tunnel from the '70s reverberating with original tunes and the refracted echoes of Crosby, Stills & Nash and the Byrds. The band, whose members' careers stretch back to the early wave of the country-rock movement, will be performing at the Old Rock House on Friday, August 11.
The Real Macaws are Terry Jones Rogers (guitar, vocals), Scott Nienhaus (guitar, vocals), Michael 'Supe' Granda (bass, vocals) and Tim Politte (drums, vocals). Joining the band for the August 11 show will also be Steve Scorfina (guitar, vocals), best known for his work in Pavlov's Dog. They'll bring original Americana from their 2011 album Standing Alone and other projects, and they'll no doubt serve straight up a couple-three Byrds songs with all the honeyed vocal blends and jangly guitars that you remember from the record. (They do a powerhouse extended version of "Eight Miles High" that will leave you trying to find your sea legs.)
Speaking from his home in Maplewood, Terry Jones Rogers told me a little of the Southern-rock side of his life and how that connects to the band: "I grew up in Macon, Georgia. My father was a veteran Navy guy so we moved all around the country and ended up in Macon when I was about four years old. Of course there's a rich musical heritage to that town and so I was greatly influenced by all that; Otis Redding, James Brown and Little Richard had quite a presence in Macon back in their day. Then the Allman Brothers came to town in 1969 and that kind of turned everything on its head there."
Rogers played in Macon-based groups like Pound & Rogers and interacted in the music scene. "One of the things that's a slight link to the Real Macaws," he said, "is that after Gregg Allman recorded his first solo album in 1973, Dickey Betts recorded a solo album Highway Call the next year. He went back to a lot of his roots on that recording including bringing in Vassar Clements to play on that record and the tour that followed, which is when I had the opportunity to meet Vassar in those days. Years later when I ended up moving to Nashville, I was able to reconnect with Vassar around the time we were putting Real Macaws together. Vassar was part of the original lineup there in Nashville which of course is a wonderful memory and experience that we all had."
This early ensemble played venues such as the Boardwalk Café and the Station Inn in Nashville — unfortunately, they did not have a chance to record with the bluegrass jazz great Clements.
Scott Nienhaus came to the band as a recent arrival from St. Louis, where he'd performed and recorded with Acousticity. The introduction to Rogers set in motion a collaboration that has lasted ever since. Having relocated to St. Louis, Rogers & Nienhaus perform as a duo and in the tribute/heritage groups Younger Than Yesterday and 4&20, which include former Acousticity drummer Tim Politte.
Nienhaus penned a song that the Real Macaws can be expected to play called "On the Water," a finely wrought acoustic song originally performed in 1995 by Rogers & Nienhaus with Skip Battin (Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers). The song became the basis recently for a video for the Missouri Department of Conservation. The "On the Water" video is done in a Playing for Change style of musicians in the open air, in this case along the water, the camera moving from one gorgeous location to another, eight watery Missouri places in all with guests including Supe Granda, Ingrid Berry, Rusty Young (Poco) and Javier Mendoza.
Supe Granda of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils is part of legacy that helped define '70s country rock. Anyone needing a refresher on the OMD's country rock bona fides should consult their self-titled debut and It'll Shine When It Shines, which were both co-produced by Glyn Johns and David Anderle. Renowned for his work with the Stones and the Who, Glyn Johns was an old folk music lover at heart and he helped mold the multiple songwriter approach of the new, unknown Daredevils into works of lasting beauty.
A mainstay in the Dares since their founding in late '71, Granda has long been active in solo endeavors. In 2016 he released two CDs on his own Missouri Mule label: Supe & the Sandwiches' Too Pooped to Pop, a rock 'n' roll album, and Silly Grandpa's Chicken in the Yard, an album of children's music. Granda gets bookings all over Nashville to do Silly Grandpa performances for kids and says he likes the hours. He also does "Supe's On" solo performances in which he sings and plays and reads from his memoir, It Shined: The Saga of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. He is booked for one of those gigs August 12 in Columbia, MO.
Meanwhile, Steve Scorfina of Ferguson started playing in bands locally in the '60s and was in an early incarnation of REO Speedwagon. More famously he was a charter member of Pavlov's Dog, whose Pampered Menial and At the Sound of the Bell epitomize the new progressive rock that was finding a home on FM airwaves.
Today Scorfina leads the blues-rock band Soul Steel and has been collaborating with Granda. He also recently took part in a local all-star mix of "Johnny B. Goode" that featured David Sanborn and Michael McDonald and the posthumous piano playing of Johnnie Johnson; the project raised funds for an indie documentary on Johnson.
Recalling the recording of Standing Alone, Terry Jones Rogers was unequivocal about Scorfina's mastery: "When we recorded the CD, we had several guests that we brought in on that recording. Slide guitar was a big part of that record and certainly that is one of the things that Steve Scorfina does so well, so we're bringing him in to do some of that stuff as well as other guitar work. He's just such a great player and a great friend."
When Randle Chowning, Larry Lee & David Wilson perform at the Focal Point on August 12, we can expect a healthy serving of original recipe country rock from the 1970s dating from their work with the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, a band they left years ago. But it is not an oldies revival show they do. Chowning and Lee offer an equal number of tunes they have developed in the last decade and, to remind us that they still have gas in their tanks, a few songs composed since the last time the trio were in town.
Chowning and Lee's musical compadre is the David Wilson on fiddle and guitar. He made his name with Ozark bluegrass groups Radio Flyer and the Undergrass Boys. With Chowning on guitar, Lee on guitar or keyboards and all of them singing, the trio offer a full & pristine sound particularly in a cozy listening room like the Focal Point.
"I love that room," said Larry Lee from his home in Ozark, MO. "It's one of my favorite places to play."
Lee is the voice of the Daredevils' biggest hit, "Jackie Blue," and of a number of other OMD favorites that he sings today. He takes a craftsman-like appraisal of the band's A&M albums (1973-78): "The main thing is that a lot of those songs, I'll say even most of them, still hold up today as credible songs. They may sound a little dated for whatever reason but as far as the structure of the chord progression and the melodies and the lyrics, I think we did some really good work back then."
Lee's collaborations since the mid-2000s with his old OMD bandmate Chowning have stimulated his own compositional energies. Lee, who departed the Dares in the early '80s, spent a quarter decade in Nashville working primarily as a producer for country artists. Chowning left the Dares in 1976, rejoined in the early to mid-eighties and never stopped writing songs. His 2015 and 2016 CDs have been folk rock under the name Ozark Joe. Chowning and Lee have also recorded three Americana CDs as Beyond Reach. More new studio work is in the offing.
"I'm doing a couple of newer things," said Lee said of the upcoming concert. "There'll be at least three new things of mine that I have written since the last time we played up there. and we're doing about the same of Randle's. We're doing 19 or 20 songs and probably eight or ten Daredevils songs, and then there's some Beyond Reach stuff and things Randle and I have written."
Chowning called from his Springfield home to express much the same sentiment: "In my slack time, when I'm not out performing, I'm doing one of three things. I'm thinking about a song, writing a song or thinking about recording. I still think more or less in albums or CDs rather than going in and 'Oh, I have to record [this particular song.' I like to do 'em in groups, which is probably archaic but that's the way I like to do it. If I'm in record mode, I'm doing six or eight or more, enough for a package. Generally I try to have a theme going on, eight or ten songs that are old rock 'n' roll or they're folkie. So I try to keep 'em in packages."
In terms of concert venues, the Focal Point is almost like a full circle experience for Chowning and Lee. In their early days, the Ozark Mountain Daredevils performed at small clubs, coffeehouses and college venues. In the bi-state area 45 years ago they were playing the student centers at SLU and SIU-E and in May '73, they were part of a remarkable event at Washington University in the quadrangle on a bill that included John Hammond Jr, Leo Kottke and Weather Report. The Daredevils soon graduated to a bigger scale and in St. Louis, they performed many times in the next decade including headline dates at Kiel Opera House, the Fox Theater and the Ambassador and an opening slot for Willie Nelson at the Checkerdome.
It was a guerilla movement then to spread the music. And for Chowning and Lee and others like them, it's an indie/DIY thing now.
The secret sauce behind the Ozark Mountain Daredevils is part chemistry, part attitude. The OMD started in Springfield as a semi-formal songwriters circle in late 1971. Within a year and a half, they were signed to a record deal and recording in London under the direction of uber-producer Glyn Johns. The band blended genres seamlessly on album and in concert so the weirdly wonderful "Chicken Train," which is about as elemental an example of hillbilly stompin' as they come, was presented alongside well crafted country-rock and sophisticated pop.
Chowning described his own eclecticism as a function of time and place. He grew up in Mountain View, Missouri. The small south central town near the Arkansas border looks remote on the map, but when Chowning was a boy in the 1950s, he was tuned into all manner of sound because his parents had access to the new technologies.
"My father was a radio operator in World War II and was quite successful in a number of landings in north Africa and Sicily and Italy, under General Patton part of the time. When he came back to south central Missouri he opened up a radio/TV shop in the 1950s. Until I was nine years old, before we moved to southwest Missouri, that was my environment and my father had the best stuff you could have in the '50s. He put this huge antenna, I mean like 40 foot, on top of the house on an electric swivel, meaning that he could change the attitude, the way the antenna was facing. He realized we were uphill from Memphis so we got Memphis radio and television, really, really good in the 1950s.
"So I was listening to, and my brother who was older than I was listening to, blues music and rock 'n' roll at night. Because we couldn't hear it in the daytime back then. So we would pick up at night on Memphis radio but in the daytime, all I heard was folk music being in that part of the country. Once you get kinda infected with that ole blues and rock 'n' roll, it's hard to get rid of it. [Chowning laughed at the thought.] That's why I didn't become a bluegrass or country artist, is because I was infected with blues and rock and roll at a very young age and I can't get away from it. I always walk a blurry line between those genres. That was my environment.
"And pop music. My mother had all the great pop records of the day, Sinatra and all this stuff, so I was just inundated with a ton of different influences. At night on the radio. Daylight with folk music on jukeboxes and country. And then my mother's record collection, which was incredibly vast and eclectic. She sang too, generally pop songs but that would be Hank Williams to 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow.'
"I just can't get away from writing a lot of different things with those influences. It's probably kept me in the poorhouse but...," Chowning said laughing ruefully at the thought. "I just vacillate back and forth between genres and that's the way I write."
Bruce Olson spent his life as a reporter where the rules are "be accurate and quick and write short and snappy stories." He loved reporting but never got to tell the whole story. It was an itch that needed scratching. In 2016, after five years of research and writing, he published a brilliant two volume history, That St. Louis Thing. "This book," he says, "was the first time as a reporter I had the complete freedom to follow my nose."
In That St. Louis Thing Olson uses his reportorial and writing skills to present a 150-year arc of history. He uses the threads of blues music, civil rights and baseball to weave a broader historical tapestry that takes you from the 1800's to modern day Ferguson. Each chapter is a stand-alone piece that easily moves between past and present providing the reader with exciting digestible stories and segments of history.
Readers and music lovers got a taste of those stories at a unique event sponsored by Left Bank Books on Wednesday, July 19. Olson focused on the music angle reading from five chapters while being backed up by a group of stellar St. Louis blues musicians, Sharon and Doug Foehner, Brian Curran and Dave Robinson, that he humorously referred to as "the newly formed That St. Louis Thing Band."
Following each segment, the band would play a song directly related to the reading: from Scott Joplin to Blind Boy Fuller's "Rag, Mama, Rag" to Sharon Foehner's soulful rendition of W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues," to versions of Ike and Tina Turner' "Rock Me Baby" and Lonnie Johnson's "Too Late to Cry" and Mississippi John Hurt's telling of "Stagger Lee," which Olson framed with the real story of the figure.
Olson's readings showed his reporters sense for detail that provided the context for the events he read about while his prose brought them to life. For example, his interview with Tom Maloney, a well know local bluesman, puts you right in the Club Imperial with Ike and Tina Turner:
First we get the band, the band does their thing, then the band goes into this boom-da-boom-da-boom-da-boom -- the beat like galloping -- then over to the left of the stage you see the Ikettes all standing in a line -- like this engine ready to go down the tracks -- and then -- they hit it and come right up on stage all dancing and prancing -- the strobe light goes on and you almost fall over -- you don't know what's happened -- and there's these incredibly beautiful, vivacious gals with these miniskirts on -- then there comes Tina, the queen of all of them --- man it was something -- and all the clocks stopped --- time just stopped -- and you were in a zone until they were done with us. It was quite fantastic.
There were other surprises too in the readings like the story of Bob Dylan's early 1960s relationship with Lonnie Johnson and how Lonnie's tips from those years came back to change Dylan's style beginning with his 1997 "Time Out of Mind" studio album. The music and nuggets like these made for an enjoyable evening but there's much more here to enjoy in this anything but dull history.
As Olson would be quick to tell you the two volumes came from five years of research. "I started to write a blues story," he says, "but things kept popping up and kept me going. For example, thanks to help from the St. Louis Library staff, I found documents that show the local civil rights movement could trace its roots back to a reform movement led by local middle class African American and white women. They wanted to improve the sanitation in Deep Morgan where the local clubs derived 1/3 of their revenue by charging people to use their bathrooms."
It's no surprise that what started as a blues story became much more because, as Olson admits, "giving details of a setting is what a good reporter does while a good philosopher gives the details of the context." For Bruce, the music ended up providing the narrative timeline to include the local, national and international context. He claims he "didn't know it was a complete history until it was done."
St. Louis's history is all there from a chilling description of the great cyclone of 1896, city politics, the 1917 East St. Louis race riot, baseball, the World's Fair, Lindbergh, Hooverville, Mill Creek valley, the North Side and South Side, musicians, clubs and a whole lot more. Bruce says, "I wanted to paint a full picture around characters."
That St. Louis Thing is a self-published book because publishers have difficulty with an unconventional history of this nature. Some suggested Bruce write three separate more narrowly focused books. As he says, "they couldn't see it in context and how the parts interrelate with one another." But it is the context and the weaving of the stories that makes this book such an enjoyable read.
Olson says his idea in writing this book "was to do something I wanted to do -- to finish one of my stories and tell the whole story." It's a good thing he scratched that itch. That St. Louis Thing: An American story of Rhythm, Roots and Race is a love story and tribute to this city, its people, its music and its place in history. Well done, Mr. Olson, well done.
See all of Bob Baugh's photos of the reading by clicking the image below.