Remembering Tom Hall, a Legendary St. Louis Guitarist

The city mourns the 70-year-old musician, killed in a fire in Soulard on Saturday

Apr 25, 2023 at 12:08 pm
Tom Hall and Alice Spencer
Ralph Heine
T&A was a collaboration between Tom Hall and Alice Spencer.

Tom Hall had a story about how he came to music. The St. Louis blues legend grew up in an orphanage, where he said he first picked up the guitar. (He had other versions of his musical origins, too, including one he told journalists, but this was a very good story.) One day he found himself playing that guitar in a talent show. He was up on stage alone, engrossed in a long solo. The crowd in front of him was enraptured — still, hushed and caught up in the performance. 

Then, toward the end of the solo, he opened his eyes and realized there was a long line of saliva running all the way from his open mouth to the stage.

“He realized that that's probably what they were looking at,” says Chris King, a close friend and fellow musician. “He decided from that moment on, it didn't really matter that he's good at guitar, that he shouldn't be that impressed with himself, that he should just play the guitar and then go sit down.

“That was his approach to music his whole life. No matter how great he became, you couldn't get him to be excited about how great he was at guitar or singing.”

King’s voice is rough and full of emotion as he speaks about Hall, 70, whom friends identified as the man who passed away in a fire at his Soulard home on Saturday. Hall is survived by an adult daughter, Jessica. 

Police have not yet officially identified Hall as the victim of the blaze in the two-story home on the 1800 block of South Ninth Street, according to a spokeswoman. The apartment, friends say, belonged to Hall, and an autopsy is being conducted.

Regardless, since news of his death came out, St. Louis has mourned Hall’s loss. A larger-than-life figure in the local music scene, he was sometimes called THE Tom Hall and could often be found playing at a host of venues across the city such as the Cat’s Meow, Hammerstone’s and McGurk’s.

click to enlarge Tom Hall plays guitar
Courtesy Chris King
Tom Hall playing guitar.

“There's a lot of people, certainly in Soulard, but all over the city, that dug his stuff and would go see shows he did, whether it was in a bar or Joe's Cafe or Focal Point,” says his Geyer Street Sheiks bandmate Charlie Pfeffer.

Hall had a reputation as a blues musician, and he was — but King and Pfeffer say he was more than that. Hall also played the banjo and liked old-time music, jazz, Irish music and Afro-pop, which he would play on an acoustic guitar. He never played electric, choosing a reso-phonic National steel guitar.

“He was into all kinds of music,” Pfeffer says, remembering how Hall seemed to like playing instrumental music more than he liked singing. “But he can play anything … It’s hard, it’s a lot of years and a lot of memories.”

Named "Best Acoustic Guitarist" by the RFT in 1998, Hall explained, "My hobby evolved into my job. I can't afford to quit. I can pay my bills, and I don't know what else I'd do, though I've thought about quitting a million times." 

What was his life before the guitar? "Nothing," Hall said. "Tending bar, painting houses, whatever, getting drunk, hanging out in the street. I had no direction. It gave me an identity. I kinda had a weird childhood. Playing guitar saved my life. Sometimes I think it's gonna kill me."

click to enlarge Western themed photo of Pat Egan, Tom Hall and others.
Courtesy Pat Egan
Egan recalls stopping at a novelty photo place outside of St. Louis and taking this photo. "It actually turned out to be really superb photo that was last minute, off the cuff, totally unexpected," he says.

King says Hall could have a gruff exterior and liked to keep to himself — unless you were a musician, and then “you could do no wrong.” Pfeffer says Hall was a generous, kind, fun guy with a lot of friends. 

Pat Egan first came to St. Louis in the ’90s from Ireland to play at McGurk’s and recalls that he immediately felt comfortable when he met Hall. Egan eventually formed the Fighting Molly Maguires with Hall and Michael Cooney, and got a residence at Hammerstone’s. 

Egan remembers traveling with Hall for gigs, including to an Irish festival in Cincinnati and one in Fairfield, Iowa. They drove up from St. Louis along the river, telling stories and having a good time. 

Hall had recently discovered where his father was buried, and they stopped at his grave. 

“I left him for a minute just to have his time with it,” Egan says. “ And he just done his thing. And it was like, he just made peace with it or something, and he just said, ‘Well, I did that and [I’m] happy I did it.’”

“It was like he put it to rest or something,” Egan adds. “I don’t know exactly how to describe it.”

Hall also once went to Ireland with Egan, and he recently visited his daughter in Charleston, South Carolina, writing on his Facebook page about her surprising him with plane tickets to visit. He was an avid birdwatcher who maintained a life list and loved to go on float trips to find them. Egan remembers a three-day float trip where they’d stop so that he could duck into the woods and make bird calls in search of a specific warbler.

“He was so into it, he would get lost in it,” Egan says. “He just loved that getting into nature, just being away from it all.”

King remembers going on adventures with Hall where they’d pack up and travel alongside the Mississippi and go to a random event where nobody knew them. 

“[We’d] drink together and kind of adventure and carouse and end up in unexpected and maybe perplexing circumstances, have to talk our way out of them and wake up the next day kind of giddy that we got away with it, looking to do it again,” he says. 

But for all of Hall’s travels and adventures, at heart he mostly liked to stick around the city. Egan remembers a conversation with Hall where he expressed a dislike for airplanes. 

“He was really a St. Louis person,” Egan says. “He loved it around there. It was his place. It was his home. And it was where he could play his music.”

The feeling, apparently, was mutual.

This story has been updated.

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