By Mabel Suen
By Daniel Hill
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The Dec. 16 concert at the Pageant is billed as "50 Years of Music: A Tribute to Oliver Sain." But the math may be a little off. Saxophone player, band leader, songwriter, producer, studio owner and all-around St. Louis music legend Sain has been making music since the late 1940s. And according to Sain himself, the event shouldn't be called a tribute -- it should be labeled a celebration."Some of my friends decided that the 50-year thing would be a good opportunity to give me a tribute," explains Sain. "But that sounds like a retirement party. It's going to be a celebration -- like one of my annual Soul Revue concerts -- and it features a bunch of musicians like Ike Turner, Little Milton, Tyrone Davis, David Dee, Johnnie Johnson, Uvee Hayes, Marsha Evans and Renee Smith. It's going to be a good time."
Certainly Sain should know plenty about a good time when it comes to the St. Louis music scene. He's been making his home here since 1959, when he arrived to play a date on a concert tour and never left. "I came in 1959 to play a weekend with Little Milton, and I've been stranded here ever since," remarks Sain with a laugh.
Sain's musical career actually began in his native Mississippi, where he learned how to play from blues masters like Sonny Boy Williamson. He began concentrating on the saxophone, and by the late 1940s, Sain was a regular on the hot West Memphis, Ark., club scene, where he met Turner and worked with Howlin' Wolf.
He headed for Chicago in the early 1950s and eventually hooked up with Little Milton Campbell. Soon after the '59 gig that first brought him to St. Louis, Sain became a major force on the local music scene. He helped jumpstart the careers of Fontella Bass and other artists; released hits, such as "Bus Stop," under his own name; and recorded and produced songs for other musicians at his Natural Bridge Road studio.
Despite Sain's protests that the Pageant concert isn't really a tribute, there's no getting around the fact that health problems have slowed Sain's active performing schedule in recent years -- and put an end to his annual Soul Revue performances as well. There's even some talk that the Pageant concert might mark a retirement from regular musical performances by Sain -- although he dismisses the idea, claiming he'll be around for some time to come.
"I'm just finishing up a new CD, and I'm hoping it might be ready by the time of the show," Sain says. "And I'm still doing private parties and playing at BB's when I can."
Whether or not the Dec. 16 concert really marks the beginning of retirement for Sain, it's clear that he's more than earned a tribute and a celebration of his 50-plus years in music -- and his four decades as a respected leader of the St. Louis music community.
"Although the Soul Revues are over," says Brian Krueger, one of the co-producers of the Pageant concert, "this show will definitely be in the sprit of those great events. And it's a great chance for people to come out, thank Oliver for what he's done and hear a bunch of great music at the same time."