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Missouri History Museum’s One-Day Gospel Fest to honor deep St. Louis roots

 Steve Smith and Monica R. Butler pose in front of Second Baptist Church near Delmar Blvd. in St. Louis. They plan to convert it into a national center for the celebration and study of gospel music. [8/13/21]
Butler Group
Gospel Music Hall of Fame founder Monica R. Butler, right, and Steve Smith, left, pose in front of Second Baptist Church. They plan to convert it into a national center for the celebration and study of gospel music. Butler will emcee Saturday's One-Day Gospel Fest at the Missouri History Museum.

St. Louis is often regarded as one of the most influential cities for rock, blues, jazz and R&B music, but it also played a big role in the development of gospel music.

The O’Neal Twins, Martha Bass and many more influential singers are seared into St. Louis gospel history and have shaped the genre.

To highlight those contributions, the Missouri History Museum will host its One-Day Gospel Fest on Saturday. From 12:30 to 6:30 p.m., participants will celebrate the region's contributions to gospel with live music, roundtable discussions and a screening of the 1982 documentary film “Say Amen, Somebody.” It focuses on the history of gospel music in the U.S. and St. Louis-based gospel singer Willie Mae Ford Smith.

The roundtable discussion will feature conversations with local influential gospel artists and leaders Zella Jackson Price, Dr. Marabeth Gentry and Ethel Foster. The discussion will be moderated by film producer and Gospel Music Hall of Fame of Missouri founder Monica R. Butler.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Chad Davis spoke with Butler about the region’s gospel influence.

Chad Davis: St. Louis has such a rich history in blues, jazz and rock music. A lot of people already know that, but a lot of people are unaware of the history of gospel music here. Why do you think that is?

Monica R. Butler: We don’t have a place where they could be educated. We know the history, and that's why I'm putting it out there to bring awareness because there are things that I don't even know that happened even over in East St. Louis. They have deep roots in gospel music over there.

Davis: Part of the event will have a screening of the film “Say Amen, Somebody.” The documentary focuses on Willie Mae Ford Smith. She’s one of the most influential gospel singers in history, and she actually lived in St. Louis. Could you talk a little bit about her legacy?

Butler: She's a mother, she's the queen of gospel music, and she's from right here in St. Louis, Missouri. And that documentary exposed St. Louis in a very, very good way with her history here and them forming gospel conventions and things of that sort to teach the music of gospel. Our history here in St. Louis, in music runs deep in blues and jazz and also in gospel.

Davis: I know one of the things that she's been credited for is really pioneering gospel blues and kind of creating this gospel blues sound. So I want to ask you, what makes a gospel song, a gospel blues song?

Butler: She has been noted for that, so was Thomas A. Dorsey. He played the blues in clubs and everything else. So when he started doing church songs they didn't want him in a church because of what he did in the world for his living.

Davis: I know your mother was a singer of the St. Louis interfaith choir. How did her experience there shape your gospel music interest?

Butler: My mother [dragged] me around to every gospel concert that she sang in.

They were filming this documentary and I was impressed with the cameras and the lights and things of that sort. I did not realize it at the time, I probably was about 15 years old, but it actually helped shape me because now I'm a television and film producer and I'm ready to produce the next version of the gospel music “Say Amen, Somebody” documentary.

Davis: Zella Jackson Price, Dr. Marabeth Gentry and Ethel Foster will all talk Saturday. Could you talk about their significance and their contributions to the genre?

Butler: They were all in “Say Amen, Somebody,” and so having a conversation with our legends while they're still here is just one that we would be remiss if we didn't do.

We have a surprise for them, I'm just gonna go ahead and say it because it's probably out already. We're going to be inducting them into the Hall of Fame right there on that day. So whoever's in the room will see. Because we don't want to give them their flowers when they're not here.

Davis: Who are the gospel singers you're most drawn to?

Butler: I love all gospel music. I'm very drawn to gospel artists like the Winans, CeCe, BeBe Winans, Yolanda Adams.

I went to Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and [Adams] went to Texas [Southern University] and we used to have these Baptist Student Union retreats, and we would meet up, and I met Yolanda before she was really big as Yolanda Adams because we were all in college.

Yolanda now is a legend within herself, she needs to be in the Hall of Fame with all that she has done and so many others.

Davis: The genre has really been connected to the civil rights movement, the struggle for justice, that has been just a huge part of gospel music. Does the genre still hold that same significance now?

Butler: It does. And I always talk about my mom because she's not with us anymore. My mom being in the interfaith choir and a part of that actual film. But she was also a part of [Congress of Racial Equity] and the civil rights movement here in St. Louis with Percy Green and others.

Our roots run deep, and it's a close connection, because it goes all the way back into our roots of slavery and how we had to sing certain songs just to get past the master. So our roots are deep in gospel music, and it still is prevalent to this day.

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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