Ghosts of Christmas Past

The Skeletons reunite, we gift some of St. Louis' best bands and remember Ike Turner.

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Ike Turner|The Skeletons

Ike Turner: 1931-2007

Ike Wister Turner died on Wednesday, December 12, in San Diego, California. He was 76.

Every obit, blog post, and newscast will not fail to mention his despicable treatment of his ex-wife Tina Turner ­— so consider it mentioned.

What those voices will not tell you is what you can only hear and feel in the urgency and ambition of his music. From his triplet-driven boogie piano on "Rocket 88" to his psychedelic gospel funk; from his unvarnished tremolo on uncountable electric blues singles to the black-power groove of the instrumentals he recorded with another St. Louis master, Oliver Sain; from his transformation of rhythm & blues into rock into soul (and then back again), to his electrification of the wildest stage spectacles that pop music had ever seen, Ike Turner deserves the appellation visionary — and can hold his own with touchstone figures such as Scott Joplin, Chuck Berry and Miles Davis.

St. Louis — nay, the nation — owes him a debt. And not just for his music, but for his contributions to our cultural life. During the '50s, he refused to play segregated venues in East St. Louis — and as a result, those venues were desegregated. Ike helped Tina choreograph her moves — and then got the hell out of the way so she could move on her own. (Mick Jagger, among countless others, would never be the same.)

Born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, he could have been a commanding blues figure (he had the guitar chops and the repertoire), but despite his reputation for egomania, his musical ideas were ultimately collective and collaborative, and couldn't be bound by pure blues. He was a force that could bring out greatness in others — whether it was Otis Rush, Howlin' Wolf, Fontella Bass or Tina.

Tom Ray, DJ and co-owner of Vintage Vinyl, described Turner's appearance at the 50th anniversary show for the Oliver Sain Soul Revue at the Pageant: "He stole the show the moment he sat down at the piano. Oliver had this big band — ten, twelve pieces. We were watching Ike direct the band with his shoulder blades, his nose, his eyebrows, his fingers, his mouth. He was cueing every section, and they were following him."

The myth of Stagger Lee dies hard, but Turner was no myth. He was the baddest of the baddest black men, and no one should (or will) ignore the brutality of his record. But that brutality should not (and cannot) drown out the wild, soulful, electrifying sounds and style of a true American original.— Roy Kasten

Them Bones

The Skeletons are getting back into the gigging swing, but it's the antithesis of rusty. The legendary Springfield, Missouri, band started in 1979 and then wound down in the late '90s. Since then, it's done one-offs and quickie tours, or backed up people such as Dave Alvin and Syd Straw. But as of late, Lou Whitney, D. Clinton Thompson, Joe Terry and Bobby Lloyd Hicks have been channeling their incomparable command of the great, garagey mess of American music elsewhere — though they've never really stopped playing together. On the phone from his Ozark home, songwriter, bassist, singer and producer Whitney explains that rehearsal is the lifeblood of the Skeletons — and "reunion gig" needn't be the two scariest words in the English language.

B-Sides: Was heavy rehearsing a rule for the Skeletons?

Lou Whitney: In most of our bands, Donnie and I, we'd rehearse nonstop, full-time, eight hours a day, like a job. But you don't really grow until you do the gigs, start delivering in front of people and take score.

When you think of garage rock, you don't really think of rehearsal.

I think that term came about from playing in a hollow space. Those early '60s rock, surf, psychedelic records had that sound. But, yeah, rehearsing was the whole deal. You practiced your ass off to become a better band. We're parts guys. We learn the song, but you gotta learn each part. We don't really jam that much. When you know the song well enough, you can lean into it in a different way. We're just old-school codgers. We grew up that way.

Did playing with the Skeletons inspire you to write?

I was writing as early as the late '60s; I even had a few songs cut in Motown, Nashville. But Springfield is really the catalyst. You've heard of Ronnie Self? Wayne Carson? These guys were big-time writers. The publishing here was a real business. This guy, Si Siman, he was here, and he had top-ten hits. If you were a songwriter, you made a stop at his publishing office. There was a creative scene connected to the big time; so bottom feeders like me could see how it worked. It gave us a paradigm. Just swimming around down in the water here gave you a leg up, a model to learn from.

Will your gig this week have holiday overtones?

We always learn a Christmas tune or three. Holiday overtones? Are we going to come out dressed as Santa? No. We just do gigs in the holiday season, and they wind up being whatever they are. We've been known to do "Do You Hear What I Hear?" with a "You Really Got Me" medley. And "Jingle Bell Rock" and things like that. I wrote a Christmas song once. Now Kay [Lou's wife] and I do it for the kids. They stand there and get frozen, just looking at us, like a rhinoceros looking at a laptop.

— Roy Kasten

8:30 p.m. Thursday, December 20. Lucas School House, 1220 Allen Avenue. $8. 314-621-6565.

Presents of Mind

'Tis the season, y'all: Everyone is celebrating the love and warmth that surrounds Christmas/Kwanzaa/Hanukkah/Festivus, but let's not forget what the holiday season is really about: getting stuff. With that in mind, we've decided to choose presents for all of the bands participating in this weekend's two-night A Very Merry Christmas Spectacular at Off Broadway.

The Bureau
Gifts: If the boys in the Bureau need one thing, it's permanent band members. The quartet has had a few major lineup changes in 2007, to the tune of a new drummer, the departure of a guitarist and the addition of another guitarist and a lady keyboardist. All of these changes must disrupt the Bureau's flow and be upsetting to the stomach — so we'd like to finalize its lineup and feed it some gingerbread cookies to calm the tummy.

The Hibernauts
Gifts: Because the Hibernauts is a big, lovely band fond of unleashing delicious pop hooks, it didn't have to do much else to draw us in. And for each performance, the band members wrap themselves up in suits and ties, presenting themselves as a delightful little package. We'd like to give them a gift certificate to Stallone's Formal Wear for wardrobe reinforcements — and to be measured for the preferred suit of the season: Santa's.

Witch's Hat
Gifts: We can't tell if Columbia's Witch's Hat is a joke band or just a band that embraces its inner twelve-sided-dice dork. Either way, its music sounds a bit like Men at Work playing medieval storytelling songs about virgin princesses and slaying dragons. For this, we gift the band with the ever-comical fruitcake and a renewal of its World of Warcraft subscription.

The Makeshift Gentlemen
Gifts: The Makeshift Gentlemen play some half-goth electro, so we'd like to give the band eggnog and Dance Dance Revolution. Its members need eggnog because they sound like they dig getting drunk — and they need DDR to keep up their electro-tendencies.

So Many Dynamos
Gifts: One day we locals are going to discuss So Many Dynamos and say with fat Midwestern pride that we knew them "back in the day." The quartet's hyper-kinetic live show has been drawing droves of fans for years — and heck, it always manages to get us bopping. We'd like to give them sleigh bells and new dancing shoes, 'cause we're sure they'd know just what to do with each of them.

Gentleman Auction House
Gifts: Gentleman Auction House is a large band fond of inventive indie tunes, old-timey stage clothes and inner-band relationships. Unfortunately, these specifics only serve to get it compared to Arcade Fire. Constantly. This is the time of year in which you give without being asked, and so we wish for a wreath with which to strangle Arcade Fire, on behalf of Gentleman Auction House.

Light Pollution
Gifts: Light Pollution's music sounds smart and sad. Accordingly, the singer of the Illinoise-makers sounds very much like a certain tiny, mopey, wonk-eyed Brit from Oxford (cough, Thom Yorke). As such, we're going to give this band a candy cane to try and cheer up its little heart. Just in case Light Pollution doesn't want to follow us into happy lollipop land, we're also gonna give its members dark raincoats, so they can loaf in that dour English way.

Gifts: This band has potential, but we're going to be totally honest and say that it needs a name change. (How is it pronounced? Late? Latte? Lay-ate?) Girls believe they can change their lives with a bottle of hair dye, and Laite should follow this reasoning. We think it needs a new name for the new year — or at the very least, some pumpkin pie to offer to the audience. Then you could say you had a little dessert with your Laite.
— Jaime Lees

9 p.m. Friday, December 21 and Saturday December 22. Off Broadway, 3509 Lemp Avenue. $7. 314-773-3363.

About The Authors

Jaime Lees

Jaime Lees is a digital content editor for the Riverfront Times.
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