Ask the average St. Louisan to list the city's most historically influential musicians, and invariably you'll wind up with the same four names: Chuck Berry, Ike and Tina Turner, and Nelly. It's as if the Mount Rushmore of St. Louis music has already been built in their honor.
But pose the same question to just about any local singer, instrumentalist or record junkie, and they will be monumentally disappointed if you forget to mention Oliver Sain.
Sain was first and foremost a saxophone player. He was also a producer, composer, arranger, talent scout and multi-instrumentalist who reigned over the St. Louis worlds of blues, jazz, soul and R&B for more than four decades before dying of cancer in 2003 at the age of 71.
Until recently, his music was only available on rare, out-of-print records which collectors coveted. But now, thanks to a new release produced by the owners of the University City record store Vintage Vinyl, Sain is posthumously poised to find a wider audience. The album, St. Louis Breakdown: The Best of Oliver Sain, officially debuted on April 21. It features 21 tracks that span Sain's lengthy, genre-bending career. (A release and listening party is scheduled for Sunday night at BB's Jazz, Blues & Soups, the downtown club where Sain was a fixture and weekly headliner for many years.)
Vintage Vinyl co-owner Tom "Papa" Ray spearheaded the project. Seated in the cluttered upstairs office of his record store, Ray recalls the first time he witnessed Sain pick up a saxophone.
"The first time I saw Oliver play was in the mid-'70s. He just..." Ray says, pausing and shaking his head at the memory. "He could kill the room for five minutes with just one note. Literally, one note. On [the song] 'Harlem Nocturne,' he used to hold one note until people were screaming."
Sain was born in Mississippi but grew up in West Memphis, Arkansas, where he broke into the music business as a drummer for the blues singer Howlin' Wolf. He soon switched to alto sax and lived briefly in Chicago, where he developed contacts with the Chess brothers, the industry titans behind Muddy Waters, Etta James and others. He accepted an invitation to join blues singer Little Milton's band and began living in St. Louis in 1957.
The Lou was a hotbed for blues and R&B at the time, and the top act in town was Ike Turner and his pre-Tina band, the Kings of Rhythm. Sain's wife, Ruby, recalls the bond that quickly formed between Turner and her late husband.
"They was like Siamese twins," she says in the living room of her north St. Louis county home, the walls of which are dotted with photos of her spouse holding his sax and donning his trademark black beret. "Ike didn't have any brothers and Oliver was an only child, so they considered each other brothers. They were very, very, very close."
With a crisp, resonating tone and a gift for circular breathing, Sain developed a reputation as the finest saxophone player around, earning himself the nicknames "The Man with the Golden Horn" and "The Main Man."
He formed his own band, which became a launching pad for the careers of the area's up-and-coming artists, and he had a knack for spotting talent, particularly female vocalists. He produced material for many budding starlets, most notably Fontella Bass and her hit song "Rescue Me."
"You weren't considered a musician in St. Louis unless you went through Oliver," Ruby Sain recalls. "He'd always push them to leave town and do their best. He'd just make a phone call for them to someone he knew in New York or Las Vegas or California or wherever, and they'd be on their way."
Adds Ray: "Only the Saint Louis Symphony hired more musicians. He was a one-man jobs program."
Unlike many of his peers, Sain owned the rights to almost all of the songs he produced and recorded. He used the royalties to build his Archway recording studio, which still operates today at 4521 Natural Bridge Avenue. Virtually all of the material on Breakdown was recorded in the studio, which doubled as Sain's living quarters.
Taken as a whole, the most striking aspect of the album is the way in which Sain seamlessly adapted his sound to different styles of music over time. For instance, "Soul Serenade" is a moody instrumental that starts slowly, with a fluttering solo that gradually builds to a frenetic squeal. One of two rare cuts dubbed from vinyl and remastered, "Tanya" is a wrenching example of blues saxophone that alternates between solitary lung-draining notes and trembling bleats.
Eventually Sain tried his hand at funk, with numbers like "Party Hearty" and "Booty Bumpin' (The Double Bump)." One of the only songs that features vocals, "Feel Like Dancin'" is a roller-disco romp replete with wah-pedals, a string arrangement, and a Kool and the Gang-inspired bass line.
"His style is fluid enough that he can fit in any genre," Vintage Vinyl co-owner Lew Prince explains. "And his understanding of blues in relation to all genres made him a natural fit."
Ray coauthored the record's liner notes which end with: "People encountering these performances for the first time may well wonder, 'Why haven't I heard this music before?'"
Pressed for an answer, Ray explains that Sain's record label during his prime in the '70s, A-Bet, had "no money for payola," and as a result, he received very little domestic airplay. He fared much better in Europe, where he is still widely revered. Additionally, he says, an earlier compilation of Sain's greatest hits was released in 1996, but it had a limited run and was out of print after only a few years.
After Oliver died in October 2003, Ruby Sain says she was deluged with requests to re-release her husband's material. Struck with the sudden deaths of two other family members, she waited until only recently to grant Ray permission to produce Breakdown.
"I had so many people coming at me from all angles, from New York and everywhere," she recalls. "I just wasn't ready. I had to get my head screwed on right, and since Papa Ray was local, it just felt right."
She says she's working on converting the Archway Studio into a museum that chronicles Oliver's life.
Ray, meanwhile, proudly announces that Breakdown is being distributed nationally by City Hall Records and has been licensed for release in Japan as part of a "Masters of American Blues and Funk" series from P-Vine Records. He says it's all part of spreading the gospel about St. Louis' most underappreciated musical genius.
"It cannot be overemphasized," Ray says, his voice rising. "Oliver Sain was by far the most influential musician in St. Louis from 1960 on. Period."
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