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New group looks to preserve St. Louis' R&B heritage, one concert at a time

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 7, 2010 - The St. Louis area has a long, distinguished musical heritage. From the ragtime era in the late 19th century, through 20th-century legends such as Clark Terry, Miles Davis, Josephine Baker, Ike and Tina Turner, Chuck Berry, Oliver Sain, Henry Townsend and a host of other musical artists, St. Louis has contributed more than its share of legendary musicians and entertainers to the rest of the planet.

Given that strong musical tradition, it's no surprise that individuals who cherish that history have worked to preserve it -- and keep it vital -- on the contemporary music scene. Over the past several decades, the non-profit St. Louis Blues Society has done its part to preserve St. Louis blues and keep it in the spotlight. The non-profit Jazz St. Louis promotes live jazz performances at Jazz at the Bistro and conducts education programs at local schools.

Now another non-profit group has arrived on the scene to preserve and promote another facet of St. Louis' musical heritage -- rhythm and blues.

The St. Louis Rhythm and Blues Preservation Society held its first public event on Dec. 8 at the Portfolio Gallery and Education Center in Grand Center. The gallery presents the works of African-American painters and visual artists, but director Robert A. Powell was happy to provide a venue for the society to present "Up Close With Big George Brock," billed as a chance for music fans to hear Brock, a noted St. Louis blues vocalist and harmonica player, talk about his life and also perform his music in a very intimate setting.

Why rhythm and blues? And why begin the series with an acknowledged blues icon such as Brock? According to the R&B Preservation Society's executive director, Cornelius Washington, it's a way to take a broader look at St. Louis music -- and also underscores the importance of blues as the foundation for R&B music.

"Rhythm and blues music developed from a blues heritage," he emphasizes. "To us, Tina Turner is R&B...but there's no doubt blues is part of where she came from musically. The same with David Dee and Fontella Bass. So we decided to start with a major blues musician in St. Louis, then branch out from there."

Washington also points out that the new "Up Close With..." series is designed to offer fans a glimpes into the musician behind the music.

"It's a way for music fans to gain a deeper understanding about that artist's music by finding out more about the influences and experiences that shaped them. For example, many people might not know that Big George Brock grew up on a plantation next to the one where Muddy Waters worked as a sharecropper before he moved to Chicago. That information is fascinating -- and it helps illuminate George's music."

Washington, a former director of the non-profit Doorways housing program and dedicated music fan, and Reginald Dickson, a portfolio manager for institutional investors and owner of Reggie's Backstage restaurant in Grand Center, came up with the idea to start the organization in late 2006-early 2007. They got their 501c3 non-profit certification this past August, which let them plan the "Up Close With..." series. But Washington and Dickson have other projects in mind as well.

"We'd like to work with another venue -- perhaps the Sheldon Concert Hall and Galleries -- to archive material from St. Louis R&B artists over the years," he states. "In terms of adult education, we've got the series we started with Big George Brock, and we'll present another one on Jan. 12 with David Dee. And we also want to get involved in youth education. We'd like to create a youth R&B band -- similar to what they do down in Memphis at the Stax Museum. And we'd also like to work toward an R&B Hall of Fame here in St. Louis, with an annual awards ceremony."

Ambitious goals, for sure. But Washington and Dickson are clearly pleased that they've got the ball rolling with the organization's first public concert.

Although the audience that turned out to listen to Brock was small, they clearly enjoyed Brock's stories about growing up in Mississippi, moving to St. Louis in 1950 and building a career in music. Brock told about picking cotton as a teenager, boxing a round with Sonny Liston and his years managing Club Caravan in the 1950s and '60s.

The audience was also fascinated by Brock's harmonica style, which he said is different from most other blues harp players, who play left to right -- rather than right to left as he does.

Brock wound up the evening with soulful versions of blues classics such as "Good Morning, Little School Girl" and "Got My Mojo Working," telling the audience "the blues ain't nothin' but the truth." it's clear that the evening has exceeded the expectations of Washington and Dickson, Brock and the audience..

"It's a great start," comments Washington. "We would have liked a few more people, but hopefully that will happen as the series continues. At least we're on the way."

Terry Perkins, a freelance writer in St. Louis, has long covered music. 

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