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Soul Reunion keeps Oliver Sain's soul alive

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: October 21, 2008 - Oliver Sain was such a central figure on the St. Louis music scene that his passing on Oct. 28, 2003, left a hole at its core that cannot be filled.

A musician, bandleader, songwriter, producer, recording studio owner and mentor to numerous aspirants in all of those endeavors, Sain was also famous for hosting his annual Soul Reunion concerts, which brought together musicians of national and local reputation. The only things the participants all had in common were music, roots of one sort or another in St. Louis -- and friendship with Sain.

"He just had such a love for people, and he saw that it would be a good thing to get a lot of musicians together and let the show evolve -- just for the love of music," says Sain's widow,  Ruby, who has been organizing the Soul Reunion concerts since her husband passed away.

To the best of her calculations, this year's show, scheduled for Sunday night at the Sheldon, will be the event's 45th year. The bill features a host of jazz, blues, soul and R&B singers and players including David Dee, Uvee Hayes, Roland Johnson, Skeet Rogers, Mae "Lady Jazz" Wheeler, and Renee Smith.

The featured artists will be backed by the Oliver Sain Revue, which includes longtime Sain sidemen Frank Williams (drums) and Michael Harris (guitar), plus saxophonist James Warfield, Jr., bassist David Certain and keyboardist and musical director Dean Minderman.

"Everybody wants to be on the show," Ruby Sain says with a laugh. "But everybody can't be on there all at once. So I try to get different ones every year. There's always a waiting list."

That's a tribute to Sain's reputation as a constant source of help, advice and inspiration to so many St. Louis musicians.

"People all over the world tell me that, had it not been for him, they wouldn't be where they are today," Ruby says. "Just what he did for them and what he showed them, he just nurtured them. Sometimes it was just a phone call that he would make that would get that person's foot in the door."

Among his most famous associates are Little Milton Campbell, for whom Sain served as bandleader, and Fontella Bass, for whom he wrote the hit 1965 duet with Bobby McClure, "Don't Mess Up a Good Thing." In the '70s, Sain enjoyed some success with the disco tracks "Bus Stop" and "Booty Bumpin'."

In later years, he was a staple of the live music scene around town, especially at BB's Jazz, Blues & Soups, where he played several nights a week. In 1997, Sain received a bit of unexpected notoriety when P. Diddy (then known as Puff Daddy), sampled his song "On the Hill" for the hip-hop track "Young G's."

"He would not just stop at one type of music," Ruby says of her husband. "At first, people would always say 'the jazz musician.' He didn't want to be known as a jazz musician, because he played it all. I tell people now, his favorite music was actually country western! When we were together, I never had a chance to listen to the other radio stations. Every time we were at home or in the car, it was always on country western, 'cause that's what he liked."

Ruby notes that his ability to take a room's temperature prior to a gig and deliver whatever kind of music the situation demanded was a trait that endeared him to audiences everywhere.

"He played all the different sounds," she says. "Whatever you wanted. And he always would say he played for the people, the public. He didn't just play one thing or what he wanted to hear. He played for everybody so that everybody could enjoy."

The idea behind the Soul Reunion concerts, she says, is to keep that spirit alive, and to keep her husband's spirit alive as well.

"He loved everybody," she says. "I never heard anybody speak a negative word about him, and people that I talk to say they never heard him say anything negative about anybody else. That just wasn't him. He always had a smile and a kind word to say."

Dan Durchholz, a freelance writer in St. Louis, has written about music for national and local publications. 

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