Sain Remains

The local blues legend looks back on 40 years in St. Louis

"When the first royalty check came in, man, all of those zeroes, I couldn't believe it," Sain says. He recalls waking up in the middle of the night after receiving the check just to make sure the comma was where he thought it was. Sain used the money from that check to build Archway Studios on Natural Bridge in North St. Louis. "We've been here 37 years," Sain says proudly, "and we're still going strong."

Sain went on to write songs for the likes of Etta James, Irma Thomas, and Ike and Tina Turner. In the early '70s, Sain penned Ann Peebles' first hit for Hi Records, "Walk Away." By the time he signed a solo contract to A-Bet Records in the mid-'70s, Sain was no stranger to success but had never scored a hit under his own name. That changed with a series of funk and disco tracks that made Sain a sudden dance-floor favorite.

Since then, chart success has eluded Sain, but he's hardly been dormant. A fixture on the local live scene, Sain continues to play local clubs and corporate events. He's toured Europe several times and recently recorded a new album on his own Vanessa Records label. "Oh, we're still busy," Sain says, "but we could always be busier. Everything's slower since September 11, particularly the corporate gigs, but we do all right."

Oliver Sain: "I don't have a pain in the world."
Jennifer Silverberg
Oliver Sain: "I don't have a pain in the world."

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Royalties help during leaner times. Recently, royalty money has come from unexpected places. In 1997, P-Diddy (then known as Puff Daddy) used a sample from "On the Hill," one of Sain's A-Bet recordings, to form the backbone of "Young G's." The song appeared on the multiplatinum album No Way Out.

"I made a lot of money on that. The album sold eight million copies," Sain says. "That's why we call the building we live in "the house that Puffy built." The building, which is connected to Sain's studio, also houses the salon owned and operated by Sain's new bride, Ruby. They paid for the salon and its equipment with cash from the Puffy royalties. Sain bought his car that way, too. Sain and Ruby married in February after a long acquaintance and a two-year courtship. "I figured it was about time," Sain remarks with a smile. "This is my third marriage. It'll be my last."

All in all, it's been a good year for Sain, despite the dark shadow of cancer, which he's battled for several years. In 1997, the disease led to the removal of his bladder. Eventually the cancer went into remission, only to return a year later. Now it rests in Sain's bones, and he doesn't expect it to go away again. Nevertheless, Sain claims, he's feeling fine. "I joke with my doctor. I say that I'm the only person I know who feels great all day every day and is still dying," he says. "I don't have a pain in the world."

Despite his health issues, Sain remains focused on his music career. "Man, I just want to keep playing and recording as long as I can, which I hope will be a long while," he says. "Hell, that's all I know how to do."

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