By Alan Scher Zagier, AP
ST. LOUIS — Die-hard music lovers, casual fans and globe-trotting tourists readily embrace Chicago as the home of the blues, spurred in large part by the Great Migration northward of Southern blacks in the early and mid-20th century.
Robert Johnson, the genre’s godfather, famously sang of “Sweet Home Chicago,” and the Chicago Blues Festival draws more than 100,000 people each summer.
But come next year, the National Blues Museum won’t find a home in Chicago, but in a rival Midwest city 300 miles (480 kilometers) to the south.
St. Louis has its own deserving musical history, organizers of the project say, with hometown heroes such as Ike Turner, Albert King and, of course, Chuck Berry. It’s a legacy most prominently commemorated in the name of the city’s National Hockey League team, the St. Louis Blues.
“We date way back,” said museum organizer and music promoter Dave Beardsley. “Chicago didn’t really blow up until the ’50s, ’til Muddy (Waters) plugged in and went electric. We go back to W. C. Handy in 1893. … Our roots are far deeper than anyone knows.”
Handy wrote “St. Louis Blues,” one of the first blues songs to become a pop music hit, performed by such musicians as Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith and Benny Goodman.
The St. Louis museum grew out of a shared passion by Beardsley and fellow blues buff Mike Kociela, also a concert and festival promoter. Inspired by regular trips to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Kociela created St. Louis Bluesweek in 2010 to honor the city’s musicians and heritage.
While Chicago has tried and failed to launch similar blues shrines, St. Louis’ US$14 million project won the backing of a local developer who wanted a museum to anchor a retail, residential and office complex next to the convention center downtown, just blocks from the Gateway Arch.
“There really wasn’t a museum that told the entire story of the blues, from Day One through now,” Kociela said. “I knew what it could do for our city and our region. This is a massive international tourist attraction.”