Sept. 27, 1912
“Father of the Blues” W.C. Handy published “Memphis Blues,” what is believed to be the first commercially successful blues song.
An Alabama native, Handy looked more like a preacher than a blues player. In 1902, the musician traveled throughout the Mississippi Delta, settling in Clarksdale, where he led an orchestra. While waiting for a train in Tutwiler, he heard a Black man “plunking a guitar beside me while I slept … As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. … The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.”
Then he heard a Black man “crooning all of his calls in the key of G, … moaning like a presiding elder preaching at a revival meeting.”
In 1909, Handy and his band moved to Memphis, where they played in clubs on Beale Street, and he began to write, incorporating these local sounds into his music. Two years after his success with “Memphis Blues,” “The St. Louis Blues” became a million-selling sheet music phenomenon.
Handy became one of the most successful African-American music publishers of his day, and when he died in New York City at the age of 84, more than 150,000 paid their respects. The same year he died, the film “St. Louis Blues” came to the big screen, telling a fictionalized version of his life story, starring Nat King Cole and others.
Throughout his life, Handy continued his battle for the dignity of African Americans, some of whom happened to play music. In 1960, the still segregated city of Memphis built a bronze statue honoring Handy in a city park on Beale Street, and nine years later, the Postal Service honored him on a stamp. These days, a number of music festivals and awards bear his name, and Marc Cohn popularized Handy in his 1991 song, “Walking in Memphis,” which paid tribute to legends of the river city.