ST. LOUIS Die-hard music lovers, casual fans and globe-trotting tourists readily embrace Chicago as the home of the blues, spurred in large part by the Great Migration northward of Southern blacks in the early and mid-20th century.
Robert Johnson, the genre’s godfather, famously sang of “Sweet Home Chicago,” and the Chicago Blues Festival draws more than 100,000 people each summer.
But come next year, the National Blues Museum won’t find a home in Chicago but in a rival Midwest city 300 miles to the south.
St. Louis has its own deserving musical history, organizers of the project say, with hometown heroes such as Ike Turner, Albert King and, of course, Chuck Berry.
“We date way back,” said museum organizer and music promoter Dave Beardsley. “Chicago didn’t really blow up until the ’50s, till Muddy (Waters) plugged in and went electric. We go back to W.C. Handy (who would later write “St. Louis Blues”) in 1893. … Our roots are far deeper than anyone knows.”
The St. Louis museum grew out of a shared passion by Beardsley and fellow blues buff Mike Kociela, also a concert and festival promoter.
While Chicago has tried and failed to launch similar blues shrines, St. Louis’ $14 million project won the backing of a local developer who wanted a museum to anchor a retail, residential and office complex next to the convention center downtown, just blocks from the Gateway Arch.
Kociela and Beardsley reached out to leaders and musicians in cities with comparable bragging rights – chiefly Chicago, Memphis and Clarksdale, Miss. – for help, and none objected, Kocielsa said. To pitch the project, they brought in some of the genre’s contemporary heavy hitters: Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, Shemekia Copeland, Derek Trucks and Trombone Shorty.
It worked. Pinnacle Entertainment, which owns two casinos in the St. Louis suburbs, donated $6 million to the planned 23,000-square-foot interactive museum with classrooms and a small theater.
St. Louis is “a major blues community,” says Robert Santelli, executive director of The Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. It’s a distinction earned in part because of the Mississippi River and the stream of levee builders and stevedores who called the city home.
What it lacked, though, was a major record label to draw blues recording artists. Chicago had Chess Records and Alligator Records, while St. Louis could counter only with the more jazz-tinged Delmark Records, which lasted five years before relocating to Chicago in 1958.
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