W. C. HANDY

 ...and his "Memphis Blues"

 
 

William Christopher Handy is often called the "Father of the Blues" because of his enormous contribution, during the early years of the 20th century,  to the introduction of this style of music to the world.  Handy himself stated that, far from inventing the blues, he  merely wrote them down and brought the blues to the masses.  This rather modest claim probably understates the importance of Handy's role in the development of blues music and even jazz, rock,  and folk.   His remarkable life started eight years after the conclusion of the Civil War ... which began a new era for black people.  Handy would help define this new era by introducing black music to the world.

 
 

Click on small photos for enlargements


 
 

 

 

W. C. Handy was born in a log cabin in Florence, Alabama, on November 16, 1873, to a family of former slaves.   His parents and grandparents were among the four million slaves freed by President Lincolns Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.  His grandfather, William Wise Handy, built their log cabin home and became a well-respected citizen of Florence and the Methodist minister of his own church.   Handys father followed in those footsteps, and the same future was planned for the young Handy.

He was intelligent, well educated and musically talented.  His grandmother encouraged his destiny when she suggested that her grandson's big ears meant he had a talent for music.

Handy Birth House  

Florence, Alabama

Handy - 19 yeas

Handy

"Chicken and Coronet" band

 

As a young child Handy showed great aptitude for music but this wasn't encouraged by his family who regarded musical talent, especially musical instruments, as not being suitable for a good Christian youth.  At the age of 12, he fell in love with a guitar in a shop and saved his money from odd jobs to buy it.  According to his autobiography, Father of the Blues, his angry father demanded that he return the devils plaything and exchange it for something that ll do you some good."
 

Handy was an exceptional student and attended the Florence District School for Negroes and then continued to college.  He qualified as a teacher by the age of 19, and received a teaching degree from the Huntsville Teachers Agricultural and Mechanical College ( A & M) in 1892.  However, after a brief stint at teaching, the low pay forced him to take manual work in a factory. But during spare time, Handy organized a small string orchestra (Lauzetta Quartet) and taught the musicians how to read notes.  

A & M -1883

 

When the group read about the upcoming World's Fair in Chicago, they decided to attend.  To pay their way, group members performed odd jobs as they traveled to Chicago.  Upon arrival in the city they learned the Fair had been postponed for a year. So they headed to St. Louis only to find that working conditions were really very bad. The Lauzetta Quartet disbanded and the broke Handy subsequently  slept outdoors on the cobblestones and faced other privations.  Talk about "the Blues"...  Handy soon leaves for Henderson, Kentucky.

 

St. Louis -1900

 

 

   



From the mid 1890s to the early 1900s, Handy lived in Henderson where he met his future wife, Elizabeth Virginia Price. (They marry in 1898 and will have six children).  
In 1896 he was invited to join a minstrel group called "Mahara's Minstrels." With his wife, Handy joined a 3 year tour which took them throughout the states of Texas and Oklahoma, across through Tennessee and Georgia, on to Florida and eventually to Cuba. Handy stayed with the Minstrels until 1903.   While with Mahara’s Minstrels, he became a solo coronetist, arranged orchestrations and progressed to leadership of a 30 piece band.

W. C. Handy  
 

Minstrel shows, tent shows, medicine shows, and revivals introduced some notable Southern blues musicians to the country.  The shows consisted of comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and music.  The actors were generally white and performed in blackface.  But after the Civil War, thousands of emancipated slaves performed  in the shows with their newly gained freedom to travel and to make a living playing music.   It showed that blacks were capable musicians and entertainers, enabling them to achieve limited acceptance in society.   The racism of the minstrel shows makes them difficult to stomach today, but the variety acts , comedy, dance, and music gave many Americans their first exposure to African-American music and culture.  W. C. Handy was the band master of Mahara’s Minstrels. Ida Cox, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, and Butterbeans and Susie got their start with minstrel shows.

 

Medicine Shows Traveling Tent Shows Mahara's Minstrels Mahara's Minstresls Minstrel Drawing
 



Handy left Mahara's Minstrels briefly and spent time with his family in Florence.  While in Florence, Elizabeth gave birth to the first of six children.  During this time, Handy was asked by W. H. Councill, President of Agricultural and Mechanical College about a teaching position.  This was one of the two black colleges in Alabama at the time and Handy accepted the job of bandmaster and music teacher. 

 

A & M College Band 1900

 
 

Florence, Alabama - Vintage

William Hooper Councill

A & M ... 1883

Handy

 



He was soon disheartened to discover that American music was often cast aside by the college and instead emphasized inferior foreign music considered to be "classical". It also became apparent that Handy was being underpaid and he could make much more money touring with the minstrel group. After a dispute with President Councill, Handy resigned his position and rejoined the Mahara Minstrels to tour states in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest.

 

Minstrels

 

 In 1903, he received an offer to direct a black band called the Knights of Pythias in Clarksdale, Mississippi. This job proved to be very rewarding and Handy remained there for six years.  During this period in the Mississippi Delta, at a layover in the Tutwieler train station, Handy  says he "... discovers the blues."  He saw a man plucking a guitar using a knife on the strings -  Hawaiian style.  Handy said "The effect was unforgettable and so was the song."  "He sang "Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog," three times". 

       Clarksdale, Mississippi

 

The man was singing about Morehead, Mississippi, where the north and south bound trains crossed the east and west bound trains.  And he was totally absorbed in the music based on everyday life and places.   Handy never forgot this.     As his band, the Knights of Pythias played all over the Delta and Handy came to know it, the people and the music intimately, he began to understand the blues.  Ultimately, this would lead to his first hit song.

 

Clarksdale Train Station Sunflower River  Bridge 1890 Historical Marker Memphis Beale Street 1930s
 
 
 

 

 

 

 MeMPHIS BLUeS

 

 

Handy 1906 ... Memphis Beale Street would have looked like this when Handy arrived.
 




In 1909, Handy and his band moved to Memphis, Tennessee and established headquarters on Beale Street.   His years of observing the reactions of white people to native black music, as well as his own observations of the music, habits and attitudes of his race, had begun to influence his music more and more, igniting what would later be called "the blues."   Memphis would become the "Home of the Blues" and in 1977 an act of Congress made that title "Official".

Handy's Memphis Home

 

 

Beale Street 1906

Pee Wee Saloon

Handy's Band 1918

Memphis Jug Bands

 
 
 

 

 
 

Beale has been home to everything from bars and clubs to gamblers and musicians, as well as prostitutes to churches.   During its early history, Beale was mostly occupied by white shop owners who traded along the Mississippi River.   But after the Civil War, many black traveling musicians began performing on Beale, and the street became a Mecca for African-Americans from all over the South.  By the end of the 1800's, Robert Church, a freed slave and the first black Southern millionaire, had built Church Park at the corner of 4th and Beale, as well as a large recreational-cultural center and a first-class Hotel for blacks.  In the early 1900's Beale was still filled with shops, restaurants, and clubs, but now, many of them were owned by African-Americans.  This is the Memphis that W. C. Handy would know.  His band played at Beale's famous Pee Wee Saloon. 

Church Park and Cultural Center

 
 

Handy composed a song about a Memphis mayoral candidate, Mr. Ed Crump, called "Boss Crump Blues".  It became very popular so he changed the lyrics and renamed the song "Memphis Blues".   It quickly caught on in the clubs due to its unique sound and became so popular that Handy made a deal to get it published in 1912.  He sold the rights to the song for the sum of $100 and unfortunately didn't reap the rewards of its success.  To avoid this problem in the future, he published his next successful song using his own company "Handy Music Co".   With the publishing of "Memphis Blues", Handy's musical style had been defined and "Memphis Blues" becomes the first Blues song.

 

E. H. Crump

Sheet Music

 

                               Click on the middle arrow to hear Handy play "Memphis Blues"

 
 
 

 

 

 

And two years later, at the age of 40, Handy published his most famous composition, "St. Louis Blues." (1913-14).  He had created a revolution in music that resulted in the first uniquely American music style. 

The  Memphis Falls Building was designed especially for cotton merchants in 1902.  On the roof of the building was a  nightclub called The Alaskan Roof Garden.  This became Memphis' premiere nightclub and W. C. Handy was the featured bandleader.  He introduced his most famous composition, "St. Louis Blues" here in 1914.  In addition the city's first radio transmission was from the roof in 1913.  Today, the building is home to the Memphis Chamber of Commerce.

   
 

Falls Bldg C-1912

Falls Bldg today

Handy's Memphis Orshestra 1910

Gerbers Dept Store
 

 This song that would become the best known blues song in the world was initially turned down by every publisher Handy approached. He finally published it himself, in September of 1914.  And Memphis Gerber's Department Store became the first WHITE store to sell sheet music from a BLACK composer (1914).  St Louis Blues will become one of the most recorded songs in history.  Handy will say years later that the royalties create more money for him each year that any new salary.

 

 

                        Click on the middle arrow to hear Handy play "St. Louis Blues"

 
 
 

 

 
 



S
everal other hits followed including "Yellow Dog Blues (1914) and "Beale Street Blues" (1916), Joe Turner Blues, and Jogo Blues.  .  The "Yellow Dog" was the local name for the Yazoo Delta Railroad.   It was originally published as "Yellow Dog Rag" and didn't sell well.  After Handy changed the name to "Y D Blues", it sold very well.  Handy's melody for "Jogo Blues" came from his preacher, who chanted the tune as the collection plate was passed.

Beale Street Blues  
 

Handy Orchestra Yellow Dog Blues Beale Street Blues Joe Turner blues

Jogo Blues      

     
 



In 1918 Handy moved to New York City in order to be in the heart of the Publishing Industry.  But he continued his connection to Memphis.  He and his band frequently returned to play engagements at the Robert Church Community Center Auditorium.   Church had built this excellent auditorium that would draw major black performers to Memphis, and he also built a first class hotel where these performers could stay while they were in the city.  During the Jim Crow years this was a good arrangement for all. 

 

1920 Ad  for
 Church Auditorium

 

 

           
 



It's not that Handy hadn't been appreciated in Memphis, but it wasn't until 1931 that the city honored him by establishing a park in his name.  The old Beale Street Market House was torn down to make room for Handy Park.  When the park was dedicated, Handy came from New York and rode in a big parade down Beale Street.  The parade was extensively covered by the news with the issue of a special edition which was used on a later cover of Beale Street Blues sheet music.

   
 
1899 The old Market House Special Edition Dedication Parade Handy Park today
 

Since its creation,  Handy park has been a meeting ground for musicians and Blues artists who play in the park for tips.  Today, the area has become an outdoor performing arts park, where in good weather, street musicians start wandering about noon.  Handy loved the park and visited often.  The statue of Handy in the park was dedicated in 1960.

 

Handy visit park - 1936

Children at the Statue

Dedication

Handy Statue

Handy Home moved to Beale

 

 

        

In 1947, the W. C. Handy Theatre opened in Memphis.  The 1102 seat theatre was a showplace for African Americans.  First run movies were shown and afterward top live shows featuring the finest in African-American entertainment.  There were also late shows "for whites".  W. C. Handy came for the opening of the theatre.   

In 1944 Andrew "Sunbeam" Mitchell opened the Mitchell Hotel in the old Battier's Drug building on the corner of Beale and Hernando.  The hotel was on the 3rd floor.  The 2nd floor was occupied by the Domino Club.  In the late 1940s, Mitchell changed that name to Club Handy and it became the last club on Beale to book headline acts. 

 

W. C. Handy Theatre

 

Theatre Opening Opening . Billboard Opening acts Club Handy building 1959 Ad

 

 

In 1918, Handy's partner Harry Pace suggested he move the music company to New York, which he did. Handy brought with him a song he had purchased entitled, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" which had great success on Broadway.  Its popularity spread worldwide and so did Handy’s fame.  He began to write and publish prolifically throughout the 1920's and 1930's despite problems with his vision. After two years Pace and Handy split, and the company became Handy Brothers Music Company.  The company still exists in NYC.

Handy Bro location  
         

       
In the 1930's W. C. Handy went blind but kept composing and publishing his music in Braille.  His wife died in 1937.

 

         

   
 
 

 

 
 

In 1928 the Handy Orchestra performed at Carnegie Hall, becoming the first black band to perform there.  This important concert on April 27, 1928, featured Fats Waller on piano and organ.  The program featured what was known then as "Negro music" - the first evening of black music presented in this bastion of white classical music.  On this occasion, Handy's daughter, Katherine,  sang "St. Louis Blues".
 

In 1978, exactly 50 years later, this concert was recreated at Carnegie Hall - without changes.  Handy's daughter again sang "St. Louis Blues".


Carnegie Hall - 1895       

 
In 1938, Carnegie Hall honored W. C. Handy with a concert for his 65th Birthday.
 

1938 Ad - Program

In 1943 Handy fell from a subway station platform which caused him to go totally blind.  
                                             
In 1954, Handy
married his secretary, Irma Louise Logan, who had become "his eyes".                                                                                                
In 1955 Handy suffered a stroke and was confined to a wheelchair. 

In 1957 a birthday celebration was held at New York's  Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.  More than 800 actors, musicians, and public personalities showed up.  President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon sent congratulations. 

 

W. C. Handy

   

In 1958, Paramount Studios released "St. Louis Blues", a movie based on Handy's life.  The movie starred Nat King Cole as Handy.

   

By the 1960s, the blues sound had significantly influenced the development of jazz, classical music, and the rock and roll of such performers as Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones.

In 1969 a commemorative stamp was issued in his honor.  The United States Postal Service issued the stamp in honor of 150th anniversary of the founding of Memphis and chose the image of Handy and his trumpet for the stamp design

 

 

   

 

In the course of his career W.C. Handy wrote 60+ music compositions.  He popularized a whole new style of music which incorporated the now traditional 12 bar form recognized as the Blues. Together with Harry Pace he established a music publishing company which was the first of its kind.  A stamp was issued in his honor.  He was given a tribute in 1938 at Carnegie Hall. A movie of his life was released in 1958.  The most prestigious award given to blues artists bears his name.  In 1987 he was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. His birthplace has been restored and is now a museum in Florence, Alabama. "The Memphis Blues" and "The St. Louis Blues" are considered classics. They have been recorded by 14 different performers or bands between 1914 and 1948, hitting the Billboard Magazines’ chart at #20 or above, 21 times.

   
   

W. C. Handy became world famous because of a life long pursuit of something he loved, music. His hard work, thirst for knowledge, and perseverance in the face of hardships, brought him success. Because of his broad musical knowledge and experience, he was able to put on paper and give voice to the music of the Mississippi Delta.  For this he will always be remember as "The Father of The Blues."

   

Handy lived in New York until his death on March 28, 1958, at the age of 84. He was buried there as well.  Many notable figures attended the funeral service and an estimated 150,000 people lined the funeral route.

   

 

   

     

 
 
 
 

Credits

 

The majority of the W. C. Handy photos on this page have shown up as "Public Domain".  Should anyone still hold a copyright on any of them, please contact us and we'll either remove it immediately or give you credit.

 

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The "Historic-Memphis" website would like to acknowledge and thank the following for their contributions which helped make this website possible:  Memphis Public Library, University of Memphis Library, Memphis Law Library, Memphis Commercial Appeal, Memphis Press Scimitar, Shelby County Register of Deeds, Memphis City Schools, Memphis Business Men's Club, Memphis Chamber of Commerce, Memphis City Park Commission, Memphis Film Commission, Carnival Memphis, Memphis Historical Railroad Page, Memphis Heritage Inc, Beale Street Historic District, Cobblestone Historic District, Memphis Historic Districts, Vance Lauderdale Family Archives, Tennessee State Archives, Library of Congress, Kemmons Wilson Family, Richard S. Brashier, Lee Askew, George Whitworth, Woody Savage and many individuals whose assistance is acknowledged on the pages of their contributions.  Special thanks to Memphis Realtor, Joe Spake, for giving us carte blanche access to his outstanding collection of contemporary Memphis photos.

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