Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The 100 Greatest St. Louis Songs

Posted By on Wed, Nov 26, 2014 at 4:06 AM

Page 5 of 10

60. Blind Willie McTell - "East St. Louis Blues (Fare You Well)" (1933)

St. Louis has a reputation as a boomerang town; those who leave tend to come back. This was the case even in the 1930s, when Blind Willie McTell recorded "East St. Louis Blues (Fare You Well)." W. C. Handy recalled the germ of the song as the first blues he ever encountered -- in 1892 in St. Louis, in fact. Forty years later, in William Samuel McTier's hands, it becomes a classic walkin' song -- the singer leaves on foot after pawning his sword and chain -- interpret as you please -- to lay his head in the lap of a New York City hussy. He shortly returns the way he came, on foot, with the same "one thin dime" in his pocket as when he left; in other words, he is exactly where he started, and there ain't nothin' wrong with that. -JD

59. Charles Bobo Shaw & Human Arts Ensemble - "Streets of St. Louis" (1972)

While we could easily have included any number of influential and stunning avant-garde recordings from the Black Artists Group scene -- it was difficult to cut Julius Hemphill's "Dogon A.D." from this list -- we couldn't ignore this awesomely expressive, fourteen-minute excursion into the outer limits of jazz. The lineup is a who's who of the BAG movement: Brothers Lester and Joseph Bowie, Julius Hemphill, Hamiet Bluiett, Abdul Wadud and Dominique Gaumont. Led by composer, drummer and percussionist Charles Bobo Shaw, the group takes listeners on a visionary journey. The sound is subversive, free, mournful, violent, unified and transcendent -- just like the streets of this city. -RK

58. Finn's Motel - "Eero Saarinen" (2006)

Call St. Louis backward or provincial or old-fashioned -- we won't necessarily disagree with you. But take a look toward the riverfront sometime and consider, for a moment, that giant catenary curve that frames our city like a 630-foot, art-deco croquet wicket. With a rumble that's equal parts Cheap Trick and Archers of Loaf, Finn's Motel pays tribute to the Gateway Arch's architect Eero Saarinen and his futuristic vision of westward expansion. Joe Thebeau, long-time leader of various smart and nervy rock bands, doesn't need much more than the song's 90 seconds to sing his praises to our city's trademark, but that doesn't stop him from getting a subtle dig in at the song's end. He sings of "a future we couldn't hope to live up to," recognizing either the vast brilliance of Saarinen's design or that the Arch's 1968 inauguration happened to coincide with the city's continued depopulation. -CS

57. Tef Poe - "Coming Outta Missouri" (2012)

The recent civil unrest in St. Louis has brought many issues into the forefront of national consciousness -- systemized racism, police brutality and how marginalized citizens react to these struggles have all become commonplace debates -- but these issues have always been in Tef Poe's lyrical spotlight. In "Coming Outta Missouri" the local rapper (birth name Kareem Jackson) reps his city as he takes aim at those who would shut him up. Predictably, Jackson has become a figurehead for the Ferguson cause, recently addressing the United Nations with the family of Michael Brown. Tef stands true to his demands here: "I'm coming outta Missouri. Let me tell my story." -JL

56. Bennie Smith - "Penrose After Hours" (1993)

When we lost Bennie Smith in 2006, we lost a lot. Smith was there at the birth of St. Louis rock & roll and R&B, playing with the Roosevelt Marks Orchestra and leading a band at the legendary Dot Club that included one Charles Edward Anderson Berry. For decades he'd just strap on his guitar and slay, so subtly and dexterously, just about any time he was asked. His late-career residency at the Venice Café picked up where his partner in blues James Crutchfield left off. (If there are two St. Louis musicians deserving of University City Walk of Fame stars who haven't yet received them, it's Crutchfield and Smith.) His classic instrumental "Penrose After Hours," named for the north-city street and neighborhood where he lived, is archetypal Smith: expressive, fleet and oh-so-cool. -RK

55. Isaac Green & the Skalars - "High School" (1996)

There's no more St. Louis question than "Where'd ya go to high school?" It's the locals' preferred method of tag-and-release. But when the talented ska-soul combo Isaac Green & the Skalars released the single "High School" on the dynamite Skoolin' with the Skalars LP, the band wasn't trying to determine your socio-economic background. The song deals with the pangs of saying goodbye just when you've gotten comfortable, the insecurity that comes with life's stops and starts. Isaac Green got top billing in the band but was little more than the band's hype man; it's singer and alto saxophonist Jessica Butler's soulful and vulnerable vocals that give the song its bittersweet sway. Backed by a crack horn section, bluebeat guitar strokes and the reedy chords of an old Farfisa organ, "High School" sounds oddly ageless for a coming-of-age song. Butler comes by her talent honestly; her father is long-time local fixture Ralph Butler. -CS

54. Jimmie Rodgers - "Frankie and Johnny" (1929)

In simplest terms, "Frankie and Johnny" is a murder ballad based on the true story of a St. Louis woman named Frankie Baker and her boyfriend Allen Britt. On October 13, 1899, Baker stabbed (some reports claimed shot) Britt (the name later morphed into the homophone Albert and/or was changed to Johnny out of deference to Britt's family) after a quarrel over another woman on the iniquitous Targee Street in St. Louis, where now stands the Scottrade Center. The victim later died from his wounds at the infamous City Hospital. The tune has endless variations, but one of the finest versions is sung by Jimmie Rodgers, who makes the tragic tale even more devastating with mournful yodeling and guitar pluckin' that makes his later influence over Hank Williams Sr. -- and therefore all of country music -- obvious. In his interpretation, Rodgers sympathizes with Frankie, laments the bad behavior of men and bemoans the resulting doomed nature of relationships: "This story has no moral, this story has no end / This story just goes to show, that there ain't no good in men." -JD

53. Henry Spaulding - "Biddle Street Blues" (1929)

Whether or not Henry Spaulding truly hailed from Future City at the bottommost tip of Illinois, his music charted a path forward for pre-war blues. Spaulding apparently only recorded two songs in his career: the seminal "Cairo Blues" and the intricately-snapping, rhythmically shifting and plaintively sung "Biddle Street Blues," named for a street -- "only 26 blocks long" -- in the Deep Morgan area of St. Louis. Details of Spaulding's life are few and obscure: He was a barber in the city and performed with Henry Townsend and JD Short, among others. But where he went and how long he lived after making his mark on St. Louis is still unknown. -RK

52. Nadine - "Dark Light" (1997)

Formed out of the vestiges of Sourpatch, a Washington University college-buddy band, Nadine released its first EP in 1997, featuring the voice and songs of Adam Reichmann, backed up by the core of Steve Rauner and Todd Schnitzer, as well as Bill Reyland on drums. "Dark Light" is one of the record's strongest tracks, a slice of St. Louis city life in the '90s: "Colored hair, kids and deadbeats / The girl from the county, convinced that she's been reborn / And on cue a Buick of young men lay on the horn." Lest you think Reichmann is going to paint too pretty a picture, Rauner's grungy guitar throbs over the mandola and a childproof lighter gets ready to hit the spoon. -RK

51. Roosevelt Sykes - "Highway 61 Blues" (1932)

"I'm leaving St. Louis, I'm going out Grand Avenue." And that's where the singer's troubles begin. Eventually the legendary blues highway, the inspiration to umpteen songs and one seminal album by Bob Dylan, leads him to Memphis. Still, it all begins in St. Louis for Roosevelt Sykes -- a.k.a. Willie Kelly, Dobby Bragg, Easy Papa Johnson -- one of the most recorded and influential of our city's blues musicians. Historian Kevin Belford claims "Highway 61 Blues" is about a visit to Sykes' girlfriend's house; apparently the romance wasn't going so hot. "Breaks my heart to think about Highway 61," the Honeydripper sings, letting his fingers fly over the keys like he can't get off the road soon enough. Sykes, a prodigious traveler, returned to St. Louis in 1981 to give his final concert and christen the newly opened BB's Jazz Blues and Soups, not far from the vanished clubs where he held forth for so long. -RK

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