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Talking with Joe Edwards: New Walk of Fame book is jazzier

Joe Edwards outside Blueberry Hill
File Photo | Jarred Gastreich | Beacon

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - If you don’t know who Joe Edwards is, you probably haven’t lived in St. Louis for long. Owner of Blueberry Hill; friend of Chuck Berry; driving force behind local standbys like the Pageant, the Pin-Up Bowl, the Flamingo Bowl and the Moonrise Hotel (all of which make him unofficial mayor of the Delmar Loop); connoisseur of Hawaiian shirts: These things help describe Joe Edwards.

No matter which hat he’s wearing on any day, he remains a proud son of St. Louis. That love has found its most prominent expression in the St. Louis Walk of Fame, which Edwards established in the Loop in 1989. Since then, the walk has grown to 140 stars that honor the contributions of nationally influential figures with strong St. Louis ties.

To celebrate its 25th anniversary, the nonprofit group behind the Walk of Fame has just published "St. Louis Walk of Fame: 140 Great St. Louisans," a coffee-table book with photos and biographies of each inductee, from city founder Pierre Laclède (born 1729) to rapper Nelly (born 1974). The book costs $25 and is available at Blueberry Hill, local bookstores and through the St. Louis Walk of Fame website.

This volume is a marked departure from similar books the organization has published. Those earlier books were in black-and-white, Edwards said, with little more than the inductees’ photos and biographies. Thanks to Edwards’ daughter, Hope, who designed the book, the new compendium is a handsome volume with color photographs, creative layouts and charts that organize the inductees by profession, the street number where the star is located, and date of birth (Edwards shares a birthday with his friend John Goodman). Beaming with fatherly pride, Edwards chuckled that the new book is the first Walk of Fame volume he’s comfortable endorsing as a holiday gift.

Edwards sat down for an interview in Blueberry Hill’s St. Louis Room (whose walls are adorned with photos of every Walk inductee) to talk about the book, the Walk of Fame, and St. Louis’ cultural contributions to the nation. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Before we get to the new book, could you tell me a bit about the origins of the Walk of Fame?

Edwards: I found myself watching a television special or reading a magazine article about someone really, really great, and midway through they’d say, “And so-and-so was born in St. Louis.” And I would go, “Wow. I didn’t know that.” Most of the time I did. But every once in while somebody, like a really big name — I’d say, “Gosh, why don’t we know this? Why don’t we talk about this more and find out more about the heritage of our city and all the people that helped influence culture on a national level?”

So first, I started thinking, well, I’m going to build a storefront museum and have displays and researchers and photographs. The expense of doing that, and staffing it — the more I thought about it, I thought it really does make more sense to have just a walk of fame.

I liked the Hollywood walk, but it was always frustrating if I didn’t recognize a person’s name. So it was real important for me to have an informative plaque to highlight their great achievements and their St. Louis connection. It would also be a source of pride to St. Louisans and it would show out-of-town people that this city has produced a lot of great people.

Cities much bigger than we are have not had the influence we have had, I don’t think. This is my theory: Not only were we the gateway to the West, and the whole East to West migration was occurring, but the whole South to North migration was occurring, too. People were exposed to so many different cultures, types of literature and music. There really was this collision of cultures and the result was this explosion of creativity that continues to this day.

It was interesting to see who accepts awards for the inductees. Sometimes it’s the person, sometimes a representative. When Stan Musial was inducted in 1989, you accepted his star, and when Bob Gibson was inducted in 1993, Stan Musial accepted his star. Can you explain what happened there?

Edwards: In the very beginning, I had a set date for the ceremony, and all 10 people were inducted at the same ceremony. Sometimes -- even with more than six months’ notice -- the inductees were already committed to something else. For example, Stan Musial was in Ireland and couldn’t accept. But he said, “Let me know, next time you’re having a ceremony,” and so when Bob Gibson couldn’t make it, Stan said, “I’d be happy to accept for Bob Gibson.”

When did the ceremonies start changing to the smaller version we see today?

Edwards: Two of the great musicians, David Sanborn and Michael McDonald, could not make their own ceremonies. So I figured, OK, I’m going to stop having a set date for the ceremony. I’m just going to ask each inductee to pick a time that’s comfortable with his or her schedule.

The ceremonies are smaller, but they’re just as heartfelt -- and in some cases, even more powerful. I still have the ragtime band. I love having that because it’s such an uplifting type of music to have before and after the ceremony.

They pick a song that might fit the person, so for Stan Musial, we had [sings], “Take me out to the ballgame,” all played with banjos.

Has anyone who hasn’t been come to the induction ceremony seen their star later?

Edwards: Two that just send shivers through me still were Maya Angelou and Grace Bumbry. By chance, they both came to St. Louis, not knowing they were going to be here at the same time, and called me because they wanted to talk about the Walk of Fame and say hello. They came to lunch at Blueberry Hill at the same time. We sat together, about six of us: the two of them, their traveling people and myself. They were just having a blast talking to each other and asking questions of each other.

They wanted to see all of Blueberry Hill, so I showed them all the memorabilia. It was so wonderful because after a few beverages — which I thought was pretty cool, too, it was mid-afternoon by this point — this table was having more and more fun. They broke into song and sang this gospel song together. It was so gorgeous to hear this great opera singer and Maya Angelou sing together, right in the dining room of Blueberry Hill. I go, “Wow. I just went to heaven.”

Have you ever had anyone resist having a star placed in their honor on the Walk of Fame?

Edwards: No, people are really honored by it. Everyone was a little skeptical at first, like, ‘Really, you’re doing that?’ But once it happened, now it’s become an actual attraction, an educational attraction. Teachers bring in a whole class and they do chalk rubbings out on the sidewalks and they go back to their classrooms and do reports. Church groups, scouts come in for it, and a lot of just regular tourists or people from other parts of the metropolitan area come. They take pictures of the stars, they take pictures of themselves next to their favorite star, and it’s always fun to watch that occur.

What was the idea behind this book, other than to have a compilation of everyone on the Walk?

Edwards: [We’re donating it] to every high school library and every junior high school library in the area. That’s part of the nonprofit mission. There’s somebody in here that will strike a nerve with somebody, whether that’s in education, or science, or broadcasting, or music or art or literature. They’re bound to be touched by one of these stories, like Josephine Baker, growing up so poor and then becoming an international figure, joining the French Resistance, as well as being a great entertainer. There are so many role models from which to choose, and it’s important for me to get [the book] to these schools.

Obviously you and Chuck Berry have a special friendship, but is there anyone else in this book and on the walk who is near and dear to you?

Edwards: Several brilliant people are good friends. Bob Costas has a brain that is just — not only is he a nice, nice person, but the knowledge he has way beyond sports -- unbelievable. John Goodman is just one of the most likeable and talented people I’ve ever met, too. It’s almost like he’s having a second career right now, he’s in every great movie, the last two Oscar-winning movies. Many others I would consider friends. I hate to leave anyone out.

Masters and Johnson are in the book. They’ve been getting a lot of press lately thanks to "Masters of Sex," the Showtime mini-series.

Edwards: Yeah, and they were wonderful. [Virginia Johnson] was a little more outgoing than [William Masters] was.

Funny story about them: Years after they were inducted to the Walk of Fame, they were divorced. One of the TV stations in town called me up and said, ‘Did you hear Masters and Johnson are getting divorced?’ I said, ‘Yeah, but so what?’ They said, ‘Well we’re going to do a story on them, and we want to come interview you by their star, and then ask you if you’re going to split their star and put a separate star for each one.’ And I said, ‘Are you kidding me? No, they’re going to remain there on that star. All the research they did, they did together, and there’s no reason to deal with their personal lives or even bring that in.’ Finally I said, ‘No.’ And then I look on the news and [the reporter] did the story, and I wasn’t there, and she says, ‘Oh, I wonder if Joe Edwards is going to separate their stars.’ I thought, ‘Oh, gosh.’

After almost 25 years, what does the St. Louis Walk of Fame mean to you?

Edwards: I love the subtle way it joins the Loop together and helps bridge that artificial city/county border. I love seeing people stop and read the plaques. That just makes me feel real good because you can see the smiles on their faces or the serious looks as they’re really digesting the information. It’s real gratifying because it’s open to everybody of any background. It’s very accessible, open 24/7 all year long, and it will last. They’re built to last.

So when will your star be dedicated?

Edwards: Luckily, I never have to worry about that. I’ve not had a national influence, so I should not be in there. I’m happy to honor all these greats and glad not to worry about that part of it.