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.