Filmographer Ron Butts finds a worthy subject in Oliver Sain

Jun 23, 2010 at 4:00 am

Oliver Sain's life began in 1932 in Dundee, Mississippi. He played with greats such as Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Milton, Bobby McClure and Fontella Bass. Despite such legendary company, Sain isn't often considered in the same league — at least outside of St. Louis, his adopted home. In 1959, he stopped in East St. Louis while on tour with Little Milton and thought the area opportune for a musician. So Sain moved to St. Louis — and as some locals fondly recall, he never left.

"He was probably one of the most important musicians in St. Louis after 1960," says Tom "Papa" Ray, co-producer of the 2009 collection St. Louis Breakdown: The Best of Oliver Sain. "He was a world-class soloist, songwriter, bandleader, producer, arranger, studio owner and a resource for hip-hop artists looking for a heavyweight sample."

"Solomon Burke [once] said to me that Oliver was the Quincy Jones of St. Louis, but nobody knows it," Ray added later. "But there's a big, crucial difference: Quincy Jones was a second-chair trumpet player, and Oliver Sain was as great an R&B alto saxophonist that has lived."

Although the release of St. Louis Breakdown has helped Sain's name stay in the public eye, Ron "G. Wiz" Butts is going one step further: He's made sharing Sain's story his mission through production of a film titled The Man with the Golden Horn.

On a recent afternoon, Butts sat at the St. Louis Bread Company in the Delmar Loop. The DJ/filmmaker was generous with his time; what was to be a brief chat turned into a two-hour interview. He was generous in other ways, too: He insisted on holding open the door for me when we entered and refused the offer of lunch or a drink. Butts summed up these behaviors as being "old school," but this chivalry — especially when delivered with such sincerity — was refreshing.

His sincerity illuminates his storytelling — and informs his approach to filmmaking as well. "I look at [Sain] as an institution," Butts says quietly, setting both hands gently down on the table. "The things [Sain]'s done in this city and for this city...and he never left, which is unheard of in this city. Usually, artists" — he lazily throws his hand over his shoulder — "they out. But he stayed. And he kept playing, bringing in artists, producing, teaching — he stayed in it. I think he should get more recognition than some of the artists here. Why not do a movie on him? I think it would be fascinating."

The idea came to Butts after he completed his first film, The Rink, in 2009. He was seeking a project to continue where that one left off — and found in Sain's story another example of the one-of-a-kind urban music found in St. Louis.

As soon as he considered making this film, he was given a pretty glaring sign that it was the right choice. "When I first decided to do the project, I was talking to Lew [Prince, who co-owns Vintage Vinyl, co-produced St. Louis Breakdown with Tom Ray and contributes to the RFT]," he recalls. "I told him and Tom about it, and they thought it was a good idea.

"Me and Lew went to lunch, and I gave him more information, he gave me information. He was like, 'We need to get you in touch with Ruby' [Sain, Oliver's widow]. We [were] walking back to Vintage Vinyl, walked in and lo and behold — who was standing in there? Ruby Sain."

In making that acquaintance, he'd stumbled upon an abundance of material — and yet another enthusiastic supporter. "I told her that I was doing the project on Oliver, and she just loved it," Butts says. "So she is like my main person for photographs and footage and information to contact people. She's, like, that core."

Beyond providing her own footage, photos and stories, Ruby connected Butts and his filmmaking team — which includes DJ B-Money, who is responsible for the soundtrack, and several camera operators— with dozens of sources for interviews and supplementary material. The film is still in the pre-production stage; interviews are still being planned, and material is still being gathered. Because Oliver Sain worked with so many artists, Butts hopes to do interviews with everyone from Tina Turner — whose former husband, Ike Turner, was good friends with and often played with Sain — to Sean "Diddy" Combs, who sampled Sain in one of his songs.

But despite the fact that Butts calls his filmmaking style "unorthodox" (he cites his lack of formal training and use of non-technical terminology), he has his schedule planned meticulously, and will soon be ready to turn on the cameras. And The Man With the Golden Horn is a logical next step in Butts' urban storytelling series. His first film, The Rink, told the story of the roller-skating lifestyle in St. Louis — which differs from the roller-skating lifestyle everywhere else. "They may skate," he explains, "but they don't skate like they do in St. Louis."

The Rink was accepted into three film festivals: the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival, the St. Louis International Film Festival and the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase. Although it's hard to call his first film anything but successful — especially for a local film costing less than $1,500 to produce — Butts' aspirations are higher for his new project.

"I wanna take this one a bigger scale," he says. "Much bigger. I learned so much from doing the first one, things you should do, shouldn't do. Some stories just need to be heard." In trying to make sure Sain's story is not only heard, but heard by as many people and in as many places as possible, he's learning to target a wider audience.

Sain's affiliation with so many musicians across multiple genres — many whom had more mainstream success than he did — makes this strategy possible. In fact, Butts feels that because artists such as Diggin' in the Crates Crew — the beloved New York-based hip-hop group known for digging up quality samples — sampled Sain, Horn might draw interest from hip-hop fans. "Ordinary hip-hoppers wouldn't want to see this movie necessarily," Butts says. "But if they see that such-and-such is in it, it might spark an interest."

The film promises to do more than simply tell Oliver Sain's story. Butts hopes to create a film that highlights Oliver Sain's relationship with his home city. He wants to demonstrate "what [Sain] gave to St. Louis and what St. Louis gave, and didn't give, to him." By doing this, Butts wants to show the influence we have on our city and the influence the city has on us.

In conversation, Butts often revisits the theme of being let down or unrecognized by the city. He feels "the people in St. Louis, they really need to grab hold to the talent that they have here and really support 'em, instead of waiting until they leave and wanting to claim 'em." But he isn't cynical; he has nothing but love for St. Louis. He wishes, as many local music lovers do, its residents appreciated the plethora of talent here. He continues, "People leave 'cause they just don't get the support. They make it, but [it] wasn't that they had sales here, so they leave."

Oliver Sain is a perfect example of a successful — yet loyal — St. Louis artist. Although Butts notes that he's "really more well known and respected in Europe than he is here," the saxophonist never gave up on his city. Sain stayed here and played with and promoted other musicians. Butts thinks that seeing this story in a film could inspire local artists.

"If they see a movie like Oliver's and see all the accomplishments that he has right here, it may inspire them that, 'OK, I can do all this and stay in St. Louis. I don't have to go pay some outrageous mortgage, and when the career starts to go off I lose the house. I can afford a house in St. Louis!'" he says, laughing.

Ray agrees that local artists don't always get the support they should. "I would hope Ron's film will not only allow people all over the world to see Oliver Sain as this paramount music figure out of St. Louis," he says. "But who knows — it might even counteract some of the cultural amnesia St. Louisans have about their own music."

And, according to Ray and Prince, nobody is better suited to make this film — or change perceptions — than Butts is.

"Ron doesn't start any project saying, 'How much can I make from this?' but rather, 'What can I make happen by doing this?'" Prince says. "Ron is really driven by an idea that he holds deep inside that art and the creation of art can really change people's lives and their relations to one another.

"This is the drive behind all really good artists," he continues. "The songwriter who thinks if he writes the right song, he can change the world, the musician who believes that if he hits the right music, he can make everyone dance together, the graphic artist feels that if this painting was up in the right place, people would learn how to get along better from it. We're going on 25 years of knowing Ron, and I'm not surprised in the least that he's the person doing this."