Undoubtedly the most long lived and popular blues song ever written is William Christopher Handy's classic St. Louis Blues, which has almost taken on a life of its own since it was written over eighty years ago. It has been played and enjoyed the world over; its longevity shows no sign of slowing down. This song has made millions of dollars in sales, inspired motion pictures, brought fame to its singers and survived attempts at banishment from musical notation. Not bad for a song that Handy had a hard time selling. What follows are some insights into the most famous blues song ever written.
According to Handy, he found his inspiration for the song while wandering the streets of St. Louis. One afternoon he met a black woman tormented by her husband's absence. She told Handy: "Ma man's got a heart like a rock cast in de sea." Handy, forty years old at the time, drew his inspiration for many of his songs from African-American words and music, so it is not surprising that he began to compose a theme to this woman's anguish. He later said his aim was "to combine ragtime syncopation with a real melody in the spiritual tradition."
The song, along with many of Handy's, was composed in a Memphis bar called Pwee, headquarters for Handy's band and many other African American musicians on Beale Street. Pwee was owned by an Italian immigrant named Pee Wee. In back, there was a room where musicians could check their instruments and take calls for future performances. The establishment, like many similar ones on Beale Street, never closed, so it was always available as a place for rest, relaxation, and introspection for African-American performers.
The melody of St. Louis Blues contains the Afro-Spanish habanera rhythms (heard by Handy when he toured Cuba with his minstrel show at the turn of the century) which were created in Cuba and related to those heard in Spanish Tangos and derived from the African "tangana". The final strain in the song Handy borrowed from Jogo Blues, an instrumental he had written the year before, whose melody came from Handy's preacher. When the preacher was a boy, he chanted the tune as the collection plate was passed. The song was dedicated to Mr. Russell Gardiner, a St. Louis friend of Handy's, who had liked his previous composition, Jogo Blues.
The song that would become the best known blues in the world was initially turned down by every publisher Handy approached. He was finally forced to publish it himself, which he did in September of 1914 with the help of his former song writing partner, Harry Pace. The initial response was luke warm at best; the future blockbuster did not illicit much interest.
The song finally began to receive some notice when Pace and Handy moved their publishing firm to New York City two years later. It was first performed publicly in that city by an unknown female impersonator, though in the audience was a young Ethel Waters, who acquired the performance rights from Handy and became the first woman to publicly perform the classic.
Another story has St. Louis Blues as the song that sparked one of the greatest dance crazes of the time. The Shimmy, which finds its roots in Spencer Williams's 1917 tune Shim-Me-Sha-Wabble literally translated "chemise she wobbles", and was thought to have originated in a black cafe in Chicago, then brought to New York via Broadway in 1918. The woman who first introduced it on Broadway may have been Gilda Gray, who performed it to St. Louis Blues at the Winter Garden Theater in New York City.
Soon white stars of stage and vaudeville became interested in St. Louis Blues. What really made the song take off, though, was the fledgling yet rapidly expanding recording industry. Guy Marco. in his book "Encyclopedia of Recorded Sound in the United States," states that Al Bernard was the first to record St. Louis Blues in July 1918 on Aeolian-Vocalion #12148. The song was subsequently recorded by other artists on other labels as well as piano rolls.
One of the legacies of this wonderful song is its recording longevity. The list of groups and individuals that recorded St. Louis Blues reads like a Who's Who of American pop and jazz musicians and vocalists. In 1920, Marion Harris recorded it, followed in the next year by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. In 1925, Bessie Smith, backed by Louis Armstrong, recorded a version and five years later Louis put his own interpretation on disk. St. Louis Blues was always a favorite with vocalists, so it's no surprise that Rudy Vallee, Cab Calloway, the Mills Brothers and the Boswell Sisters all made recordings of the song in 1930. Jazz legend Benny Goodman had a successful turn with it in 1939 and Earl Hines liked it so much he adapted it to a boogie woogie beat and had a hit in 1940 with "Boogie Woogie On The St. Louis Blues." In fact, it was so popular that forty years after it was published the song still supplied Handy with annual royalties of almost $25,000.
Over the years, St. Louis Blues was popular not only in America. In the 1920s, Great Britain's King Edward VIII asked Scottish bag pipers to play it for him. It was performed at Prince George's and Grecian Princess Marina's wedding. Years later, it was said to be a favorite of Queen Elizabeth II. Even more fascinating is that in the 1930s, when Ethiopia was invaded by Italy, the Ethiopians adopted it as their battle hymn.
In 1940, at the beginning of WWII, noted French jazz critic Charles Delaunay was convinced that the Nazis would ban jazz after the United States entered the conflict. He encouraged French musicians to continue playing American jazz songs but to protect the music by giving it a French name. Thus St. Louis Blues became "La Tristesse de Saint Louis" (the sadness of St. Louis).
In Vienna, under Nazi occupation, the song title lost all connection with St. Louis when musicians who still wanted to play American music gave it the very Germanic title of "Sauerkraut," successfully slipping it by the ever present eyes and ears of the S.S.
Another memorable Broadway stage appearance of St. Louis Blues was in George White's Scandals of 1926. White had an extravagant production built around a battle between the blues and the classics. The classics were represented by the Fairbanks Twins, who sang one song by Robert Shumann and one by Franz Schubert. The blues were represented by Margaret and Dorothy McCarthy, who performed Handy's Memphis Blues and St. Louis Blues. In the production, a truce in the musical battle was called when both parties agreed on Gershwin's "Rhapsody In Blue," played at the peak of the battle. St. Louis Blues was also used in 1930 in an all-black revue entitled Change Your Life.
The now famous song was not confined to the stage. It was also used in a number of short and feature length films. Some were inspired by the lyrics and others used the now familiar title as a vehicle for other musical themes.
One of the first appearances of the song in film was in an important early sound short, the only film in which Bessie Smith ever appeared, aptly titled St. Louis Blues. It was filmed in June of 1929 in Astoria, Long Island, and released later that year. The 16 minute dramatization starred Bessie as a mistreated wife. Handy was the musical director and co-author of the script. The orchestra featured James P. Johnson playing piano, accompanied by members of Fletcher Henderson's Band and the W.C. Handy choir.
In 1939, the song made it to the big screen again when Raoul Walsh directed "St. Louis Blues," a musical set on a Mississippi showboat. The plot did not relate to the song, but St. Louis Blues was sung as one of the numbers. Artists included jazz singer Maxine Sullivan and composer/singer/actor Hoagy Carmichael.
A few years later, St. Louis Blues was the subject of another short film. In 1941, Alvino Rey and his orchestra, featuring the King Sisters, presented a three-minute interpretation of the classic. In 1958, St. Louis Blues served as the title of a film loosely based on Handy's life starring, Nat `King' Cole. The movie's cast of jazz all-stars included Pearl Bailey, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald and Barney Bigard. The soundtrack incorporated over ten of Handy's songs as well as the title song.
A final honor may be that no other song has a sports franchise named after it, namely The St. Louis Blues - a fitting tribute for one of America's greatest songs
Handy remarked that his whole life revolved around St. Louis Blues from the time he wrote it. It is fair to say that the composition wound its way into many lives in the last eight decades. So the next time you hear the song's famous refrain, Oh, I hate to see the evening sun go down, you'll know for sure that the sun has never set on this American classic, the great blues written about St. Louis, St. Louis Blues.