The Best St. Louis Rock & Pop Musicians of All Time (2024)

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The Best St. Louis Rock & Pop Musicians of All Time (1)

Illustration by Edward Kinsella III

Ike and Tina Turner

In 1951, Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats had the No. 1 song on the Billboard R&B chart, “Rocket 88.” Only Ike Turner had written that song. Maybe that’s why a few years later, when 16-year-old Sumner High School student Anna Mae Bullock proved she had pipes, he was reluctant to make her a permanent part of the band. But when a singer failed to show for a recording session, Turner let Bullock record “A Fool in Love,” which went to No. 2 on the R&B chart. By 1960, he’d dubbed her Tina Turner and started the Ike and Tina Turner Revue. They were on the cover of Rolling Stone three times in five years, and they won a Grammy for their cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary.” Tina claimed she taught Mick Jagger how to dance. Though Ike was from Mississippi, Tina from Tennessee, it was during a gig at St. Louis’ Club Manhattan where Anna Mae first grabbed Ike’s microphone and their tumultuous path to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame began.

Chuck Berry

Early in his career, Chuck Berry played country songs in East St. Louis clubs, throbbing with syncopation and blue notes to approximate his musical models, jazz guitarist Charlie Christian and blues player T-Bone Walker. When Berry played his version of the country song “Ida Red” for Leonard Chess, founder of Chess Records, he got a record deal. The only problem was the song title. “There was a mascara box laying on the floor in the corner of the studio,” recalled pianist Johnnie Johnson later. “And Leonard Chess said, ‘Well hell, let’s name the damn thing ‘Maybellene.’” (Berry claims it was the name of a cow in his third-grade primer.) On May 21, 1955, after 36 takes, they had it—the driving beat, playful riffs, and some residual country twang. We all know what followed: a million copies sold, “Roll Over Beethoven” became a hit the next year, and Berry eventually was part of the first class of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees. Now rock ’n’ roll had a face, an instrument—the electric guitar—and a vernacular. It was blues and country and boogie-woogie. It was black and white and incredibly young. It was America’s new sound of sex, slang, speed, and change.

Johnnie Johnson

His fingers rolled out hot boogie-woogie chords and bluesy glissandos. Johnnie Johnson, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, is one of the genre’s finest pianists. When his Sir John’s Trio found itself short a guitarist before a New Year’s Eve show at East St. Louis’ Cosmopolitan Club in 1952, Johnson called Chuck Berry. The guitarist eventually became the bandleader, while Johnson played on many of Berry’s recordings. Though Johnson was born in West Virginia and didn’t come to St. Louis until his mid-twenties, this is where he established himself as a musician, where he fell into obscurity, and where he was rediscovered in the mid-’80s. By then, he was a bus driver. But Johnson, the original inspiration for the song “Johnny B. Goode,” could still roll those fingers across the keys, just like a-ringin’ a bell.

Donny Hathaway

It’s easy to remember Donny Hathaway’s death. He fell or jumped 15 stories from the posh Essex House hotel in New York. A few hours earlier, he had been talking about white people hooking a machine up to his brain. Back when he was growing up in the Carr Square neighborhood, he started singing professionally with his grandmother at age 3 and was billed as the world’s youngest gospel singer. Though his genre was primarily soul, his later duets with Roberta Flack had crossover appeal; his song “This Christmas” has been covered by everyone from Aretha Franklin to *NSYNC. He composed soundtracks, performed the theme to the Norman Lear TV sitcom Maude, and put out solo albums. When he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, his world unraveled, resulting in hospitalizations and his falling-out with Flack. But his death still came as a surprise, an abrupt end to a life and career that seemed to be only starting.

Fontella Bass

Fontella Bass cut her chops singing gospel with her mother, Martha Bass, and working at the Showboat Club overlooking the Mississippi. When she signed to Chess Records, she sang duets with Bobby McClure, another locally raised gospel singer who had been in Sam Cooke’s Soul Stirrers. But it was her solo hit, “Rescue Me,” that raced up the charts and was Chess Records’ first million-selling single since Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene.” When Chess refused to give her writing credit and handed her a rather paltry royalty check, she eventually quit and retreated to Paris with her husband, jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie.

The Breakout Acts

In 1967, The 5th Dimension swept the Grammys with its version of the Jimmy Webb–penned “Up, Up and Away.” Formed by St. Louis natives Billy Davis Jr., Lamonte McLemore, and the late Ron Townson, along with Marilyn McCoo and Florence LaRue, the quintet even beat out The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in multiple categories. And The 5th Dimension’s success was only beginning. With the musical Hair—and the medley “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In”—the band was inextricably linked to the pseudo-psychedelic optimism of the ’70s.

Anyone who has been to one of Ludo’s themed concerts (e.g., A Very Ludo Christmas) or has seen the campy “Love Me Dead” video or has heard the EP rock opera Broken Bride wouldn’t be surprised to learn frontman Andrew Volpe was in a Muny production of Bye Bye Birdie. The group’s sound, something like a mix of Queen and Weezer, earned Ludo a Billboard top-10 single.

Before alternative rock band Story of the Year’s singles “Until the Day I Die” and “Anthem of Our Dying Day” were everywhere, the group was gigging around town as Big Blue Monkey. Then its album Page Avenue sold 900,000 copies. But the group didn’t forget its roots. In February 2011, Story played a thank-you show for fans at The Pageant.

We can’t really claim former R.E.M. vocalist Michael Stipe, who was born in Georgia and, as a military brat, lived in Germany, Texas, and Alabama. But he graduated from high school in Collinsville, Ill., and played a few shows in the area with his new-wave band Nasty Habits. When his parents moved back to Athens, Ga., he stayed behind in Granite City, going to Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and eating spaghetti and butter with his punk-rock friends till he ran out of money and followed his parents to that—in his words—“cowpoke, hippie town.”

When the KPNT-FM–sponsored Point-essential Volume 1 CD came out, Gravity Kills’ song “Guilty” kicked off a label bidding war for the industrial rock group. It even made it onto the Se7en soundtrack.

Longtime fans of the ska/punk/reggae outfit The Urge will have the Bust Me Dat Forty cassette, while new ones caught the recently reunited Urge at Pointfest 29 in September and a string of November Pageant concerts—in addition to probably grabbing a dog from lead singer Steve Ewing’s food cart (and catering business), Steve’s Hometown Hot Dogs & Sausages.

Stir sounded a bit like Collective Soul, and the band, formed by lead vocalist and guitarist Andy Schmidt at the University of Missouri in Columbia, was everywhere in 1997 when its single “Looking For” went to No. 8 on Billboard’s mainstream-rock chart.

McCluer High School alum Michael McDonald’s brand of blue-eyed soul has won him five Grammys over the course of his career playing with Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers, as well as performing his solo works.

Hard-rock group Cavo hit No. 3 on Billboard’s hard-rock chart in 2009 with its second full-length, Bright Nights Dark Days.

Top Five

Annie Zaleski

Alternative Press Managing Editor; former Riverfront Times Music Editor

1. Chuck Berry

Key Track: “Johnny B. Goode”

2. Ike and Tina Turner

Key Track: “River Deep–Mountain High”

3. Michael McDonald

Key Track: “I Keep Forgettin’”

4. Jay Farrar

Key Track: Son Volt’s “Down to the Wire”

5. MU330

Key Track: “Stuff”

The Best St. Louis Rock & Pop Musicians of All Time (2024)
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