Blueberry Hill Turns 40
Joe Edwards looks back as the Loop original hits a milestone.
Photograph by Wesley Law
Pick the song on the jukebox, and close your eyes as Fats Domino croons, “The moon stood still, on Blueberry Hill…” Study the significance, the way that melody so succinctly summarizes a place in time. Domino released his 78 in the summer of 1956, at the same time Chuck Berry was rewriting rock with “Roll Over Beethoven.” It’s only fitting, then, that time seems to have stood still in this place named for Domino’s song, one that opened four decades ago this month.
Time seems frozen, too, for the man who started it all: a man with long blonde hair, flamboyant shirts, and a boy-like wonder—the antithesis of a typical businessman. Somehow, over four decades, Joe Edwards has not only managed to create this place—a sort of Field of Dreams for music and pop culture—but an entire neighborhood. And it’s here, in a diminutive basement that a Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Famer performs so many years later, still doing the Duck Walk at age 85. It’s a sight that causes people to fly into St. Louis from around the world, one that seems impossible, one that Edwards can’t take for granted.
And as Domino sings the words to the next line—“It lingered until my dream came true”— you know that Edwards picked the perfect song for the place.
On that name: “It popped into my mind instantly because of that one lyric, ‘I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill.’ The name came to me so fast that I figured there must be a better one, so I started going through my records and after about 15,000—about halfway through my collection—I decided none of them resonated with me like Blueberry Hill because of that phrase and the lilting way that Fats Domino sang it.”
On choosing U. City: “I looked in the Central West End, where Duff’s currently is, and the second floor at the old Arthur Murray Dance Studios on Grand Avenue. One of the main reasons [for choosing University City], though, was that rent was really low because the area had declined so much… Where Blueberry Hill first opened was Ed’s Pool Hall years ago. It was vacant and just being used as warehouse space… The building was built in 1911, so it had pretty antiquated systems.”
On the upside of naivety: “I was naïve about how much work it would take—that’s the beautiful part about being pretty naïve yet idealistic. Had I known ahead of time that I wouldn’t have one day off for a year and a half—that I’d have to work every single one of those days and long hours—I don’t know if I could have psyched up myself to do it. But once you’re in it, you just have to keep going.”
On when he first opened: “The area had been in such decline that the council had, in large part, given up on this area as being a viably commercial area again… Over half the stores were either vacant or boarded up or had small offices inside. It was pretty dark and gloomy, with a lot of trash on the sidewalk and streets, and a lot of unusual people. There were a couple of gangs in St. Louis, and it took a lot to clean up the area.”
On the beginning: “Blueberry Hill almost went out of business three times in the first two years, and the reason is that I banned two-thirds of the customers for life. I was not going to deal with the rude or dangerous people, and it kind of set a tone for the area… It wasn’t always good for business, though, because those were some of the heavier imbibers.”
On his realization that it would be a neighborhood effort: “Within a week of opening Blueberry Hill, I realized that if I didn’t work on the area—and I didn’t have the money to work on it financially, but helping organize people and stuff—that Blueberry Hill wouldn’t succeed. So right from the beginning, I talked to the police and people in City Hall and various merchants to figure out what we could do.”
On the jukebox selection: “I decided to open a place where I could feel comfortable and hopefully other people could too. It gave me the opportunity, first and foremost, to program the jukebox… I regularly rotated every song on the jukebox every two weeks—except for ‘Blueberry Hill.’ There wasn’t a jukebox in the world that did that at the time. That brought people in, people like actor John Goodman. He and his friends would drive all the way from Affton just to pump quarters in the jukebox and hear the songs. Since it changed every two weeks, it was always exciting.”
On how Blueberry Hill invites families and hipsters: “I think keeping up musically and with the pop-culture displays, and having a vibrant staff, helps. Now the jukebox has over 150,000 selections, and you can pick anything that’s current or old. And early on, I made a rule that you couldn’t be in Blueberry Hill after 9 o’clock if you weren’t 21 years or older. One of the things that triggered it was seeing a woman at midnight playing a pinball game with a 6-week-old baby and a cigarette hanging out of her mouth. I thought, ‘This is just wrong,’ so I made that policy. So even though we gave up a lot of the market—with students at Wash. U. who are freshmen, sophomores, and juniors who are not 21—it made it really friendly for families all day long, and much friendlier for people in their 20s and 30s.”
On why he collects certain pop-culture memorabilia: “Either the artwork is really nice and uplifting, or there’s a fun personality—like Rudy Vallee or The Beatles or Toy Story or The Simpsons. The colors and designs are fun, whimsical, and upbeat. I like positive things.”
On the dartboards’ origins: “Ed Schafer, who was a reporter for the Associated Press, lived in the neighborhood and was a dart aficionado. Shortly after we opened, he came in and bought a beer and said, ‘So I noticed that you don’t have a dartboard. Would you be interested in borrowing mine?’ I said, ‘No thanks,’ thinking of sharp points and beer. The next day, another guy came in and said, ‘Where’s your dartboard?’ And when I said we didn’t have one, he drank his beer and walked out. So the next day, another guy came in and asked about the dartboard and walked out even before ordering his beer. A few days later, Ed came in and offered to loan me his dartboard again, and I said I’d try it out. And it turned out that he was the one sending in all of these people. So he’s the man I proudly say conned Blueberry Hill into getting darts.”
On being a pack rat: “When I was real young, it was rocks and shells because they were free. As I got older, it became baseball cards and comic books and records. And by the time I was 11, I was collecting furniture for when I’d get an apartment. I’d collect mission oak furniture and brass beds with poker winnings or the small allowance I got. So when I did get older, I already had a fully furnished apartment… I had memorabilia boxed up and stored at four different locations before [Blueberry Hill opened]. With the expansion, I kind of joked, ‘Well, I built the Dart Room so I could build more display cases.’ And I still accumulate things.”
On the memorabilia’s other purpose: “If you’re meeting a businessperson or a date for the first time, it can be awkward or stiff. But this way, it’s not. People come in and say, ‘Oh, look at that lunchbox! I had that when I was in grade school in Miss So-and-So’s class.’ Or ‘Look at this Rolling Stone cover. I remember seeing Red Chili Hot Peppers when they were at so-and-so.’”
On his favorite items: “I really enjoy it all, but I think the Howdy Doody collection just because a lot of that stuff’s from my childhood days. I had very understanding parents. They never threw out a lot of the toys or comic books. I’ll always appreciate them for that… My favorite lunchbox is the Superman lunch box. That’s the one I took to the Army for basic training, where I’d keep all of my shaving gear—I never shaved after that experience, of course—but that drove the company commander nuts. It kept me in touch with the outside world, psychologically… And the Chuck Berry collection is the most extensive on public display.”
On how he became friends with Chuck Berry: “In the early 1980s, after I had come out with a craft beer called Rock ’n’ Roll Beer, I decided to do a Heroes of Rock ’n’ Roll series. It was real important to me that he was the first one on the can—this was before he was the first person inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame. So we struck a deal, and I think he was impressed that even though I didn’t have much money at the time, I offered him a deal that a major corporation might have offered for type of project. So some trust started right then. And every once in a while, I’d call and just say, ‘Let’s see the Neville Brothers.’ And so I’d take him to see the Neville Brothers. Over time, a trust built up. It’s one of those things where you just realize you’re friends… I sure never expected to be good friends with Chuck Berry. But life takes funny turns.”
On Berry’s first gig there: “He had sat in with a couple bands, just for a song or two, and played two unannounced concerts in the Elvis Room for Douglas Brinkley, who was taking [college] students on a special trip called The Majic Bus to meet people like William Burroughs, Chuck Berry, and Jimmy Carter.”
On how Berry became a regular act: “He and I were sitting around my house one night [in 1996], and he was reminiscing about his early days. He turned to me and said, ‘Joe, I’d like to play a place the size of the ones that I played when I first started out.’ We kind of looked at each other for a split second, and then said, ‘Let’s do it at Blueberry Hill!’ … Now, he’s getting close to having played 200 concerts here. There’s no other Rock n Roll Hall of Famer who’s played a place like this. Bruce Springsteen didn’t play The Stone Pony even close to this many times… I always introduce him. Had I known it was going to be this many concerts, I might not have planned a different introduction for every concert. But that’s become a tradition, and I’m glad that I took the time to do that: People get a fresh show from him every time, so I figure they deserve a fresh introduction from me.”
On Berry playing the Duck Room: “It’s an intimate room—340 capacity—and people plan vacations from the Netherlands or Japan or England to see him in that setting. To see him where it’s like the club scene used to be, it’s exhilarating. Plus his son and daughter perform with him here, and he feels real comfortable here. When he’s playing a big concert, he always plays his hits. But here, he might stop in the middle of the song and tell a joke or play the drums for half a song. He’s done all sorts of fun things on the Duck Room stage.”
On Johnnie Johnson: “Johnnie was such a kind man and talented boogie woogie piano player—the best in the world. In fact, he liked that better than rock ’n’ roll. He would come over to my house and play until 4 in the morning some nights. But he went through some hard times, and there were times when he didn’t have money to pay his phone bill so nobody could even call him to get a booking, so I would book him at Blueberry Hill as often as I could or loan him money… There would be piano players who would call ahead and ask, ‘Is there any way that you can arrange for me to meet with Johnnie Johnson and maybe play with him?’ … Ultimately, their jaws would just drop and they’d say, ‘Yeah, Johnnie, you’re the best.’”
On all of those photos with celebs: “I don’t even remember the first photo. After I met a handful of people, I figured, ‘Oh, I’ll put these up.’ Then I got way too self-conscious, but the staff kept saying I should do it. So I finally overcame my shyness about that and put the first 20 photos up. They were just a hit. So now through the years, I don’t know how many hundred there are. I still have a couple years’ worth that I need to put up… There are so many unbelievable people. Where we’re sitting right now, John Roberts Jr., the chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, had dinner here with a bunch of federal judges. I had a whole afternoon lunch with Robert Duvall and his wife. And Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin once came in. How he even knew about Blueberry Hill I don’t know. I have his cell-phone number—but I’ve never called it.”
On the Loop’s recognition: “The Loop is so special. As the American Planning Association designated it, it’s one of the ‘10 Great Streets in America’—and that was the first year they ever did it, which means a lot. I often joke, ‘What if we’d been in the third year? Would that mean really we’re in the top 10 or top 30?’ But it was the first year, so it can’t be debated. Case closed.”
On Blueberry Hill’s expansions over the years: “It meant a lot to me to have enough space that if we were successful, I could make it a long-term thing. If I’d only rented one of the storefronts, then it would always be a small place with no capability to put up more display cases or to have live music or a larger kitchen. It started out with the bar room, where you first walk in, and the dining room. Then the first expansion was to the west, which became the Game Room, where I put in a bunch of pinball machines and a couple of dartboards. The next expansion was to the east, creating the Dart Room and underneath it the Elvis Room, where the bar is made from an old bank vault—in fact, if there’s ever an earthquake, that’s where I want to be because there’s plenty of liquor stocked and beer and no way to get hurt. Then, in 1997, I opened the Piano Room and all the way down the hall, with the Pac-Man Room and St. Louis Room, and then the Duck Room, right underneath the Piano Room. That was tricky because it originally had 7-foot-tall ceilings, so we cut a hole in the floor, lowered a Bobcat, and a guy kept digging for several months. Nobody ever lowers basements—it’s too expensive—but it was real important to me to create a club room as good or better than any place in the Midwest, and that’s what I think the Duck Room became.”
On the bathroom graffiti: “We still sell graffiti T-shirts, just sayings that were taken off the bathroom wall. When visitors come in from out of town, they see that and say, ‘Oh my God! That is a riot!’ People tell me stories about how they’ll be wearing one and go grocery shopping and be standing in the checkout line and someone behind them will say, ‘Oh no! I’m not done reading that yet!’”
On the window displays: “Right now, it’s been the Loop Trolley information display to let everyone know about it. As soon as the trolley’s up and running, then it will go back to being rotated again. It became famous in its own right because people just loved to see the changes. A lot of the windows were live action ones, like the Easter Bunny’s Kitchen, where the Easter Bunny would be in there and his helpers would be dying eggs and putting them in the baskets. The detail that went into the props were just marvelous. At Halloween, there were always some weird ones like Rosemary’s Baby Shower, where Rosemary was innocently opening these presents and there would be a baby bottle filled with blood or something… And a couple got married in the window. The space isn’t that big, so the couple and the preacher were in the window, along with the best man and maid of honor. And all the rest of the family was out on the sidewalk.”
On the Loop trolley: “Groundbreaking hopefully will happen in November… It’s marvelous to see any great city street to come back, and to see good clean electric transit coming back is a marvelous thing for St. Louis in general—and it’s going to be a prototype for other neighborhoods. In The Atlantic about two years ago, there was an article about transportation. And people who live way out in the suburbs in this country are paying 24 percent of their income for transportation because of tire and engine wear and gas prices. If you live in a walkable community, such as the Loop, it’s 12 percent. That’s a difference of $700 billion a year—that’s half of health care in this country. I don’t care whether you’re conservative or liberal, it makes sense financially for the future of this country to stop building concrete cul-de-sacs in farm fields and start taking advantage of the infrastructure that was and is here.”
On an old photo with Edwards in an eccentric shirt and sailor cap—resembling Berry’s look: “Why I’m not smiling and wearing that shirt and cap, I don’t know. Maybe it was a harbinger of things to come.”