Situated at the geographic and cultural crossroads of the country, St. Louis is vital to the story of popular music in America.
The region has produced legends who are on a first-name basis worldwide – Ike & Tina, Miles, Chuck, Nelly. It’s been home to the “Velvet Bulldozer” Albert King, the “Black Venus” Josephine Baker, and the original “king” of pop, Scott Joplin. World-class songwriters like John Hartford, Jay Farrar, Jeff Tweedy, and Willie Mae Ford Smith also have called St. Louis Home.
According to Andrew Wanko, public historian, and content lead on the exhibit, few cities anywhere can claim so many leading lights in such a wide range of styles. That’s a statistic worth celebrating.
On Aug. 28, the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park will open St. Louis Sound, a new 6,000-square-foot special exhibit that explores the history of popular music in St. Louis from the dawn of recorded sound in the late 1800s to the turn of the 21st century.
“The exhibit may be called St. Louis Sound, but it’s really the sound of America,” Wanko extolled. “We are the last eastern city, the Gateway to the West, equal parts north and south – for decades St. Louis artists have absorbed all of the greatest parts of our country’s music and created something new.”
Nearly 200 artifacts will be on display from national stars, local legends and important venues.
Artifacts on display are from the Missouri Historical Society Collections as well as over 100 objects on loan to the Missouri History Museum from individuals and other institutions.
Artifacts on display include:
- The St. Louis tinfoil, recorded by St. Louisan Thomas Mason in 1878 on a phonograph (a device recently invented by Thomas Edison), is the oldest playable recording of an American voice and the earliest known recording of a musical performance. In March 2021, the Library of Congress announced the “St. Louis tinfoil” is one of 25 “audio treasures worthy of preservation for all time” that will be inducted into their National Recording Registry.
- Costumes from Treemonisha, ragtime legend Scott Joplin’s ill-fated opera
- A dress and original theatre artifact of entertainer, French resistance agent, and civil rights activist Josephine Baker
- Dress worn by Tina Turner on the Tonight Show
- Artifacts from the Club Imperial, which hosted Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm and televised dance shows.
- Guitars belonging to Chuck Berry, Jay Farrar, Jeff Tweedy, Albert King, and Mel Bay (who has taught millions to play the guitar)
- Trumpets of Miles Davis and Clark Terry
- Stage clothing of legendary artists like Little Milton, Luther Ingram, and the 5th Dimension
- The piano of Henry Townsend, the St. Louis Blues Legend whose recordings span nine consecutive decades
- Outfits from gospel stars David Peaston and Willie Mae Ford Smith
- Fontella Bass’s gold record and Grammy nomination for “Rescue Me”
- Artifacts from Mississippi Nights, including the stage floor that was played on by everyone from Kenny G to Nirvana
- Stage clothing of The Welders, St. Louis’s 1970s all-female punk band
- Artifacts from Bob Heil, who built sound systems for The Who and invented the Talkbox
- A drum that symbolizes the racial divide in St. Louis’s 1920s jazz scene
- Pieces from Gaslight Square, St. Louis’s nightlife center of the 1960s
In addition to incredible artifacts, St. Louis Sound will feature interactive maps of St. Louis musical hotspots, listenable song selections for every artist covered, archival film footage and a trivia game for visitors to test their music history knowledge.
Check out the St. Louis Sound Spotify playlist for a selection of some of the many songs featured in the exhibit.
Join the Missouri History Museum on Saturday, Aug. 28 from 10 a.m.-9 p.m. and Sunday, Aug. 29 from 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m. for a jam-packed line-up of opening weekend events. Kids and adults will enjoy live performances (on multiple indoor and outdoor stages) from Marko Polo, FIRE DOG, Funky Butt Brass Band, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Bobby Norfolk as Scott Joplin and pianist Brad Ellebrecht, the Red & Black Band (at left), and Murphy Lee, Grammy Award-winning rapper from the platinum-selling group St. Lunatics. Catch a ground-shaking step performance by the national champion Gentlemen of Vision St. Louis step team, participate in hands-on activities, and hear presentations from the team who created the exhibit and the people who have their pulse on the STL music scene.
View the full opening weekend line-up at mohistory.org/events.
The Missouri History Museum will offer a wide range of exhibit-related programming throughout the duration of the exhibit, including the St. Louis Sound: LIVE series of free, live performances relating to the many artists featured in the exhibit.
St. Louis just can’t stay quiet. No matter the genre, style, or musical moment, this city has a huge story to tell.
St. Louis Sound is open at the Missouri History Museum from Aug. 28 through Jan. 22. Admission is free. The Missouri History Museum is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. JSM Charitable Trust is the Presenting Sponsor.