On South Broadway in St. Louis, a triangle of music clubs changes shape
Nestled near the southern edge of downtown St. Louis, by two auto shops and a Taco Bell, a nondescript stretch of Broadway has hosted live music in St. Louis for more than 40 years.
The compact strip some call the blues triangle is the sort of walkable, organically formed nightlife district that city planners and tourism advocates in other cities often long to create. Ownership changes, a key retirement and the appearance of two new clubs — plus the fresh incarnation of a dearly departed one — have shaken things up in recent years.
As the micro-neighborhood evolves, its shapers are working to grow it while keeping the low-fi character intact.
“I had envisioned a spot like Beale Street in Memphis or Bourbon Street in New Orleans, where you go park and you can get out and go to three, four, five, six different clubs in one night. That was the mission,” said St. Louis nightlife pioneer Bud Joste one recent afternoon, seated in a coffee shop not far from the Soulard Ale House, where he got his start booking bands in the 1990s.
Joste was having a drink in the idiosyncratically named BB’s Jazz, Blues and Soups, founded in 1976, when he gazed out the window at the building across the street and decided to turn it into Beale on Broadway.
He opened in September 2000, mainly booking blues and soul artists. The late Kim Massie, dubbed by fans the St. Louis Diva, kept a weekly residency there for 18 years. For much of that time, her performances were so popular that she added a second weekly appearance.
Joste shocked his longtime patrons in early 2019 by closing the club with only a few days’ notice, when new owners bought him out.
The space stayed dark until the renamed and renovated Billy’s on Broadway opened in June. It's less of a sweaty, seven-nights-a-week club and more of a nice sports bar that also features a lot of live music. Yet on a recent Friday night, the blues soundtrack offered by Big George Brock Jr. and band sounded quite familiar.
The micro-district to be named later
BB’s, Beale and the Broadway Oyster Bar a few doors down are three points forming the blues triangle — or Broadway triangle, or simply south Broadway. There’s no formal name for this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cluster of independently owned music joints.
The newest club owners on the block suggest some fresh branding for the area: Music Quarter.
Brothers Jeremy Binkley and Ryan Binkley extended the musical action from Broadway to Fourth Street in 2017, opening the 200-person capacity Honky Tonk a few steps around the corner from Broadway Oyster Bar.
As George Brock Jr. and band played hard-charging Chicago blues for a largely gray-haired audience in Billy’s on Broadway, Off the Blacktop covered contemporary country favorites at the Honky Tonk. The blues DNA in Cody Johnson’s “Hardwood Honky Tonk Floors” was evident, but Off the Blacktop singer Tommy Patton’s mild twang — and the cowboy hats worn by a few patrons — suggested a country oasis.
Superstar Garth Brooks had no trouble filling the Dome a few years ago, and other area venues provide an occasional home for nationally known country artists. But for musicians touring on a smaller scale, St. Louis was long short on this type of environment.
“Nobody was investing consistently in providing live country music. When bands from Nashville were hitting the road and trying to play places, St. Louis was never a stop,” Ryan Binkley said.
The Binkleys recently bumped up operations at the Honky Tonk from three nights a week to five. They also open for big Cardinals games and special events; last Mardis Gras, a line of revelers stretched down the sidewalk at midday, waiting to get in.
Last fall, the brothers converted a disused parking lot next door into another venue, the Garage at Music Center. It accommodates 500 people in its main room, plus another 200 on a spacious patio. The Binkleys book special events there and throw shows once a month.
They credit city officials for installing color-changing LED streetlights nearby and adding traffic calming measures to a strip of Fourth Street that became a popular spot for illegal street racing early in the coronavirus pandemic.
More team effort, they say — among fellow business owners, tourism advocates and city officials — could solidify the onetime blues triangle as an evolving business district.
“If we can get our hands on more vacant buildings and grow the area, and name it, you can become a neighborhood — instead of five independent businesses basically pulling at things on their own,” Jeremy Binkley said.
A Big Bang of St. Louis nightlife
When nightlife entrepreneurs Bob Burkhardt and Mark O’Shaughnessy opened BB’s Jazz, Blues and Soups, there was a small transient hotel upstairs. The owners made a habit of buying leftover vegetables from Soulard Market and cooking up big pots of soup that proved popular with hotel guests, recalled John May, who started tending bar there in 1980.
“For $1.50, you got unlimited soup and good, crusty bread — but if you passed out at the bar, you’d have to start over and pay for your next refill,” May said.
Wearing his signature, black beret in the upstairs space he helped convert into a second seating level in 2007, May sat amid portraits of the many blues greats who’ve played the room.
Moving over the years from bartender to booker to managing partner, the bassist also learned from the greats firsthand. He played with luminaries including St. Louis blues patriarch Henry Townshend; Roosevelt Sykes, who recorded key tracks for Decca Records in the 1930s, and Johnnie Johnson, Chuck Berry’s longtime piano player who later collaborated extensively with classic rock artists Keith Richards and Bob Weir.
BB’s co-founder Burkhardt also opened Broadway Oyster Bar, which has seen several ownership changes since its 1978 founding — most recently when Steve Sullivan and Mark Goldenberg bought the place in 2019. Soul, funk and jam bands are in heavy rotation. It is well established as a spot where many of the city’s top musicians gather to play, join impromptu jam sessions or just listen.
The cluster of three music venues in close proximity lends itself to unexpected musical juxtapositions, May said.
“With no fail, you could count on going into the triangle and having live music on any night, and it's going to be good,” he recalled. “And if this band is on break you can run down the street and see another band. Folks would go over to the Oyster Bar and bring back a dozen more people.”
Changing tunes on Broadway
After pandemic restrictions shut down the region’s nightlife in 2020, BB’s reopened sooner than many venues. But capacity limits and other safety precautions, plus the widespread difficulty luring audiences back to live performances, has made it hard to make the numbers add up. BB’s closed its doors for a few months early in the year, then reopened as a three-nights-a-week operation.
May recently announced his retirement.
New general manager Kevin Ogle plans to follow in May’s footsteps for the most part but is expanding the musical palette by adding monthly nights featuring Latin jazz, reggae and other cousins on the musical family tree.
He’s started booking shows for select Wednesdays and Thursdays in January and hopes to ramp back up to five nights a week consistently by February.
“This used to be a hot triangle right here, back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. We may never get back to that, but hopefully we'll rebuild something similar to it,” Ogle said one recent evening at BB’s, pausing briefly near the bar while attending to complications resulting from a malfunctioning furnace.
“We're all neighbors, we're all family, we've all been around a long time. So it just brings a close-knit aspect to this corner. We each have our own little niche and we make it work,” he added.
The job never gets easier. The heating misfire forced Ogle to close for a weekend, canceling three shows. He planned to reopen in a few days.
Economic challenges notwithstanding, the musical micro-neighborhood a few blocks south of Busch Stadium is no longer a triangle, and it’s not just blues. Yet much tradition endures. It’s not unlimited anymore, but soup is still on the menu.