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Blues to call St. Louis home

| Monday, Oct. 14, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

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 when the National Blues Museum opens next year, it will be in a rival Midwest city 300 miles to the south.

St. Louis has a deserving musical history, organizers of the project say, with hometown heroes such as Ike Turner, Albert King and 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 (who would later write “St. Louis Blues”) in 1893. ... Our roots are far deeper than anyone knows.”

The St. Louis museum grew out of a shared passion by Beardsley and fellow blues buff Mike Kociela, a concert and festival promoter. Inspired by regular trips to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Kociela started St. Louis Bluesweek in 2010 to honor the city's musicians and heritage.

While Chicago has tried and failed to establish similar blues shrines, St. Louis' $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, 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.”

George Brock, an 81-year-old blues harmonica player, stands behind St. Louis' claim to blues fame. A half-century ago, Brock moved to St. Louis from Clarksdale, Miss., and he calls his adopted hometown a gem where blues can be heard seven nights a week, and a musician can make an honest living.

“They overlooked St. Louis,” he said. “St. Louis has just as much blues as Chicago.”

St. Louis is “a major blues community,” agreed music historian Robert Santelli.

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