Obituary: Gene Lynn — St. Louis’ ‘black Sinatra’ did it his way
Gene Lynn, with a baritone voice that was as smoky as the nightclubs he owned for more than three decades, was one of the brightest lights of the St. Louis entertainment mecca known as Gaslight Square in the ’60s.
He was still Leon Campbell, not long out of Alabama, when he began singing at some of St. Louis’ hottest nightspots, including the Iron Gate.
The club’s owner didn’t think his name sounded flashy enough. When the owner heard the name Mr. Lynn had chosen for his future daughter, Gina Lynne, he suggested he take the male version for himself – and Gene Lynn was born.
The name became synonymous with good music, good food and good times in the heart of the city, and lasted long after Gaslight Square flamed out.
His staying power was born of the blues and soul music he grew up on. He spent nights hanging out near the Harlem Club in Mobile, Ala., when he was too young and too poor to go inside, soaking up the music of such stars-in-the-making as Ray Charles and James Brown.
Mr. Lynn sang what they sang, but he added jazz to his repertoire. He preferred the crooners: Nat "King" Cole, Tony Bennett, and, most of all, Frank Sinatra.
Many thought his pop choice was ill-advised, he told St. Louis Magazine in 2009. “The Frank Sinatra stuff is not going to fly," they said.
"Hey, you wait and see,” he told them.
“I wanted to develop a style that could play in all different types of rooms with all different types of people,” he said.
It worked. In a time and place riven by racial strife, his music drew fully integrated audiences to him and to Gene Lynn’s, his self-named nightclub.
Mr. Lynn, who became known as “the black Frank Sinatra,” died Saturday, March 7, 2015, at his home in the Central West End after a recurrence of stomach cancer and a recent stroke. He was 78.
His services will be Saturday at Third Presbyterian Church in St. Louis.
Kecia Davis, who was introduced to Mr. Lynn by the late jazz singer, Mae Wheeler, and sang with him for 26 years, will do so once more at the funeral. She will perform Sinatra’s My Way with a recorded track of Mr. Lynn’s voice.
He sang his favorite song at his last performance in February at Bartolino’s Osteria.
“He sang My Way like he never sang it before,” Davis said. “He teared up that night.”
The Good Life
Mr. Lynn began singing the tight vocal harmony known as “doo-wop” in high school.
When he made his way to St. Louis in the late-'50s, he found work shining and repairing shoes at the old Stix, Baer and Fuller department store downtown, making $36 a week. He immediately began moonlighting; singing soon became his full-time job.
He went on the “chitlin’ circuit” with the Fred Wesley Orchestra. It took him back to the South and Southern ways. The band had to enter through the back door; and once they had to leave in a hurry: They were performing at an all-white high school and his singing was causing the girls to swoon.
Women continued to swoon throughout his career: not only could he sing, he was the epitome of “cool,” charismatic and always elegantly dressed.
There was no shortage of gigs, but he had the mind and a yen for business. So, in 1971, he paid $4,500 for the first location of Gene Lynn's at 322 North Whittier in the Central West End. He was his own headliner. It became the place to be for the rich and the famous, as well as the hoi polloi.
After the first location closed in 1986, he opened in the Lennox Apartments at 825 Washington Avenue downtown.
The last incarnation of Gene Lynn’s was at 348 Sarah in the Lindell Marketplace. He sold it for $75,000, in 2004.
Mr. Lynn would often return to sing at his old club, until he had a squabble with the new owner, Kay Kim. When he dropped by one night and Kim refused to let him perform, his former colleagues, Kecia Davis and the 2.0 Band, walked out with him. None of them ever returned.
“I couldn’t go for that,” Davis laughed.
At the time, the St. Louis American noted that “Gene Lynn was fired from Gene Lynn’s.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X32JE64CUE0
The business that continued to carry his name closed for good in 2008.
Mr. Lynn kept working steadily at private functions and local restaurants, including Balaban's, Brennan's, Nathalie's, Mihalis Chophouse and Bartolino's, where he had a longstanding engagement on Fridays and Sundays.
In 2013, he sang at the Sheldon Concert Hall to raise funds for scholarships through the foundation that was created to honor his son, Gene Leon Lynn Campbell II, who was known as Geno and who died in a boating accident in 2007. He formed the foundation with his former wife, Donna Campbell.
Since 2008, Mr. Lynn had also held an annual golf tournament to benefit the foundation, which was fitting: When his son was 9, he asked if he could learn to play golf. Mr. Lynn, who had been a regular tennis player, consented, and father and son became dedicated golfers.
He Did It His Way
Leon Campbell was born Nov. 7, 1936, in Mobile, Ala., the sixth of Willie and Ida Bell Campbell’s 10 children. His father died when he was 12. He quit school at 15, altered his birth certificate to read “17,” and joined the Air Force to help his mother.
He later returned to finish high school and became the first in his family to do so.
While singing and running his nightclub, during the 1970s, Mr. Lynn produced and starred in The Gene Lynn Show. The musical variety show aired on KDNL-TV 30, then an independent station and was sponsored by the Teamsters. During that period he also recorded an album, For the First Time.
Last October, Mr. Lynn was inducted into the St. Louis Jazz Hall of Fame at Harris-Stowe State University.
“St. Louis lost a valued part of its history on Saturday,” wrote Alvin Reid, a longtime customer of Gene Lynn’s, in a St. Louis Magazine remembrance. “But rest assured, Gene Lynn did it his way.”
In addition to his son, Mr. Lynn, who was married and divorced three times, was preceded in death by his parents and eight of his siblings.
His survivors include two daughters, Gina Lynne (Anthony) Jones and Angerrilynn Madison, both of Tampa, Fla.; a sister, Deloris (Eugene) Johnson of St. Louis, four grandchildren, one great-grandchild and his longtime companion, Maria Vera.
His services will be Saturday at Greater Grace Church.
Visitation for Mr. Lynn will be from 3 to 9 p.m., Friday, at Third Presbyterian Church, 9990 Lewis and Clark Road, in St. Louis. A second visitation will be from 9 a.m. until services at 10 a.m. on Saturday at Greater Grace Church, 3690 Pershall Road, in St. Louis. Burial will follow at St. Peter’s Cemetery, 2101 Lucas and Hunt Road.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Flourish Children’s Foundation, c/o Third Presbyterian Church, 9990 Lewis and Clark Road, St. Louis, Mo. 63136, or the Save-A-Life-For-Geno Foundation, c/o Bank of America, 4625 Lindell Blvd. St. Louis, Mo. 63108.