Born in Florence, Alabama, on November 16, 1873, W.C. Handy brought blues to the mainstream in one stroke, with his immortal compostion, “St. Louis Blues.” Handy played in a series of bands as a child, trooped around the South with Mahara’s Minstrels, and played at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.
In 1912 he wrote “The Memphis Blues.” Realizing that he could greatly benefit by becoming his own publisher, he joined with his friend Harry Pace to form Pace and Handy Music Company. In 1914, he published “St. Louis Blues,” partially based on a section of his “Jogo Blues,” written the year before. The song was not an instant success; it was first recorded in 1916 by Prince’s Band and the first vocal recording was by Marion Hutton in 1920. When the Original Dixieland Jazz Band recorded it 1921, the song became a smash hit, bringing the blues into the popular song tradition for the first time.
Handy’s other compositions included “Yellow Dog Blues” (1914), “Joe Turner Blues and “Hesitating Blues” (both 1915), “Ole Miss Rag” and “Beale Street,”(both 1916), and “The Kaiser’s Got the Blues” (1917). In 1921, Handy wrote another blues standard, “Aunt Hagar’s Blues,” and a beautiful ballad, first known as “Loveless Love” And later changed to “Careless Love.”
Handy died in New York on March 29, 1958, the same year as the release of a somewhat fictionalized Hollywood biopic of his life starring Louis Armstrong, St. Louis Blues. (KB)
Having made only $50 from the successful “Memphis Blues,” Handy looked around for a suitable subject for another blues song. He remembered a time a few years earlier, when he was “unshaven, wanting even a decent meal, and standing before the lighted saloon in St. Louis, without a shirt under my frayed coat.” He also recalled a “woman whose pain seemed even greater. She had tried to take the edge off her grief by heavy drinking, but it hadn’t worked. Stumbling along the poorly lighted street, she muttered as she walked, ‘My man’s got a heart like a rock cast in the sea.’ By the time I had finished all this heavy thinking and remembering, I figured it was time to get something down on paper, so I wrote, ‘I hate to see de evenin’ sun go down.’ If you ever had to sleep on the cobbles down by the river in St. Louis, you’ll understand the complaint.”St. Louis Blues
Handy supported candidate Edward H. Crump in the 1909 Memphis mayoral race, and in order to help inspire black voters, he wrote a campaign song in the blues style while seated at Pee Wee’s Saloon on Beale Street. The song and the campaign were both successful. In 1912, Handy returned to the tune and rewrote it as a piano blues number, calling it “The Memphis Blues” and publishing it himself, making it the first published blues piece. Later that year the Theron A. Bennett Company in New York purchased all rights to the song for $50. They hired George A. Norton to write a lyric and, in 1913, the sheet music was a big success. In 1931, the new copyright holder, the Joe Rose Music Company, hired Peter De Rose and Charles Tobias to write a new lyric.The Memphis Blues