Sunday, January 3, 2016

The American epic story to be told.

Last summer I was consulted for the upcoming PBS / BBC documentary, American Epic.

The project promises to be a story that's never been told about American music history and it seems to be specifically interested in the early days of music recording. St. Louis' Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three outfit are recording some music for it and it's got celebrities like T Bone Burnett, Robert Redford and Jack White behind it.

They contacted me to ask where a 1927 recording session by Okeh records might have taken place in St. Louis and they suggested that possible locations might have been a warehouse or a furniture or phonograph store, perhaps within walking distance from a train station.

It's very encouraging that they are interested in the overlooked music history of St. Louis because that is the big missing piece of the American music story. And their question underscores the fact that St. Louis' vital music history is still completely unknown to the rest of the world.

Their question assumes that recording music in St. Louis probably happened occasionally in a makeshift studio in a borrowed room close to where the train could drop off the traveling recording outfit, because that's the old story of how it happened in cities like Atlanta, Dallas, or Memphis. But that's not how it was in St. Louis.

By the 1920’s, St. Louis was in its third or fourth decade of pioneering and creating the music business - everything from talent scouting to product selling.

St. Louis performers and creators were making the first songs of the American songbook while St. Louis entrepreneurs were creating the field of distributing, marketing and retailing the hit records.

Some of the earliest commercial music recordings were cylinder recordings made of St. Louis singers in downtown studios before the turn of the century.

In the first decades of the 20th century the big stars of St. Louis ragtime like Tom Turpin were still producing America’s first popular music genre while Columbia and Brunswick Records were recording early St. Louis jazz.

The Mound City Blue Blowers sparked the public demand for hot jazz recordings while the legendary St. Louis women defined the blues singer genre. Then St. Louis expanded that category by recording a blues song with a male singer. And St. Louis was responsible for the guitarist-singer-songwriter prototype that eventually became the dominating style of American pop music.

 The Artophone company began in St. Louis in 1918 and partnered with Okeh and Paramount selling race and hillbilly records by mail order to the rural South. Their Herwin record label and St. Louis Music Company employed many of the local blues artists and one of their first big hits was St. Louis jazz legend Charlie Creath's Market Street Blues.

The recording studio would have been on the upper floor of their offices on Pine Street, not only a few blocks away from the train station, but also just a few blocks from where Scott Joplin launched ragtime, and where Tram and Bix sat in with jazz originators, and where Lonnie Johnson won the first blues contest.

It’s great that we have created far-reaching interest for the story of St. Louis’ music, but the city still has not invested in its unique and significant part of American music history. It’s the story that has been told - in the book Devil At The Confluence.

Kevin Belford, 2015.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Frankie was a good girl.

Frankie was a good girl.

Frankie Baker was not a prostitute and she didn't run a brothel.

And here we go again, ruining long-held myths for hundreds of elderly blues music fans.

Over the years, St. Louis' American music legends have turned blue.
Staggerlee has been recast as a pimp and Frankie Baker of the song Frankie And Johnnie has been described as a prostitute although neither characterization is true to the historical facts.

Frankie Baker who shot her lover Johnny, was a proper lady and her virtue had nothing to do with the story.

But that's the how the stories were altered as they became popular over the last century.
I don't know why that happened.
It seems some people just want their folk legends to be in the sex trade.

The song lyrics were quite clear about her, Frankie was a good girl. Ev'rybody knowed.
Yet over the years, other versions have mistreated and defamed our city's famous femme fatale of American balladry.

The popular song, (and folktale, movie, play and ballet,) dramatized the blues of a fallen woman mistreated by a no-good man.

Poor Frankie tried to move on with her life after the court found her innocent of murder.

She hoped the insults would stop but they didn't. So she moved out of town.
And then she moved to Oregon.
Nearly 40 years later, poor and aged, Frankie went to the courts again and sued (twice) to clear herself of the accusation of a, woman of unchaste character, a harlot, an adulteress, a person of lewd character.

 Baker contended that she was a respectable woman although she was being described as a, woman of easy virtue, and as a murderess in the consort of gamblers and notorious criminals.

She said that the public portrayal of her caused, scandal, infamy, shame and disgrace, and that the legend held her up as an, object of hatred, ridicule, shame and contempt.

Establishing that she was not a tramp was her only wish.

Frankie was betrayed first by her boyfriend and then in the St. Louis courthouse.

Tyrrell Williams, the Dean of Washington University's law school said that Frankie could not be harmed because the song was not about her. He testified under oath that he thought that maybe there might be an older "Frankie" song.
There is no evidence, no proof of that older song, but he said he had read about it.

Then in 1988, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, our hometown newspaper, characterized our hometown heroine as an opportunist trying to swindle money from Hollywood,
…Frankie Baker, went to the movie and saw green. She sued the movie company in 1938, complaining that it hadn't paid her a dime for what she called her story.

And as recently as 2013, St. Louis blues fans continued to slander her by writing that,
Baker ran a boarding house that probably, like many of the houses in the neighborhood, included a brothel.

Baker didn't have a boarding house.
Her occupation was not listed as Sporting as the prostitutes were called, it was Domestic, meaning she was a maid or a laundress.

One of her neighbors testified that, Frankie was a nice girl and behaved herself like a lady, and another said, There weren’t any sporting people lived there.

In the defamation trial, no one accused Frankie of immorality.
The defense was not arguing Frankie’s virtue, they sought to prove that the song wasn't about this Frankie Baker.

So now, after more than 100 years, the shaming of Frankie Baker needs to end.
And if righting this wrong ruins the song for some people, well then so be it.
She was not a courtesan, cyprian, or soiled dove and she didn't run a bawdy house of immoral purpose.
Poor Frankie was a good girl and everybody knowed.

For trustworthy information, Tim O'Neil is another very careful researcher and writer. 
His Look Back series at stltoday is always very good.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

A memorial to St. Louis' jazz gentleman Clark Terry.

    "St. Louis is a jazz town - it was all around my neighborhood, and I heard it every day."

  St. Louis musicians rarely are described as such when tributes are written. Anecdotes of their life growing up in the city are sometimes left out and especially if the artist wasn't living in St. Louis when he passed. But Clark Terry always spoke highly of his hometown and had wonderful stories and lots of pride for St. Louis and its arts. As a memorial to Clark Terry who passed away yesterday, Devil At The Confluence presents Terry's words and stories of St. Louis.

  Born on South Broadway in 1920, Terry recalled when he heard St Louis' legendary Dewey Jackson band at Sauter's Park where the Skatium is today. Jackson's dynamic trumpet playing convinced Terry to become a musician. And Terry was influenced as well by the music in a sanctified church on Iron Street in Carondelet. He didn't attend the services, but he would sit out on the sidewalk and listen to the singing and shouting coming from inside. He began playing music with some friends in a street corner kazoo band and when he was sixteen he joined the Drum and Bugle Corps of the Tom Powell Post on Enright Avenue.

  The popular Jeter-Pillar's band was at the Club Plantation and Terry was looking for his break into show business. St. Louis' Sykes Smith gave him his shot by sneaking him in,
    "He'd have me come up the back stairs of the Club Plantation. He’d put a chair in the corner and I’d sit there, and when he had a solo he’d point to me, and he let me take his solos."

  Terry was also in George Hudson's band that replaced the Jeter-Pillars group at the Club Plantation. Hudson's group was well-known to the big stars touring across the country. Terry remembered when one of the biggest stars of the time, Ella Fitzgerald came to the Plantation. At six in the morning, after playing all night, Terry and his bandmates would play a game of softball. Fitzgerald tagged along.
    "She had a great voice and a great arm. She could throw your butt out at home plate from the outfield," recalled Terry.

  Dollar Bill and his Small Change was a legendary group in St. Louis jazz history, although they were never recorded. As a young trumpet player on his way up in the scene, Terry worked with Dollar Bill.
    "He was an old piano player, one of the old pros. He smoked and chewed on long cigars all the time. His slogan was, “I’m Dollar Bill from Compton Hill. I never worked, and I never will.”
One of Terry's greatest numbers is Mumbles, his impersonation of a legendary St. Louis blues singer he knew back home.

  Miles Davis was just a boy when Terry was a professional at clubs like Birdlong's, the Tune Town Ballroom, the Elks Club and the Barrel where Jimmy Forrest played. Davis always remembered the time he worked up the courage to approach Terry while on break, but Terry was more interested in the ladies on the dance floor and paid little attention to the pestering kid. It became a favorite gag for both of them to tell later in life.

  And when Terry told this story he confessed that it was what made him determined to teach and to make time for every student. In Seattle, Washington, while playing at the Palomar Theater with Count Basie, another young man approached Terry to learn from him and Terry kindly obliged. That first student was Quincy Jones. Mentoring became his focus and his pride. A Kennedy Center concert was delayed when Terry was missing from backstage at showtime. Stagehands were sent scurrying to find him. Someone heard trumpet playing in a stairwell and found Terry giving a quick scales lesson to a student who had asked him a question.

  Lionel Hampton, Count Basie and Duke Ellington took Terry away from St. Louis and eventually he was in the NBC band and on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

  Terry enjoyed returning to St. Louis, and spoke highly of his hometown and the local music that inspired him. He was very proud of his star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame at Blueberry Hill in the University City loop.

  Clark Terry's unique artistry, like his hometown's music legacy, are both largely under-appreciated. And this inadequate understanding of the city, its arts and the music that was born here is made obvious in an interview with Terry by the National Endowment for the Arts - Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Program. Knowing only what he had read in books, the interviewer began talking about King Oliver and Louis Armstrong coming up the river on boats from New Orleans to bring jazz to St. Louis, but Terry interrupted him saying,
    "No, we had our own."
    "Charlie Creath, King of Cornet. Now he could play, man. He could swing. He could swing you into bad health, and all the cats wanted to swing like Charlie Creath. This is why all of the trumpet players, if you trace all the way down the line, who hung around there, had anything to do with that, like Joe Thomas, Ham Davis, Sweets Edison, Vertna Saunders, Harold Baker, Dewey Jackson, Sleepy Tomlin, Miles Davis. All of these cats had something that hinged back to Charlie Creath."

Rest in peace, Mr. Terry.
St. Louis is proud of you too.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Palladium / St. Louis Club Plantation added to the National Trust's 2014 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

The lost history of the St. Louis Palladium / Club Plantation, posted at the Devil At The Confluence blog, has been recognized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the building has been placed on the list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

This is the only landmark in St. Louis ever recognized as an endangered national treasure. In its 27-year history, the NTHP's list has brought attention to more than 250 sites, only a handful of which have been lost, according to the Trust.

The new research and the support from everyone on the Facebook group made the difference and now the possibility of demolition by the VA Medical Center is lessened. The Missouri State Historic Preservation Office and the VA's own independent Cultural Resources survey confirms that the Palladium is significant for its association with culturally important events and social history.

In correspondence to the MSHP, the Veterans Administration said, "At this time, the VA considers it unlikely that the St. Louis Palladium property will be acquired." And in a recent reply to me, the VA's Office of Acquisition, Logistics and Construction said, "Presently the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has no plans to acquire the Palladium building." But the threat by the VA was not the only danger, because deterioration was evident in a recent visit inside of the building.

Not merely "one of the old ballrooms," the Palladium in Grand Center is a historic landmark of our city's significant cultural legacy and has been associated with practically every genre of popular music and entertainment of the Twentieth Century.

The Palladium roller skating rink was built over 100 years ago when St. Louis ragtime was the pop music of the nation. St. Louis' earliest jazz band was playing dances on the huge wood floor by its first birthday in 1914.

During World War II and into the 1950s, the building was the famous St. Louis Club Plantation, a jazz and swing nightclub like the famous Cotton Club in Harlem, New York City. The Jeter-Pillars Orchestra was the Plantation's house band and a proving ground for many of the city's best jazzmen while they hosted legends of American music such as Nat King Cole, the Mills Brothers, and Ella Fitzgerald.

Milestones of music history, the legendary artists and their stories are what make the Palladium more than just an old music hall and worthy of preservation - it is the de facto St. Louis music museum and nothing like this landmark remains as evidence of our legacy.

Gone are sites where the legends like Peetie Wheatstraw, Chuck Berry, and Ike and Tina made the St. Louis sound. Miles Davis' first stage appearances were at an Elk's Club, the Club Riviera, and the Club Plantation in the Palladium building. Only the Palladium still stands.

These world famous, culture-changing locations prove that St. Louis’ contributions are more significant to the development of American culture and popular music than previously assumed. This is our legacy and our identity and it has come very close to being completely lost.

Kevin Belford
Author, Devil At The Confluence, The PreWar Blues And Jazz Of St. Louis.

More about the Palladium / St Louis Club Plantation history:

The Club Plantation entrance stairway.

The main floor. (Photo by Brian Villa)

The area above the drop ceiling. The North facade windows on right.

The St. Louis Club Plantation entrance today.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Chas. Creath

There seems to be way too much emphasis put upon the importance of the Mississippi river in the story of American music. The river was not the only way to travel and it's hard to believe that music, art and fashion was a side-effect of freight shipping.

It's more logical and well documented that the traveling entertainment groups and the start of the commercial music industry are how new music trends spread through the nation.

The paths to success of the early music legends in St. Louis are not based upon the river. None began in the South and traveled up the river, nor were the St. Louisans taught how to play jazz or blues by North-bound travelers.

A good example of early homegrown St. Louis talent would be Charles Creath. Born in Missouri, Creath was living in East St. Louis when he joined P G Lowrey's band. Traveling around the midwest in the teens, Creath and other St. Louis music legends like William Blue and Harvey Lankford spread the new sound of jass on what would later become the Black vaudeville circuit.

A regional superstar in the dawn of the jazz age, Creath's Jazz-O-Maniacs of course played for dances on excursion boats out of St. Louis. But the steamboats were merely one venue and there were many more jobs for musicians in the city through the social clubs, hotels and dancehalls.

Creath, (or manager Jesse Johnson) cleverly had six bands named the Jazz-O-Maniacs working around the area in an attempt to handle the demand for hot St. Louis jazz music. People traveled miles to hear Creath's dynamic trumpet jazz and promoters would postpone and re-book dates to be sure Chas himself would appear in person.

This widespread popularity caught the attention of national recording companies and Creath’s band was signed to the Okeh label. The Jazz-O-Maniac’s hit recordings were landmarks of music history for being the first male vocal blues, the first pairing of the words rock and roll in music vocabulary, and if not the first, one of the earliest integrated bands in the recording industry.

It's clear that the jazz legends of St. Louis did not learn from and were not influenced by the mythic New Orleans players like Oliver, Keppard or Bolden. The early music of St. Louis is groundbreaking and creative and uniquely its own. The rivers and railroads were much more important for hauling commerce than culture and the more we learn about St. Louis history the clearer it is that the Confluence at St. Louis was where others came to hear what was new.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Lonnie Johnson and Baby Cox with Duke Ellington

In 1928, St. Louis blues guitar legend Lonnie Johnson recorded a batch of songs with Duke Ellington and on a couple of the cuts a singer credited as Baby Cox made a terrific vocal scat to Lonnie's solo guitar work.

Over the years, Lonnie was certainly under-credited for his influential and important work and it seems that the performer listed as Baby Cox was also forgotten because today there is hardly anything known about the singer other than the name.

Devil At The Confluence is all about crediting the uncredited St. Louis musicians such as Lonnie Johnson, and although the research shows that Baby Cox was not a St. Louisan, she deserves better than history has treated her, so here is what we found about the forgotten Jazz-age entertainer:

Gertrude Cox was born to the vaudeville family of Jimmy Cox and his wife, Anna Mae Cox in Memphis, TN around 1907. Jimmy, known as the Black Charlie Chaplin, had his own touring revue, the Georgia Red Hots, and was composer of the popular standard, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out,” that was a hit for Bessie Smith.

Working as soon as she could, Gertrude was billed as Baby Cox and was a very popular part of her parent's act. A newspaper reported that the Cox Trio was getting six encores every night in Atlanta, Georgia, with Baby Cox on the bill in 1910. The next decade of reviews consistently cheer Baby Cox's act in the Theater Owners Booking Association touring circuit.

Still very popular and no longer a child in 1923, she had married and had a baby. The family tried to work Gerturde's child into the act as "Baby I Love Cox," but it seems that he didn't have what it takes to be on the stage.

Her talents as a singer, dancer, and comedienne brought her the opportunity to join a touring gig with a hugely successful Butterbeans and Susie show in 1927. And within a couple of years she was offered a role in another famous show, Fats Waller's "Hot Chocolates" on Broadway.

In the summer of 1928 she was listed with multiple shows and getting rave reviews frequently. This seems to be the height of her career and it was at this point, in the fall of 1928, that Duke Ellington asked her to record.

The 1920s ended with Baby Cox on top of Broadway and being sued by one of her minor show producers to keep her from appearing in other shows.

In the 1930s, Baby Cox, (married name, Gertrude Jordan Davis,) was living in New York with two children and performing at the famous Connie's Inn. There were rumors of her suffering from "nervous strain" but she assured reporters that it was possible to raise children and have a show-biz career as a single mother.

But after a musical theater flop titled "Hummin’ Sam" opened and closed in a single performance on April 8, 1933, the press wrote less and less about Baby Cox.

So why aren't Baby Cox and Lonnie Johnson very well-known having been superior performers and innovators? That's a hard question to answer. Cox and Johnson were driven, professional artists who succeeded using their talent in a tough business. 
What more is needed for them to be counted among the Robert Johnsons and Louis Armstrongs?
Sometimes it seems that many of the true creative artists in the past are forgotten simply because no one kept a biography of their work for others to learn about them. Maybe we can fix that.

Check out the link to YouTube. The Mooche was one of the cuts made by Baby Cox with Lonnie Johnson for Duke Ellington and a wonderful example of two early jazz creatives improvising with guitar and voice.

Duke Ellington's - The Mooche.
Lonnie Johnson and Baby Cox solo at 1:32

Friday, August 23, 2013

The enumerator and Frank James.

St. Louis, 1900.

   "Good morning Sir, I'm with the United States Census. Can I have your name?" The young man asked.
   "Last name?"
   "It's Frank James."
The kid looked up at the man in the door. Whoa, it is him.
It was strange to see him in the flesh and odd that the world famous bandit would be here. In this house. In St. Louis. But maybe that's why he isn't dead.
   "Where were you born Sir?"
The man squinted at the kid.
   "I'm supposed to ask.2 cents per name wasn’t worth getting a slug in the gut and he added, “I’ve always respected you.
   "Look kid, is there something you can do about all those questions?" grunted James. 
   "Uh, well no. Or maybe. Uh, if you were out of town I’d have to..."
   "Yeah kid. I'm out of town."
   "OK, Right. Uh, I've read all your books."
   "I didn't write those. It wasn't like they say." And as the door shut he said, "See you around kid".

The kid stepped off the porch and onto the sidewalk of Laclede Avenue. He couldn't believe it. The brother of Jesse, the outlaw, killer, famous bank and train robber. The man in hundreds of pulp novels and movies and in that song that every schoolboy knows.

On the enumeration sheet he wrote, “James, Frank.” 
Then across the columns for Age and Occupation, "Gone to Jefferson City."

Then, "Member of the famous James Gang of Missouri," and then, "WOW.
And again, "WOW.