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.
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.”
In 1914, Handy formed a partnership with Memphis businessman/lyricist Harry Pace to publish “The St. Louis Blues.” The song became an even bigger hit. A quarter century later, Handy said it was still bringing him $25,000 in annual royalties.
That began the Handy-Pace firm’s string of hit blues, including “Hesitation Blues,” “Joe Turner’s Blues,” “Yellow Dog Blues,” “Careless Love” and more. Handy had learned the hard way how profitable buying songs could be and purchased material from hard-up writers, including, for $25, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” By that time he was living in New York, the music publishing capital. Handy and Pace split up the partnership in 1921; Pace forming Black Swan, the first, black-owned record company. In 1926, Handy published his classic songbook, Blues, An Anthology.
By then, Handy’s songs had helped create an entire blues industry. Every label was recording blues songs, not just by white vaudevillians like Al Jolson, Emmet Miller and Sophie Tucker, but by such African-American icons as Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Papa Charlie Jackson, Blind Blake and more.
His greatest successes were behind him, but Handy had made himself a wealthy man, living in a comfortable Tudor home just north of New York City in the affluent suburb of Yonkers.
Memphis still claimed him. In 1931, the city christened Handy Park on Beale Street. In 1936, he was the Grand Marshall in the first Cotton Maker’s Fiesta, the “separate-but-equal” version of the all-white Cotton Carnival. In reporting that, The Commercial Appeal paid tribute to him in the era’s patronizing language, saying that, although he lived in New York for business purposes, “Memphis has always been his home, the white folks of Memphis always his white folks.”
In 1947, tributes continued with the opening of The W.C. Handy Theater on Park Avenue in Orange Mound, billed as “the only negro theater south of Chicago that is completely air-conditioned.”
He died on March 28, 1958, and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, not far from his home (Duke Ellington is also buried there). That same year saw the release of St. Louis Blues, a highly fictionalized Handy film biography starring Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and other greats.
In 1960, Memphis, still a segregated city, erected a statue in Handy Park in honor of its favorite African-American son. The Handy statue became the template for the Blues Foundation’s early W.C. Handy Blues Awards. In 1969, the US Post Office issued a W.C. Handy stamp.
Composer, musician, businessman, W.C. Handy died wealthy and highly honored, after a long career throughout which he never stopped fighting for the dignity of African-Americans and - especially - for African-American musicians, who even within the black community, were often considered second-class citizens.
“If anyone owned a dozen cans and piled them on a couple of shelves behind a printed sign, he was a grocer and a businessman,” Handy wrote in Father of the Blues. “But anyone who contracted for musicians and played for parties over a dozen states was a good-timer and a rounder, if not worse.”
W.C. Handy’s unprecedented half-century career decisively proved the haters wrong, forever raising the status of Memphis musicians.