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It takes a village to replace a special guitar

Bill McClellan
By Bill McClellan - ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH - 01/31/2007

Tom HallTom Hall has been playing music in St. Louis for many years, and he is good enough that he has been able to make a living doing so, but like most musicians, he has not gotten rich. So it was a real blow when somebody broke into his truck a few weeks ago and stole his guitar.

It was not just any guitar. It was a nickel-plated brass guitar, a 1931 National Style O that had the strong sound that the early blues players needed when they brought their music out of the fields and on to the streets. That's Hall's music. So back in 1981, when he found a genuine National guitar in a pawnshop on Cherokee Street, he had to have it. He did not have $400 that the pawnshop wanted, but he had a beat-up 1950 Plymouth. So he sold his car for $400 and bought the guitar.

When Hall's guitar was stolen, word spread quickly through the blues community.

"I think Tom is so well-liked and appreciated as an artist and everybody understood the value of that instrument to him," said Ron Edwards, who plays the slide guitar and usually performs with the pianist SilverCloud.

So some of the folks who like that music - and some of the musicians who play it - decided to try to help Hall get a new guitar. Prices have gone up. A genuine National Style O goes for about $4,000 today, and that's if you can find one.

The effort to help Hall was centered at the Iron Barley Eating Establishment on Virginia Avenue where Hall has a regular Wednesday night gig. Owner Tom Coghill had a raffle and a tip jar and combined with the money that people had donated directly to Hall, Coghill figured he was getting close enough that one good benefit could put him over the top.

He asked prominent local musician Bob Case to help organize something. Case might be best known for his Mardi Gras music, but he once played as a sideman for blues legend J.B. Hutto. Case agreed to play at the benefit and promised he could get other musicians as well.

Coghill decided to go ahead and buy a guitar and present it to Hall at the benefit. Coghill's wife, Geralyn, went on the Internet and found a man in California who had a 1933 National Style O. The guitar was $3,800. The shipping costs were another $225 and a new case was another $100. Coghill did not tell Hall that he had bought the guitar.

The benefit was Sunday.

In addition to Case, Leroy Pierson, Brian Curran, Kevin Butterfield, John Higgins, Charley Pfeffer and Edwards played.

The place was packed. About 200 people paid $20 to get in. For that, they got a chicken dinner, music and a sense of community. By the way, credit for getting the word out should go to radio station KDHX. At least two of their deejays were at the benefit — Drea Stein and Pablo Meshuggi.

"This is a community!" said Case, and the crowd cheered.

A couple of hours into the benefit, Hall was playing with Pfeffer and Higgins. Coghill brought the guitar to the stage. It was in a case.

"Guess what it is," somebody yelled.

Hall opened the case and brought out a shiny, nickel-plated brass guitar. He sat there for a moment and looked at it. "I don't know what to say," he said to Case. "Just say, 'Thank you,' " said Case. "Thank you," said Hall. He was near tears.

The crowd laughed and cheered.

"It's our pleasure," hollered Bob Boland. He's an environmental engineer.

Later, Coghill realized that the benefit had been so successful that there was money left over. He and Hall decided to donate it to a music school at St. Frances Cabrini Academy.

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