He looked like a preacher or a professor, but despite his dignified appearance, William Christopher Handy was Memphis music’s first international star, its first great songwriter and its first major music mogul.
Our third installment of ON[View] is on WC Handy.
The Father of the Blues, earned that title in 1912 by writing and publishing the first commercially successful blues song, “Memphis Blues.” In 1914, he made his fame — and fortune — writing and publishing “The St. Louis Blues”, which, in the days before hit records, became a million-selling sheet music phenomenon.
Born in Florence Alabama, later the hometown of Sam Phillips, Handy was the son of former slaves. His father was a preacher. An uncle, Whit Walker, was an ex-slave and a fiddler, one of the few jobs offering upward mobility on the plantation. There was lots of other music around Florence and Handy caught the bug early, learning cornet as a teenager and, by 19, was teaching music.
With natural leadership ability he was soon leading and contracting bands. He toured with Mahara’s Minstrels and performed at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where the ragtime craze started, and toured all the way to Cuba, learning the Latin rhythms used in the tango section of “St. Louis Blues.”
By 1902, a married man nearing 30, Handy settled in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Today the city and it’s sister across the river, Helena, Arkansas, have produced more than their share of great Delta bluesmen and women, including Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson and dozens more. When Handy settled there, it was simply a wealthy cotton town, Clarksdale society requiring orchestras for cotillions and other festivities.
Soon after arriving, Handy got his first taste of the blues, through a slide guitarist in a railroad station in nearby Tutwiler. In his groundbreaking 1941 autobiography “Father of the Blues,” Handy described “a lean, loose-jointed negro… plunking a guitar beside me… As he played he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in the manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars.” He called it, “The weirdest music I had ever heard,” but added, “The tune did stay in my mind.”
At a dance, during his orchestra’s break, Handy heard a Mississippi stringband play a mix of country, ragtime and blues, making more from the crowd’s tossed coins than Handy’s group’s contract. Handy was soon arranging these tunes for his group, including “Make Me a Pallet on the Floor,” known among modern country blues fans through Mississippi John Hurt’s version.
A few years later, Handy moved his family to Memphis’ Greasy Plank section, and broke into Beale Street’s bustling music scene. He became a successful bandleader, but wanted to be a songwriter. In 1912, he self-published “Memphis Blues,” which was more ragtime than blues.
In debt to the printer, Handy sold the tune for $50 and all unsold sheet music. The printer added lyrics, republished it, and the song became a huge hit. Handy became famous, if not rich.
Pioneering black bandleader James Reese Europe adopted the song to accompany headlining dance team Vernon and Irene Castle, who were inspired to invent the Fox Trot. They gave credit to Europe’s rhythms. Europe deferred to Handy., saying “The Fox Trot was created by a young negro from Memphis, Tenn., Mr. W.C. Handy.”
W.C. Handy started Handy Brothers Music Company and produced his next hit song, “St. Louis Blues.” Other successful songs followed, including “Yellow Dog Blues” in 1914 and “Beale Street Blues,” in 1916.
In 1918 Handy moved his business to New York where he realized continued success when he wrote “Aunt Hagar’s Blues.” He worked steadily through the 1920s and 1930s promoting blues to mainstream audiences. In 1928 Handy became the first artist to perform the blues in New York City’s Carnegie Hall.
One year later his “St. Louis Blues” became the basis for a Hollywood movie by the same name.
Handy continued to write and publish music. He also wrote five books on the blues, black folk music, and early African American composers. By the 1940s Handy was wealthy and living on Striver’s Row in Harlem. An accidental fall in 1943 from a subway platform caused his blindness and ended his music and book writing career.
William Christopher Handy died from pneumonia on March 29, 1958. His hometown, Florence, Alabama, hosts a music festival every year in his honor. His original house is now a museum and tourist attraction.