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Star Power: Kirkwood's Mel Bay Joins Walk of Fame

Bay made a name for himself with his series of how-to-play guitar books that set the foundation for aspiring guitarists worldwide.

The late Mel Bay of Kirkwood – sometimes credited with teaching the world to play guitar – is joining the St. Louis Walk of Fame.

A star-shaped plaque with Bay’s name will be added to the University City sidewalk “Who’s Who” of famous St. Louisans on June 30. The city of Kirkwood has proclaimed June 30 as “Mel Bay Day.”

“It’s quite an honor,” said Bay’s son, William Bay. “The family’s very, very flattered.”

Melbourne “Mel” Bay grew up in the Missouri Ozarks and taught himself how to play the guitar, banjo and ukulele. As a young man he moved to St. Louis and began working as a musician and giving guitar lessons.

After World War II, the government asked him to put his instructional methods on paper and teach returning soldiers under the GI Bill. From there he launched a publishing company that ultimately made him a household name to aspiring guitarists everywhere.

It was slow going at first. Bay traveled the country selling his how-to books to guitar teachers and music stores. But the big New York distributors turned him down, William Bay said.

“They felt there was no future for the guitar as an instrument,” Bay said. “Then Elvis came along and overnight everybody wanted to play the guitar. All these New York distributors were ringing his phone off the hook.”

Brian Vaccaro, a Kirkwood resident who has written his own guitar instruction books, learned to read music the Mel Bay way. He is now director of music education at Fazio's Frets and Friends, a music store in Ellisville. 

Vaccaro said that by setting down the foundation for modern guitar instruction, Bay became instrumental in elevating the guitar from a "campfire" instrument to an instrument on the same level as "anything you'd find in the orchestra hall."

Today, Mel Bay Publications Inc., based in Pacific, MO, estimates more than 20 million copies of Bay’s Modern Guitar Method series have been sold worldwide. When Bay died in 1997 at the age of 84, one publication referred to him as the “George Washington” of the guitar world.

“His impact world wide is so significant and the amount of recognition he’s gotten locally is really not what it should be,” said Bill Ruppert, a Kirkwood resident and amateur historian.

Ruppert said musicians from Presley to Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones were influenced by Bay.

“When these stars would come to town, they’d visit him,” Ruppert said. “He wasn’t a Rolling Stones kind of guy, but music is music and talent is talent.”

Bay opened the Mel Bay Music Center in downtown Kirkwood in 1954. In addition to music instruction, the store rented musical instruments to generations of schoolchildren. The store was sold several years ago and recently changed hands again. The current owners plan to move it to Crestwood in coming months.

Bay’s publishing house continues to grow; its titles now run in the thousands, William Bay said. His father's original seven-volume Modern Guitar Method is still available, along with books for instruments from the dulcimer to the harmonica and more.

Bay also continued to perform for years. In his later years he was a member of a trio dubbed “Geriatric Jazz,” which included baseball great Stan Musial on harmonica.

Bay received multiple awards during his career, including the “Lifetime Achievement Award” from the Guitar Foundation of America, the “Lifetime Achievement Award" from the Retail Print Music Dealers Association and the "Owen Miller Lifetime Achievement Award" from the American Federation of Musicians.

Bay will be one of two honorees at this year’s Walk of Fame ceremony on University City’s “Loop.”  The other is Robert S. Brookings, founder of the Brookings Institution, a philanthropist who was instrumental in developing Washington University.

The ceremony unveiling Bay's bronze star will begin at 11:30 a.m. on June 30 in front of 6178 Delmar Blvd., across the street from the Moonrise Hotel.

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