by Jon Scorfina
Many St. Louisans know Joe Edwards as the man behind the revitalization of the Delmar Loop. His imagination has spawned Blueberry Hill, the rehabilitated Tivoli theatre, the Pageant, the Moonrise Hotel, and most recently the Chuck Berry statue. His joyous projects have attracted people from all over the world to come and explore St. Louis, thereby earning Edwards a reputation as the Willy Wonka of the Delmar Loop.
What most people don't know about Edwards, however, is that he's a lifelong record collector, and many of his prized records are on display at his bar for everyone to savor. We met at Blueberry Hill for lunch and discussed everything from the value of collecting things to the legacy of Chuck Berry.
Last Collector Standing: You've done a lot to help secure the legacy of Chuck Berry in St. Louis, most notably by providing a venue for him to play monthly. More recently, you were the mastermind behind the Chuck Berry statue, which was recently unveiled in the Delmar Loop. Having so many ties to Chuck Berry, what is your favorite Chuck Berry album or song?
Joe Edwards: It's hard to pick one favorite, because so much depends on my mood. I think that's true of music in general. If you're in a down mood, then "Wee Wee Hours" might be a good one. If you're in a real "up" mood, then it might be "Maybellene" or "School Days" or "Johnny B. Goode." It's really hard to pick.
I guess for me, possibly it's "Maybellene," because that was the first one in 1955 that started it all. It not only changed music forever -- it gave a whole new voice to the post-World War II generation. For kids growing up at the time, they could use that music as a rebellious thing, not against their parents necessarily, but to separate themselves from the very conservative way that our country was at that time, socially. They could really let loose, and they had a [song] to call their own.
It also brought black and white kids together. The melding of hillbilly music with blues, and rhythm & blues to a degree, just created a whole new feel and style that they could identify with and say, "Yeah, let's rock out!" I think for those social reasons, as well as musical reasons, if I had to pick one that's the one.
At the same time, it's hard to say that "Johnny B. Goode" is not my favorite, too, because that's the story of Chuck Berry. A lot of people mistakenly say it was written about Johnnie Johnson, Chuck Berry's keyboard player, but it wasn't. That's the story of the country boy -- originally the lyrics were "colored boy" -- but the country boy who made good. It showed his progress through life through that song. He had a house on Goode Avenue. That's why it's spelled G-O-O-D-E, not without the E. There are a lot of reasons why that song is autobiographical. That one thrills me. The fact that it was chosen to be put onto record and put on board the Voyager space probe in 1977 that was shot into outer space to eventually leave our solar system, which they finally have done, and to reach out to other intelligent life forms... and if any other entities find it, they'll get the best of our culture. That song was considered the best representation of our culture of music from the 20th century. That's pretty impressive.
When did you first start collecting records?
I've been a collector all my life. I don't know, there's something genetic, maybe, in some people who are just collectors. The first stuff that I started collecting when I was two years old was rocks and shells because they were free. [Laughs] "Look at this pretty rock!"
It was a worthless rock but it sparkled a little better. My parents were pretty understanding and tolerant. Then I grew from that to collecting baseball cards and comic books and then records once I became musically aware. That all came from family trips listening to the radio going through different states, and you hear a lot of different types of music.
Some of the first artist whose records I bought were Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Bobby Darin, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. [They] were an electrifying type of rock & roll, a thumpin' gospel, except from the wrong church: the church of rock & roll. And Elvis, too, for that matter. There was something about those early rock songs that were so free and uninhibited, and they recorded take after take live in the studio. They didn't have all the computers and all the double track, and four-track, and eight-track systems. It think it was "Maybellene" that Chuck Berry did like 47 takes before Leonard Chess, the main owner of Chess records, said that was the one. That would be tiring, but they got it just right. Right enough to put out and become an international hit.
You mentioned prior to the interview that you don't have a computer and you don't have a collection of digital music. Why do you prefer records over newer media?
I talked to Elvis Costello recently. He played the Pageant just a couple of weeks ago. He's a big vinyl collector, which I didn't know until talking to him this time around. We talked for a long time about records. He said, "Wow, it's hard to find 78 RPMs by Chuck Berry. I've found two of them." They're easier to find on 45, but he's really getting heavily into 78 RPMs. Just the sound quality and how simple the recording process was. I'm kind of the same way I think.
At one time, I used to have 30,000 45 RPM records and 12,000 78s and thousands of LPs. You get smothered after awhile. I finally sold about a tractor-trailer and a half to a record dealer in California years ago, but kept the cream. I still have over 10,000 45s. I've lowered my 78s to probably 5,000, but I love 'em. Even when you hear that scratch, it's evocative of a time when listening to music was more mechanical and not so digital.
Your bar, Blueberry Hill, and hotel lounge, the Eclipse, both have a motif of collectibles as wall décor. Do you think as our culture moves more towards digitizing content that more people will be more attracted to places like Blueberry Hill that still celebrate collections?
I think one of the things that sets the places I create apart from others are the collectibles that are on display. I love the three-dimensional items. The Beatles porcelain dolls -- each one is sculpted differently and has the Sgt. Pepper's outfits on. And things like The Simpsons, pop culture things. People always forget there is a lot of music on that show. There's a lot of music on any show that's worth anything. I really do like that and that's a signature of places I have.
I think people embrace that. It's a warm connection to a good memory. People come into Blueberry Hill in the dining room where all those jukeboxes are... the Wurlitzer jukeboxes, the ones from the '30s and '40s are so gorgeous. People will go in there and see the lunch boxes. "Oh, I had that lunch box when I was in grade school!" That's really gratifying to see that type of reaction. I put everything into the display cases myself. What other things do you personally collect besides records?
Some of the other things I'm collecting right now are lunar-related because of the Moonrise Hotel. I've come across some wonderfully interesting and valuable items, including a patch that was taken to the moon the very first time man ever set foot on the moon, when Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins went in 1969 -- July 20. That's one of the rarest space items of all, because it was actually on the moon. There were only a handful of items like that on that first trip that were brought back. All three autographed it. People go into the lobby of the Moon Rise Hotel and go "Whoa!" and try to visualize that [patch] being up there and being brought back.
Space items like that interest me, but I still collect records. I don't collect them like I used to. I don't get a chance to get out as much because of all this other stuff I'm doing. I still love records.
If there was one record that you don't have that you would really like to have in your collection, do you know what that one record might be?
I don't. I would have been trying for it year after year. The ones that I really want, I've eventually tracked down. There were records early on, but I finally found them. Like, I have all five original Sun Records by Elvis Presley on 45. That's rare to have all five in one collection. To have one is rare.
Why do you think people collect in general?
If people collect things they love, their life is enriched. I think if people collect only for monetary reasons -- "I can buy this to sell this" -- there is some of that to get the money to buy the stuff you really like. I've got nothing against that, but if it's just for that, I don't think it is as rewarding as it is when it doesn't matter what the value is. If you really like it, it's worth collecting.
There are things at Blueberry Hill that cost me next to nothing. Those Rolling Stone covers that I framed... great photography. Great covers that are evocative of each artist. People feel so many things from that. Well, that cost nothing except for the frames really, because I subscribe to Rolling Stone. I collect covers of Rolling Stone. I have hundreds and hundreds of them. I only put up a certain number at Blueberry Hill.
Music is the same way. I think if you collect the records you like, or the genre you like, it's comforting. I think it's very comforting to know that on a dark, gloomy, fifteen-below winter day that comes every twenty years that you can listen to so-and-so on record. In my case I can listen to them on a crank-up [player]. Even if the electricity is out, I can put them on an old Victrola or an old Edison player. That's comforting.
It's rewarding too. It brings you back to a certain memory or event. It's your own personal diary of life. When you have a bunch or records and are in a certain mood -- and in my case you might have had a bourbon or two -- "Oh, I'll play this!" "That leads to this!" "Let me play this for you!" All of a sudden you get the person or people with you all hyped up, and they relive your enthusiastic experience of a certain time in your life, and they'll do the same for you. It's hard to put into words, but I think that's the gist of it anyway.
Do you have a favorite record or song of all time?
One that is near and dear to my heart, of course, is the Fats Domino version of "Blueberry Hill," because Blueberry Hill itself has meant so much to me. That's the first place I ever thought about opening and creating a place where people felt comfortable and have happy experiences. It's meant the world to me that so many people have come through here and have had happy experiences. And that [sings] "I've found my thrill on Blueberry Hill." That wonderful sounding phrase just resonated with me, and so many people through years, especially the early years. That's near and dear to my heart.
There is this great version by Little Richard that nobody knows about. I didn't know about it for years. That was one of those records where you were saying, "What record would you really like?" I couldn't find it. This is before computer searches and eBay and all that, so it wasn't easy to find out if it was true that he really had done a version. One day I did find it. It's a hoot. It starts out with no instruments at all and him going, "Wah-Whooh. Wah-Whooh!" It's a rockin' out version. Just unbelievable. It will blow you right off your chair when you hear it: "Holy cow! I just went to church."
As the co-owner of the Pageant you've met almost every band that's played the venue and been photographed with hundreds of musicians. Is there any musician that you've never met that you still want to meet?
Probably 50. I'd like to meet Gwen Stefani. I think that would be a fascinating person to meet. It would have been fun to met Elvis. I never met him.
You've done a lot to foster the community in University City and St. Louis with many of your different developments. What do you think will be lost to communities as more and more record stores close across the country?
So much sharing of experiences. In a record store like Vintage Vinyl, people are in there thumbing through the racks. Somebody might say something, and all of a sudden a conversation strikes up and all a sudden you get a musical discourse going. The employees who work at stores like Vintage Vinyl -- there are a few around the country, but not that many anymore -- they love music. They're so knowledgeable about music. They're there because they love it.
I think all arts are important for mankind, but I think music is probably the most powerful one. It can go through your bones. You can enjoy it any place, any time. You really lose a sense of community and interpersonal relationships without that. If people get too isolated, I don't think it's healthy for their own personality. Music brings people together. People still go to concerts, but it's still not the same as having that quiet conversation at the record store.