“It’s with extreme sadness that we bring you the news of the loss of the St. Louis musical icon Mr. Oliver Sain. Known as ‘The Man with the Golden Horn’, Oliver was a humble, gracious man, a local musical legend who bravely fought cancer, actively performing until just recently.
Oliver was a friend to STLBlues and countless fans and musical colleagues. Here’s Oliver’s guestbook, in case you’d like to say a few words. Loved by many and missed by all who knew him, may Olivers music be eternal. Here’s some glimpses of Mr. Oliver Sain, as we remember him so fondly
Yes, St. Louis, that river city positioned midway between Memphis and Chicago, has been a way station to the musical tides that wash those two places, as well as supporting its own scene and artists. Just as barge traffic moves past on the Mississippi, so too do all great names in blues and soul come to town. Musicians come and go, but in St. Louis the person who has been at the center of music in every capacity (and survived) with the greatset influence, is Oliver Sain. As multi-instrumentalist, bandleader, arranger, songerwriter, producer and owner of recording facilities, Sain is the man. Only his friend Ike Turner can claim comparable influence. They both share the ability to don many musical hats, from solo artist to talent scout and studio master. The music of St. Louis is permeated by thier spirits. Like so many musicians in St. Louis, Oliver Sain was born in the state of Mississippi, in 1932. There were musical relatives. Grandfather Dan Sane was was a guitarist working with Frank Stokes and The Beale Streets Shieks; stepfather was the piano player Willie Love. By the late 40’s Sains family lived in West Memphis, Arkansas where a young Oliver Sain would hear and interact with Willie Nix, Sonny Boy Williamson, Junior Parker and Howlin’ Wolf. Sain first sat in on sets playing drums, but soon moved to his principal instrument, the saxophone. Before moving to Chicago in the early 50’s, he played with the Howlin’ Wolf Band in the Memphis area before the Wolf made his own move to Chicago (“Yeah, I kept watching this greasy-headed white kid staring at us through the studio glass, hanging out, you know. I was almost ready to somebody to kick him out. Hell, I didn’t know it was Elvis.”) Also at this time Oliver began his long relationship with Little Milton Campbell, one that included a stint as bandleader for Milton as well as songwriting collaborations. The short visit to Chicago saw Oliver briefly reunite with Wolf, as well as play for Elmore James.
But things were moving 300 miles south in St. Louis. Ike, with his pre-Tina Kings of Rhythm, carried vocal stars such as Billie Gayles, Clayton Love, and Jackie Brenston, and was wrecking any house they played. Also, Campbell was established in town and beginning to record for Bobbin. Soon Oliver was in charge of the band. Turner and Milton’s units introduced the cream of St. Louis R&B vocal talents to stage and studio, including Fontella Bass, Stacy Johnson, Tina and Her Ikettes, and Bobby McClure. Already playing piano with Sain, Fontella began her singing career as featured vocalist of The Oliver Sain Revue. Sain’s contacts with Chess in Chicago led to Bass signing on for her successful period for the label. A duet with McClure, penned by Sain, went to the top of Billboards R&B charts.
Oliver Sain & Friends
He has shown a major talent for not only discovering singers, but writing for them some of the best soul ballads of the 60’s and 70’s. Singers Bass, Mitty Collier, Shirley Brown, Irma Thomas, and Ann Peebles have all encountered Oliver in their careers. As singer Tracy Nelson once observed, “I think ‘Walk Away’ by Oliver Sain might be the greatest lyric ever written for a woman. Now all of these things assure Mr. Sain his mention in the music histories, but it is as a soloist fronting a band where Oliver Sain should be heard. Make no mistake, on record and especially live, Oliver can be a monster. On alto sax he shows himself to be an absolute first-rank R&B stylist. His piercing, acidic tart-toned projection on horn makes Sain’s playing instantly recognizable. He is another player whose name is not of the household, but whose reputation is worldwide with musicians and audiences.
In the late sixties, he opened his Archway Studio on Natural Bridge Boulevard in St. Louis. Nearly every musical style has been recorded there in the past twenty-five years, from Phil Perry’s smooth vocal group The Montclairs, to avant-gardist Julius Hemphill’s Coon Bid-ness. Archway is also where the A-Bet recordings on sain were cut. Despite independent A-Bet’s limited clout in the music business, some of these titles made their splash as dance floor hits in the U.S. and Europe, where Oliver first toured with “Bus Stop” in the 70’s. In the spring of1975, “Booty Bumpin” reached #78 on the Billboard R&B chart. “Party Hearty” was Oliver’s next chart appearance on the R&B charts, reaching #16 in early 1976 followed by “Feel Like Dancing” which peaked at #100 in the spring of 1977. The A-Bet sides by Sain can sit comfortably between the East Coast instrumentals of the era by such as Kool & The Gang, as well as the southern voicings of Willie Mitchell. Their lack of big-studio polish is overwhelmed by the down-home funk of the band and Sain’s great instrumental intensity. They sounded great at the time, and now in the day of “Acid Jazz” marketing and notice of all things funky…..well, you must appreciate. Oliver Sain still plays as strongly as before, leading his band onstage regularly in St. Louis, as well as the occasional European appearances, and all the recognitions and perks of being a master of the craft come his way: Lifetime Achievement awards, live shots on “Good Morning, America” and NPR, and some royalty checks. Having reached his seventies in full control of his musical gifts, why expect Oliver Sain’s story to be finished.