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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The 100 Greatest St. Louis Songs

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

Page 9 of 10

20. Jay Farrar - "Outside the Door" (2001)

Haunted and haunting. That's the music of Jay Farrar, and the ghosts of St. Louis music gather in this four-minute blues ceremony: Peetie Wheatstraw, Buck McFarland, Steady Roll Johnson and Jelly Jaw Short, the pre-war bluesmen of St. Louis. Their names aren't often remembered, but their force is unforgettable. Or at least Farrar won't let us forget. As Kelly Joe Phelps' slide guitar rings out like jazz, Farrar rings in a new century by recalling what's been razed and glossed over: Deep Morgan, Gaslight Square and Mill Creek Valley. This isn't just history to Farrar; it's his DNA. It's ours, too. -RK

19. Fontella Bass - "To Be Free" (1972)

From the opening acoustic-guitar figure and the majestic strings, to the first lines sung -- "I think I'll go down by the river, gonna sit down and try to rest my mind" -- you know that St. Louis' first lady of soul is making this one to last. "To Be Free," written by Bass and producer Oliver Sain, speaks to its time: a civil-rights anthem refracted through an intensely personal and intensely St. Louis prism. As a timeless freedom song, it speaks to the here and now. The cover of the 1972 album Free shows Bass, in full Afrocentric regalia, standing on a bridge in Forest Park, her arms outstretched. This is her bid for "A Change Is Gonna Come" greatness. -RK

18. John Hartford - "Long Hot Summer Days" (1976)

New York-born, St. Louis-raised and Washington University-educated, John Hartford's life story reads like a 20th-century update of Mark Twain's career. Like Twain, the singer and multi-instrumentalist was fascinated by regional customs, particularly the stories that came from working the river. Hartford was a steamboat pilot in the 1970s, and the work never really left him. "Long Hot Summer Days" (from the album Mark Twang) is a simple round about piloting barges on the Illinois River, but with its circular, swirling quality (especially when matched with Hartford's fiddle and octave-spanning vocals), the song becomes part meditation, part celebration. St. Louis Cardinal Matt Carpenter honors Hartford and his adopted home by using the Turnpike Troubadours' version as his walk-up music. -CS

17. Della Reese - "You Came a Long Way from St. Louis" (1964)

Your high-class ways and fancy airs don't fool Della Reese, pal. At least for this song, she's from Missouri too, and she can spot a climber and striver as good as any. Bob Russell knew what he was talking about when he wrote the lyrics; he attended Washington University (rooming with writer Sidney Sheldon for a time), and though the song has been covered by the likes of Rosemary Clooney and Marvin Gaye, it's Reese's cut that practically spits fire. The song closes out the singer's 1964 live album Della Reese at Basin Street East, and fittingly so: it's hard to imagine anything topping it, especially because Reese commands the band to take it again from the bridge after receiving a well-earned ovation. -CS

16. The Bottle Rockets - "Slo Toms" (1997)

It's now closed, but Slo-Tom's Lounge, at 6728 South Broadway, was a classic south-city dive, Busch sign, glass bricks, dollar-bill-stuck ceiling and all. It was both bigger and smaller than life, a joint where regulars would smoke the uninitiated into oblivion, and where a legend named Gary really would play "Sweet Home Alabama" on his Peavey guitar, just as Brian Henneman sings in this true-to-barstool-spinning-life tale. When it comes to telling the real stories of real St. Louisans, no rock & roll band ever has -- or ever will -- beat the Bottle Rockets. -RK

15. Lonnie Johnson - "St. Louis Cyclone Blues" (1927)

"I was sitting in my kitchen, looking out across the sky," begins the singer. "I thought the world was ending, I started in to cry." Alonzo "Lonnie" Johnson never intended to be solely a blues musician; his talent and vision were boundless. His innovations on the guitar solo influenced scores of musicians after him, and he sang as expressively as he played. "St. Louis Cyclone Blues" is one of his most forceful recordings, tooting wind impressions and all. The twister of September 29, 1927, obliterated six square miles of St. Louis and left scores dead. Johnson witnessed the disaster and tells the story with astonishment -- and astonishing power. -RK

14. Ike & Tina Turner - "A Fool in Love" (1960)

"A Fool in Love" wasn't supposed to spotlight Anna Mae Bullock (who had already recorded with Ike Turner as "Little Ann"). When Ike's go-to singer didn't show, he gave the song to Ms. Bullock to demo. Demo? She flat-out demolished it, with a gritty, gospel frenzy beyond her twenty years. The song hit No. 2 on the R&B charts, No. 27 on pop, and became a concert highpoint for the Ike & Tina Turner Revue as well as for Tina's solo shows. "We never, ever do nothing nice and easy," she later famously warned from the stage. Fifty-four years on, "A Fool in Love" remains as ferocious and tight as music gets. It is the big bang of St. Louis soul. -RK

13. St. Lunatics - "Midwest Swing" (2001)

If Midwesterners have long endured the burn of being considered "flyover country" by the coastal elites, the St. Lunatics show 'em how we roll: with blue Cutlasses, starched jeans and enough ice to fill a deep freezer. Nelly's crew released Free City the year after Country Grammar went worldwide, and they continued to plant a flag for St. Louis. Nelly laughs off the idea of the Midwest as nothing but farmland, and the track's use of barnyard noises mocks the haters. You can practically hear Murphy Lee strain to over-pronounce his R's -- a cri de coeur for the Lou's own phonetic gifts that endures as a St. Louis hip-hop earmark. -CS

12. Miles Davis Quintet - "Walkin'" (1956)

East St. Louis' most famous son returned to his roots in July of 1956 to play at the Peacock Alley club in Gaslight Square. The sets were recorded and broadcast on KXLW (1320 AM) and hosted by Spider Burks, one of the city's first prominent black DJs. Oh, and Miles was joined by a relatively unknown tenor-sax player named John Coltrane, who along with Philly Joe Jones, Paul Chambers and Red Garland, would comprise the "First Great Quintet." The two-disc recording from those summer sets remains a valued bootleg and a portrait of the ever-evolving Miles (at his expressive best on "Walkin'"), just as he was working through one of his most celebrated periods. -CS

11. Pokey LaFarge - "Central Time" (2013)

We knew that Pokey LaFarge couldn't remain St. Louis' worst-kept secret, and when he released last year's self-titled album on Jack White's label, LaFarge introduced himself to an international audience with an ode to the heartland. For all of his genteel manners, LaFarge is downright defiant in his proclamation of the Midwest's superiority over cities on the coasts. "Central Time" is St. Louis time, our pace and our rhythms, the music of our pre-war heritage, the classic blues and jazz that inspire LaFarge. The song is backed on a vinyl 45 with an abbreviated history lesson called "St. Louis Crawl" in case you missed the A-side's message. -CS

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