By Landon Cole
Photos by Landon Cole
I parked on Broadway and walked into BB’s this Wednesday night, relieved to escape the characteristically cold Missouri winter. Immediately, I was greeted by a wall plastered an inch thick with flyers promoting St. Louis blues and jazz bands. The bar was riddled with regulars there to take in the music, and framed, autographed photos of blues and jazz legends eavesdropped on the patrons’ idle chit-chat. I asked the bartender if the owner was in, and she pointed out a man at a crowded table wearing a black beret and a white beard. I walked over to him, I introduced myself and asked if he had the time for an interview about the history of the old club. He grinned from ear to ear.
John May, partner and unofficial chief historian of BB’s Jazz, Blues and Soups, greeted me with an eager handshake and agreed to talk. “Right after we finish our set,” he shouted over the Allman Brothers coming through the house speakers, “we’ll head upstairs.” I watched the 60-year-old man take the stage of the old blues house with his band. May played a fretless P-Bass and, over the course of the next hour, walked it to Chicago and back. The band dug up and reanimated a dozen blues classics, paying homage to the bluesmen that came before them and to those who once played beside them on that stage.
Big Rich McDonough and The Rhythm Renegades finished their set, and the band began to clear the stage for the headlining act, St. Louis native bluesman Tom Hall. I watched Tom pluck at the strings of his metal resonator guitar, and the strings sang back in a sweet, strained voice that encapsulated the whole mood of the club.
After a few songs, John May lead me up the dark mahogany stairs to a loft overlooking the stage. “This,” he said, “is blues heaven.” We were surrounded by framed photographs of blues and jazz artists who had since passed, some recently and some long ago. Almost all of them were born, lived and died in St. Louis.
John pointed out photos throughout the dimly lit loft and named the men and women, teaching me the impact they had on American music and culture. He shared personal anecdotes so well worn you could hear it in his voice, like tire tracks on a backroad.
We stopped at a picture of Mark O’Shaughnessy, who founded BB’s in 1976. May and O’Shaugnessy remained close friends and business partners for 45 years until O’Shaugnessy passed away in May of 2017. With a tinge of melancholy in his voice, May shared with me their reason for running the club,
“Jazz, blues, soul, anything that was indigenous to the city of St. Louis. The whole philosophy is very hippy, man, we don’t have any money, but we love what you’re doing, alright? And here’s a venue where we can do things together. And over time, it was nothing but that. We weren’t trying to be trendy, we were just trying to be loyal to the musicians and to the city of St. Louis.”
In May’s upstairs office cluttered with music memorabilia, he talked for an hour about the influential musicians that played there throughout the decades while Tom Hall crooned musically below us; it felt and sounded like their spirits never left.
“I can show you pictures,” May said emphatically, “of Henry Townsend and Roosevelt Sykes playing here, and they were just here to take care of us because we cared about them. There was a musical transition going on (in the 1970’s) where the old guys didn’t matter, but they were the root of everything, and that’s what we’re trying to be loyal to.”
Henry Townsend was one of the only known artists to record in nine consecutive decades, and his reaching influence across the American musical landscape is arguably unparalleled by any one individual.
“Henry was a conduit for all these other great blues musicians around the world, ‘cause they all knew Henry. They didn’t know us, but they knew him, and he would bring them here. This is Henry’s house; all the pictures are about Henry.”
“I can’t even talk about Henry without tearing up, I played with him for 30 years. I was with him the day he died. We respect Henry here; he validated what we were trying to do. Other great musicians came because Henry was here, so they knew we were doing it out of love and respect.”
“Johnny Johnson was the piano player for Chuck Barry, and he used to play here all the time, but he never got his due. I’m talking to you and you don’t even know who he is.”
“So,” I asked, “the point of this place is to pay respect to people like Johnny Johnson?
“Yes, absolutely. We have that piano down there because Johnny would come in and play piano with the local bands, ‘cause he’s a musician, and he loves music.”
I asked, “What would be your message to this new generation, young people who haven’t been exposed to this music?”
“You have to go out and experience live music. There is a massive difference between experiencing live music and hearing a record later. At a show, the artist can get their rewards today, and you might appreciate them later.”
“You can look back and say, ‘I was with those people in that moment,’ and there is no app for that. Live music is it.”
“When I was coming up, I knew people in my sixties, and they knew people in their sixties, and it goes way back, and that’s how it gets handed down. The people that care are the people that are there. They look at you and they know that you can do this, they know you will do this. Their gift is music, and who’s gonna carry on the tradition of the music that they care about? They look at you, and they trust you, and then they’re gone. What a heavy load we all have.”
“Everything that I know started here and has always carried on in this way. The blues is not a throw away music. It’s lasting.”
“BB’s is about St. Louis music. All the people that we keep with us in our memories, they’re in the bricks here.”