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‘Some Really Big Shoes To Fill’: Friends And Fellow Performers Remember St. Louis Legend Kim Massie

File photo | Nick Garcia | St. Louis Public Radio
Kim Massie, who was sometimes compared to Etta James, released and performed both standards and original music over the course of her career. Massie is pictured here with St. Louis-based pianist Peter Martin, who performed with her at STLPR in December 2013.

“When I get in front of my audience,” Kim Massie once told St. Louis Public Radio’s Nick Garcia, “I don't care if I’m playing for free or if I’m playing for a million bucks. I’m going to give you the same show, because that could very well be my last show, and you’re only as good as your last performance. … So I give it my all, every time I sing.”

Seven years ago this December, when St. Louis Public Radio held its first-ever Arch City Radio Hour event, Massie certainly did just that as she and pianist Peter Martin presented a successful live musical experiment in the community room at UMSL at Grand Center.

Massie, a longtime fixture in the St. Louis blues community and a Fairview Heights, Illinois, resident, passed away Monday.

On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, we honored Massie’s life and legacy, listened to her 2013 performance of “At Last” and “Amazing Grace” at STLPR, and heard from several of her friends and fellow performers.

Gene Dobbs Bradford, president and CEO of Jazz St. Louis, knew Massie for a long time. He said he feels like he got to watch her grow as an artist — and offered his reflections about her striking stage presence.

“She had an incredible voice,” he said, “but I think more so than that it had to be the fact that she was a great storyteller. And I think that’s the mark of a great singer, that ability to create a picture in one’s mind through their interpretation of the song. And Kim was really strong at that.

101620_StewartGoldstein_TheBlackRep_Ain't Nothin 19.jpg
Stewart Goldstein | The Black Rep
Kim Massie also explored the world of theater in 2003 when she appeared in the Black Rep’s production of “It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues.”

“You came away feeling like you were — it was like seeing a play, you know, it was like a drama unfolding before you every time she would sing a song, and the story of that song would come through.”

Songwriter and producer Brian Owens experienced her kindness to other local performers firsthand. He recalled the day they first became acquainted, at a local jazz and blues festival.

“It was the first time I’d met her, and right away, I loved her, because she wasn’t a diva, not with me,” Owens said. “She was not a diva at all. She was so cool and laid back and warm and giving. And I just remember her being like, ‘Baby you got any CDs?’ And I was like, ‘Nah, I don’t have any.’ And she’s like, ‘Well you’ve gotta have CDs. All these people out here — you need to have you some CDs.’

“Even then [she was] just dropping knowledge, even then just pouring into me as a younger, up-and-coming performer. And from that time forward, every time I would see Kim, it was the same thing. It was the same kind of spirit. Kim Massie has had this city on lock, for a long time, and she should have. It was well deserved, so she’s going to be missed terribly, and there’s some really big shoes to fill.”

Over the course of her career, Massie was sometimes compared to the late Etta James, who, like Massie, could perform all sorts of genres as a vocalist. Fellow luminary Denise Thimes, the jazz singer, remembers first suggesting the comparison to Massie back in the early 2000s.

“She ended up coming over to my house,” Thimes told St. Louis on the Air, “and I basically was just kind of giving her a feel of what the music scene was like in St. Louis … and as we were talking, I looked at her and I said, ‘You know who you are?’ And she said, ‘Who?’ And I said, ‘You’re Etta James.’ And she said, ‘Who is Etta James?’

“I said, ‘You don’t know who Etta James is?’ And she said, ‘No, I’ve never heard of her.’ and I just so happened to have a poster of Etta James in my music room. And she looked at the poster, and she looked at me, and she said, ‘Yeah, I am Etta James.’ And I said ‘Yeah, you are.’ Next thing I know, Kim’s hair was blonde, and the rest is history.”

In addition to St. Louis’ music scene, Massie also explored the world of theater. Ron Himes, producing director for the Black Rep, worked with Massie closely during a 2003 production of “It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues” among other collaborations. Himes was blown away by her humor, her candor and her willingness to try something new.

“You know, I told her, I’m like, ‘Kim you’re not going to be able to sit down and do this, yo. You know, there’s choreography, you’ve got choreography, you’ve got movement,’” Himes recalled, “and she was like ‘OK, c’mon, let’s do it.’ And so I just really remember that, and it was such a joy to see her up working, moving about and doing choreography. She really, really had a good time out of her element.”

For even more about Massie’s life and legacy, check out Jeremy Goodwin’s 2019 conversation with her.

Do you have a fond memory of seeing St. Louis legend Kim Massie perform? What is it about Massie’s music that will always stick with you? Tweet us (@STLonAir), send an email to talk@stlpublicradio.org or share your thoughts via our St. Louis on the Air Facebook group.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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