Handy, W (illiam) C (hristopher)

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Handy, W (illiam) C (hristopher)

Handy, W (illiam) C (hristopher), foresighted American composer of early blues and jazz, bandleader, and brass player; b. Florence, Ala., Nov. 16, 1873; d. N.Y., March 28, 1958. Though he may not have lived up to his billing as the Father of the Blues, Handy was the first important musician to popularize the form. Steeped in classical music traditions and a veteran of decades of leading bands in the South, he nevertheless recognized the appeal of rural blues and nascent jazz music and began to compose in these idioms relatively late in life. His best-known songs, particularly “The St. Louis Blues” but also “The Memphis Blues” and “The Beale Street Blues,” touched off the first boom in blues music in the 1920s.

The son and grandson of ministers, Handy encountered family resistance to his early ambition to make a career of music. Nevertheless, he was able to learn to play the guitar, take organ lessons in sacred music, and study music in school. He also learned the cornet and played in the Florence Brass Band. At 15 he joined Bill Felton’s minstrel show as first tenor in a vocal quartet, but the group broke up after a brief tour. He also sang in the church choir. He taught school locally for a year after graduating in 1891. In September 1892 he went to Birmingham, Ala., to take a teaching examination; he passed it but became a manual laborer in Bessemer because the pay was better. There he organized a brass band and led a small string orch.

Moving back to Birmingham, Handy organized the Lauzetta Quartet, which traveled to Chicago for the 1893 World’s Fair, though it did not appear there. The group then went to St. Louis, where it disbanded. Handy endured a period of destitution in St. Louis and Evansville, Ind. (later reflected in “The St. Louis Blues”), then joined the Hampton Cornet Band and moved to Henderson, Ky. There he met Elizabeth Virginia Price, whom he married on July 19, 1898. The couple had six children: Lucile, Katherine (who became a singer), William, Florence (who died in infancy), Elizabeth, and Wyer. After his wife’s death, Handy married his former secretary, Irma Louise Logan, on Jan. 1, 1954.

Handy’s major career break came in August 1896, when he joined W. A. Mahara’s Minstrels, eventually becoming the troupe’s bandmaster. He stayed with Mahara until 1900, then joined the faculty of the Agricultural and Mechanical Coll. in Normal, Ala., as musical director. He stayed there for two years, then returned to Mahara for a year. In 1903 he took over the Knights of Pythias Band in Clarksdale, Miss. There he became acquainted with the blues music of the Miss. Delta and began to adapt his own music to the style. He moved on to Thornton’s Knights of Pythias Band in Memphis and also organized a dance orchestra in that city.

In 1909, Handy wrote “Mr. Crump,” a campaign tune in support of Edward H. Crump’s successful run for mayor of Memphis. In 1912 it was published as “The Memphis Blues,” the first published commercial blues song and the first published song incorporating an improvisational jazz break. Handy sold the rights to the song, and lyrics were added by George A. Norton for its 1913 re-publication. Nevertheless, the first successful recording, by Prince’s Orch. in 1914, was an instrumental. That same year the dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle, introduced to the song by their bandleader, James Reese Europe, were inspired by it to invent the fox-trot, their most popular dance. Other successful early recordings were made by the Victor Military Band (also an instrumental) and by Arthur Collins and Byron Harlan. Ted Lewis revived the song on record in 1927; it was used in the film Birth of the Blues in 1941, where it was sung by Bing Crosby; and Harry James’s 1942 recording became a hit during the recording ban in 1944.

Though Handy did not benefit financially from the song’s success until he renewed its copyright in 1940, he was identified as its author, and his career as a bandleader blossomed to the extent that he employed three touring bands. He also was inspired to do more composing, and in September 1914 he wrote “The St. Louis Blues,” an even greater success than “The Memphis Blues,” which was published by Pace and Handy Music Co., his own firm. Again, Prince’s Orch. made the first successful recording, in 1916. Other hit recordings of the song were achieved by Al Bernard (1919), Marion Harris (1920), the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (with Bernard on vocals; 1921), Handy himself (1923), Bessie Smith (with Louis Armstrong on cornet; 1925), Armstrong (1930), Rudy Vallée (1930), Cab Calloway (1930 and again in 1943), the Mills Brothers (1932), the Boswell Sisters (1935), the Benny Goodman Quartet (1936), Guy Lombardo (1939), Earl Hines (under the title “Boogie Woogie on the St. Louis Blues” 1940), and Billy Eckstine (1953). The song also was used in half a dozen Broadway shows and in nearly a dozen motion pictures. Reportedly the most recorded song of the first half of the century, “The St. Louis Blues” had been recorded more than 400 times by 1950, when it was still earning Handy $25, 000 a year in royalties.

Handy’s other major songs include “Yellow Dog Blues” (successfully recorded by Joseph C. Smith’s Orch., Ben Pollack, Lewis, Joe Darensbourg, and Johnny Maddox), “Joe Turner Blues” (a hit for Prince’s Orch.), “Hesitating Blues” (a hit for Prince’s Orch. and for Art Hickman), and “Loveless Love” (recorded by Ray Charles as “Careless Love” and by Smith as “Careless Love Blues”). His most successful song after “The St. Louis Blues” was “The Beale Street Blues” (1917), which produced hits for Prince’s Orch., Earl Fuller, Harris, Alberta Hunter, Joe Venuti, and Lombardo between 1917 and 1942.

Handy contracted to make recordings for a variety of labels, including Banner, Black Swan, Columbia, Lyratone, Okeh, Paramount, Puritan, and Varsity, and he frequently traveled to N.Y. to record. He recorded a total of about 50 sides between 1917 and 1939, most of the sessions taking place in the late 1910s and early 1920s. In 1918 he gave up full-time bandleading and moved his family and his publishing company to N.Y. Initially this venture was a success, as compositions such as “Aunt Hagar’s Blues” (1920) and “John Henry Blues” (1922) became hits. But the business declined as his partner, Harry H. Pace, withdrew; he also suffered from eyesight problems, eventually becoming blind. Still, he managed to reestablish his company as Handy Brothers Music, and he remained active as a publisher and musician until shortly before his death.

Just after he died, Handy was the subject of the biographical film St. Louis Blues, starring Nat “King” Cole. This renewed the popularity of the title song, which was recorded on more than a dozen chart albums over the next 10 years, including renditions by Cole, Pat Boone, Perry Corno, Duane Eddy, and Lou Rawls. In the 1970s and 1980s the song was recorded by a diverse collection of artists, ranging from Deodato to Hank Williams Jr.


ed., Blues: An Anthology (N.Y., 1926; rev. ed. A Treasury of the Blues, 1950; rev. by J. Silverman, 1972); Negro Authors and Composers of the United States (N.Y., 1935); W. C. H.s Collection of Negro Spirituals (N.Y, 1938); Father of the Blues: An Autobiography (N.Y., 1941); Unsung Americans Sung (N.Y, 1944).

—William Ruhlmann