Chuck Berry is playing his monthly gig at Blueberry Hill, and the venue's Duck Room is sold out. The 76-year-old rock 'n' roll icon is still packing them in, this time on a rainy night in his hometown. But in St. Louis, the history of American music is so long, it sometimes can be taken for granted.
For instance, you won't find so much as a token memorial to W.C. Handy (1873-1958), whose St. Louis Blues was among the songs that got him named the Father of the Blues.
But if you stop by at BB's Jazz, Blues and Soups around 3 a.m. any night, you can hear blues still being created.
As everyone in St. Louis will tell you, the city is more than the blues. It's also where ragtime was cradled and rock 'n' roll learned to walk.
In the Scott Joplin House museum on Delmar Street, Maple Leaf Rag is background music. Joplin (1868-1917) went there with his bride, Belle, in the early 1900s and took the upstairs flat. What you see is pretty much the way it was in 1900-03, though none of the furniture belonged to him.
"Everything is secondhand, just the way it would have been," said Carlotta Lewis, a guide at the house, which is a state historic site. "The house is as much a history of ragtime as it is to the man."
The Entertainer (as theme music of The Sting in 1973, it won an Academy Award) was written in the house on a piano much like the one in it now. Some of the player piano rolls were cut by Joplin.
Next door is the recreated Rosebud Cafe, where Joplin and his friends tried out compositions on lunch patrons. The original was on Market Street in what was the city's red light district.
Joplin came to the St. Louis area around 1890, making his living playing piano in brothels and saloons while creating tunes on the side.
He studied at George R. Smith College for Negroes and worked at the Maple Leaf Club, a black men's social club over a feed store in Sedalia. He began to make money after local music store owner John Stark agreed to publish his sheet music, giving Joplin a penny a sheet (Stark resold it for a quarter).
Stark's advertisements said the music was "as high-class as Chopin." Lewis says it was "the first sheet music a black person ever received royalties for."
Real visibility came when Joplin played his The Cascades at the 1904 World's Fair.
Joplin was serious about his music. In 1903 he formed an opera company, which failed when one of the company members stole the receipts. His ragtime opera Treemonisha, performed once in his lifetime, won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1976.
The St. Louis Walk of Fame on Delmar Boulevard in the University City Loop neighborhood marks with bronze stars the names and accomplishments of 107 natives, from T. S. Eliot to Dizzy Dean. In rag, rock and blues, it honors current performers such as Berry and Tina Turner, as well as Miles Davis (1926-1991), Josephine Baker (1906-1975) and Joplin.
The Loop is six blocks of bars, clubs, restaurants and nightlife named after an old streetcar route. The landmark is Blueberry Hill, part club, part cafe and part museum. In addition to live music, there's an Elvis Room full of Presley memorabilia, plus displays devoted to the Beatles and exhibits such as Berry's first Gibson guitar.
Anyone with a lot of time to spare can work through the 2,000 songs on the antique "world's greatest jukebox."
The city has a promotion for "America's Music Corridor": St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans. This promotion highlights venues for music old and new, such as the century-old train station that was once said to be the world's largest and busiest. Blues and rock concerts are held spring, summer and fall on the train shed's stage.
The bridge to rock 'n' roll was rhythm and blues. In the 1950s, Berry was working as a hairdresser by day and playing St. Louis R&B clubs at night. He had his first breakthrough when he met Muddy Waters upriver in Chicago. Waters sent him to Chess Records; Berry's Maybellene hit the charts with more than 1-million copies sold.
Today more than 30 music clubs, restaurants and taverns line the streets of the old south side Soulard neighborhood. Soulard is the city's oldest and most ethnically diverse neighborhood. For instance, John D. McGurk's Irish Pub is so Irish, it flies in bands from Ireland for four- to six-week stints. Mike & Min's tavern features blues bands Wednesday through Saturday night.
One sound that stirs folks is the Soulard Blues Band, which blends blues, rhythm and blues, and zydeco. The group plays weekends at the Great Grizzly Bear and Monday night at the Broadway Oyster Bar. It also shows up occasionally at BB's.
Laclede's Landing used to be the spillway for tobacco and cotton on the old waterfront. The 19th century warehouses now unload blues and jazz in spots such as Hannegan's Restaurant and Pub and the Big Bang.
Where the boats still come in, Laclede's Landing (which is on the National Register of Historic Places) is the site of the Rockin' on the River fete each July Fourth weekend and Big Muddy Blues Festival every Labor Day weekend.
Betty Lowry is a freelance writer living in Wayland, Mass.
If you go
The weather's best before June and after September, but you often need rain gear of some sort.
ATTRACTIONS AND EVENTS: Scott Joplin House State Historic Site: 2658A Delmar Blvd., (314) 340-5790, www.mostateparks.com. Adults $2.50, ages 6 to 12 $1.50, 5 and younger free. Open daily except major holidays. Tours on the hour run about 45 minutes. On Joplin's 135th birthday, Nov. 24, there will be a free concert from 7 to 10 p.m.
Blues on the Mississippi, Friday evenings into August, Jefferson Barracks County Park, www.co.st-louis.mo.us/parks/ blues/2003/blues.html.
Big Muddy Blues Festival, Aug. 30-Sept. 1, Laclede's Landing district, free concerts; (314) 241-5875, www.lacledeslanding.org.
NIGHTLIFE: Blueberry Hill, 6504 Delmar Blvd., University City, (314) 727-0880. BB's Jazz, Blues and Soups, 700 South Broadway, (314) 436-5222; Mike & Min's, 925 Geyer Ave., (314) 421-1655; John D. McGurk's, 1200 Russell Blvd., (314) 776-8309; 1860's Hardshell Cafe, 1860 S Ninth St., (314) 231-1860; Great Grizzly Bear, 1027 Geyer Ave., (314) 231-0444; Hannegan's Pub, 719 N Second St., (314) 241-8877; Spruill's, 1101 N Jefferson Ave., (314) 533-8050.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Pick up a free copy of the Riverfront Times or the Thursday Get Out section of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to find out what bands are playing where. The Post-Dispatch also offers extensive entertainment information on its Web site, www.stltoday.com.
Call the America's Music Corridor hotline, toll-free 1-800-916-0038, or visit www.explorestlouis.com.