Monday, June 29, 2009

Bob Koester

Delmark Records began in St. Louis when Bob Koester was attending Saint Louis University in the 1950s and selling old 78 rpm records at his Blue Note store on DeBaliviere and Delmar Blvd. During the late-50s there was a return of interest to roots music and a rediscovering of the early blues artists. Many of those original artists were still alive thirty years after their recordings were made and in St. Louis, Koester found nearly all of the St. Louis bluesmen and women. He and local policeman and music fan Charlie O'Brien made it their hobby to track down anything they could about the names on the labels of the old phonograph records.

Delmark is the nation's oldest independent record label and Koester has received nearly all music-related awards one could hope for. He is one of a handful of nonperformers to have been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. 

Delmark has always been devoted to blues and jazz but those genres are indistinct categories today and recording older, less-commercially viable artists is a risky venture even in a strong economy. The label has never made the kind of profit mainstream music could have made and now music sharing is causing CD sales to dry up.

I met Bob in the late 90s when I had just started researching the music of St. Louis. Despite rumors of him being gruff, opinionated and outspoken, I found him to be one of the nicest guys in all of my researching. He gave me copies of nearly every Jazz Report (his mimeographed newsletter and catalog from the Blue Note days) to study and took most of a workday to go over each and every page and detail of my first draft manuscript in a Chicago coffeeshop. 

I'm very proud to have done album cover artwork and liner notes for Delmark – especially the 50th anniversary box set, but I am really happy to have a collection of rare recordings culled from Bob's archives on an exclusive CD in the book, DEVIL AT THE CONFLUENCE.

There was a great article about Koester in last weekend's NYT.
"Happily Seduced by the Blues," New York Times, June 28, 2009:

And an article by Scott Barretta for Blues Access from 1997, titled
"Bob Koester, The Monarch of Delmark" here:

And Delmark's catalog is on the web at:

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Lonnie Johnson

Lonnie Johnson can be seen as the epitome of the St. Louis blues. 

With so much creativity and skills so far advanced of his time, the brilliance of Lonnie Johnson stands alone and often uncategorized in typical blues history writings. The blues purist authors avoid Johnson's amazing guitar dexterity that makes nearly all other pre-war guitar work seem primitive, and the jazz music history writers cold-shoulder him because he was not working from arrangement sheets.

The prolific careers of so many musicians in the St. Louis area in the 1920s and 30s and the innovative art they created defined the blues as more than only rough rural guitar from the southern United States. And like Lonnie Johnson, they made their art and advanced the field of music by inspiring other blues artists to keep up with the avant-garde from the city of the confluence. They made their own category of blues from what came before it and defined what was to come after it, but the St Louis blues have not yet been recognized as its own category, primarily because of the progressive concepts and the variety of the music from the many artists from the city.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Devil At The Confluence

 Kevin Belford is an artist in St Louis, Missouri. After graduating from the Kansas City Art Institute, he has spent most of his career as a professional freelance illustrator.

His work in advertising, corporate art and editorial illustration has been published and exhibited locally and internationally. In St Louis, he is well known for his work in the print media--including The Sporting News, the St Louis Post Dispatch, St Louis magazine, and for years of covers of the Riverfront Times.

 He has produced a number of books including: The Ballpark Book, for The Sporting News, and the children’s books: Amazing Arthur Ashe, Spirit Of A Champion and Twist Of Fate--The Miracle Horse Of Longmeadow Ranch, as well as having done numerous interior illustrations and covers for longer works.

 The St Louis Blues Legends project began as a painting series to document the forgotten blues legends of the city.  However,after completing his initial research, Belford found that many area blues artists had been forgotten and that information on their part of the city’s history was never completely collected and preserved. Only a paragraph or two 

that mentioned St. Louis and its rich history of the blues and jazz musical genres could be found in printed works.

  So, Belford began a search of books, oral histories, archives, journals, discontinued magazines, printed interviews, genealogical resources, city records, recording company logs and cemetery books to compile a complete list of the pre-war recorded blues and jazz musicians of St. Louis and their songs.

 I realized that the availability and accuracy of the information was a problem with earlier attempts at a blues history for the area. The original artists are long gone, and they left little more than their blues recordings. I searched primary sources and public records and interviewed the few surviving blues artists. There is information available for ragtime and some of the early rock and roll that happened here, but the early blues of St Louis have never been fully documented. My idea was to show the original blues artists - who they were and what they did, so that fans could know about the them and non-fans could be led to discover their music.

 I hope the book can educate and can raise awareness of the fact that St Louis is the home of the blues -- the blues that became rhythm and blues and then rock and roll and eventually evolved into our current music styles. I hope that it helps people discover that St. Louis musicians have consistently been a part of every major trend in American music, and that it was that same way with the blues and jazz legends of the 1920s and 30s.  We sometimes overlook or take for granted the cultural treasures in our own back yard, yet no other area or city has the rich history and heritage for quality that St Louis has.

 A wonderful part of the blues is the lore and mythology, and I didn’t want to water down any of that. Music is, after all, entertainment, and I wanted the design and art of my book to mirror that intent, but another purpose has always been to commemorate and honor St Louis musicians and their music. 

 So, my first decision was to do everything as accurately as possible: to gather the facts about the musicians, the locations where they worked and lived and to place them and their songs within the context of the history of the city and the times. 

I did not seek to answer the usual question of "Where were the blues born?"  Instead, I wanted to answer the question “What blues were born in St Louis?”  

The blues are unique as a musical style. They are purely American, yet the themes are multicultural. They are one of a number of early transitional styles of American music and so they evolved from the best of what came before them. 

The blues were defined by the artists who made them simply as music inspired by sadness or hard times. Other definitions and categories came later and were written by fans and surveyors of the art form. The blues are also the original street music -- by the people and for the people. Their music had its day, and popular music moved on. Yet audiences and fans still revive them every few years. And each revisiting finds the music charmingly honest and contemporarily relevant.

Kevin Belford, 2009.