Local exhibit celebrates east side musicians who helped create the ‘Sound of St. Louis’

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Miles Davis. Ike & Tina Turner. Chuck Berry. Those are just a few names that come to mind when thinking about the musical history attributed to St. Louis.

But those massive acts began their careers in East St. Louis, a fact that’s often overlooked due to the area’s size and its proximity to a larger metropolitan area. It’s a fact that shouldn’t be forgotten.

St. Louis Sound, a current exhibit at the Missouri History Museum, honors the contributions that East St. Louis artists and clubs gave to popular music in St. Louis. Featuring roughly 200 artifacts related to music in St. Louis, a significant portion of them highlights East St. Louis nightlife, broadcasters and musicians— readily illustrating how the music scene on the east side of the Mississippi River greatly influenced that of the west side.

It’s a poignant reminder for Black Music Month, which is annually celebrated in June in the United States to bring awareness to the giant, diasporic impact Black musicians have on popular culture.

“I think we always knew the east side has been a huge powerhouse of St. Louis culture, but I was kind of shocked just to see how many and across such a wide time range,” said Andrew Wanko, public historian for the Missouri Historical Society and content lead for St. Louis Sound.

“East St. Louis was this huge industrial powerhouse across the first half of the 20th century when they had all of these factories and railroads and things connected by river. All of these brought new jobs and residents. Where there’s industry and jobs, there’s naturally a place for musicians to find work as well. It was amazing to see that from the 1920’s and 30’s to all the way up to the 60’s, there was this steady stream of really incredible musicians calling the east side home.”

Among the findings of his research, Wanko said his discovery of Peetie Wheatstraw, a pre-World War II blues musician, was particularly interesting because he was one of the most recorded blues musicians during that era, even though his name is rarely known today.

“Without these places and these people, I think our city’s history would look very different when it comes to popular music,” Wanko said.

The St. Louis Sound exhibit at the Missouri History Musem features a section on Ike & Tina Turner, who met in East St. Louis
The St. Louis Sound exhibit at the Missouri History Musem features a section on Ike & Tina Turner, who met in East St. Louis

Here’s a list of East St. Louis connections that you can see in the St. Louis Sound, which opened last year:

  • Wiley Price/WTMV – Based out of the now-defunct Broadview Hotel in East St. Louis, WTMV was a small radio station that launched in 1935. Wiley Price, who had an R&B and jazz show at the station in the 1940’s, became the first Black radio announcer in East St. Louis and in the St. Louis region.

  • Peetie Wheatstraw –Born William Bunch in 1902, Wheatstraw was among the five most recorded blues musicians during the pre-World War II era while living in East St. Louis. He died in a car crash on his 39th birthday in East St. Louis.

The St. Louis Sound exhibit at the Missouri History Musem features a section on Peetie Wheatstraw, an East St. Louis blues musician
The St. Louis Sound exhibit at the Missouri History Musem features a section on Peetie Wheatstraw, an East St. Louis blues musician
  • Ike & Tina Turner – Ike Turner moved his rock band Kings of Rhythm to East St. Louis from Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1954. His band had a residency at The Club Manhattan in the city, which is where he met Anna Mae Bullock (who’d soon become Tina Turner and perform with him).

  • Miles Davis - Born in Alton, Illinois, Davis’ family later moved to East St. Louis. His childhood home, located at 1701 Kansas Avenue, is currently a museum in his honor.

  • Little Milton – Raised in Greenville, Mississippi, and discovered by Ike Turner, Milton followed Turner to East St. Louis, where he established his career as a blues musician. He also founded Bobbin Records label, which was based in St. Louis. Milton’s 1965 single “We’re Gonna Make It” hit number one of the Billboard R&B chart.

  • The Blue Note Club – Formerly located at 4200 Missouri Avenue in East St. Louis, The Blue Note Club was one of the most popular clubs in the area during the 1950’s and 1960’s. The club was known as the go-to spot for partygoers looking to have a good time when St. Louis clubs closed.

  • Mitchell “Gabriel” Hearns – Hearns was an East St. Louis resident, longtime St. Louis DJ and a musician who learned to play the trumpet while attending Lincoln High School. He’s played with artists like Ike Turner, Albert King, and more. Hearns died in 2018.

  • WESL – A local Black radio station in East St. Louis. Owner Jim Gates and DJ Edie Anderson became the first in the nation to play the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”.

  • Dr. Jockenstein – A WESL DJ who was previously known as Rod King. His show “Roll Call” let St. Louis kids call in and rap live on the air.

  • Skate City – A popular skating rink in East St. Louis where musicians often gathered in the early 2000’s. The rink is still open and located at 2200 E. Broadway.

The St. Louis Sound exhibit at the Missouri History Musem features a section on Miles Davis, who was raised in East St. Louis
The St. Louis Sound exhibit at the Missouri History Musem features a section on Miles Davis, who was raised in East St. Louis
  • The Cosmopolitan Club – Chuck Berry first took the stage here with the Johnnie Johnson Trio in 1952, which marked his rise to fame.

  • Charles Creath: Born in 1890, Creath was a jazz musician who ran away from his East St. Louis home in the 1910s to perform in traveling circuses. He later returned and became, along with his band Jazz-O-Maniacs, one of the most popular acts in St. Louis.

Still, Wanko knows more research on East St. Louis’ music scene is needed. He said there’s more information to learn about the popular nightclubs in the area.

“This wasn’t that long ago of a time,” Wanko said. “It was the 1950’s and 60’s. There are plenty of people who remember this first-hand being there and seeing some of these people perform, but there are so many gaps in the historic record. A lot of these clubs, they didn’t have their stories captured in any big way that history has preserved, so it’s very important I think to capture what we can about these clubs and about this scene from the people who were there when they’re still around.”

St. Louis Sound is on display until January 22, 2023. Admission to the Missouri History Museum is free.