Tuesday, June 10, 2014

St. Louis Blues

Composer and Bandleader W.C. Handy
The St. Louis Blues, composed by African American composer and trumpeter William Christopher Handy, is one of the most successful blues songs ever written. Handy composed Memphis Blues in 1912, sold the rights to the song for $50 and watched his music become a hit without receiving any further financial compensation. After visiting St. Louis a year later, he wrote St. Louis Blues and, after failing to secure a publishing deal protecting his new work, he self-published it in 1914. It was to become one of the most famous blues compositions in history - a “jazzman’s Hamlet” as it has been called. The tune is also credited with having inspired the foxtrot and the shimmy dance steps.
Handy and his band spent most of their time at Pwee, an“African American club” on Beale Street in Memphis thatnever seemed to close. The club was run by an Italian immigrant and was a “second home” to area musicians who liked to keep their instrumentsthere and stop in to make music between scheduled appearances in and around Memphis.

Statue of W.C. Handy in Memphis
Handy’s band appeared regularly. Being a trumpet player, he had other brass instrumentalistsin the ensemble, but it also included a cellist and an upright bass.

Handy said of his musical inspirations for the song that he combined “ragtime syncopation with a real melody in the spiritual tradition.” The music also incorporates Afro-Spanish habanera rhythms and the new tango style that Handy discovered when he toured Cuba with his minstrel show near the turn of the century. Like many composers, he also borrowed from his own compositions. In this case he reused material written the year before in Jogo Blues inspired by a melody that he heard a young preacher chant as a collection plate was passed. Handy was quoted as saying this about the first time St. Louis Blues was performed in 1914: “The one-step and other dances had been done to the tempo of Memphis Blues...[but] when St. Louis Blues was written the tango was in vogue. I tricked the dancers by arranging a tango introduction, breaking abruptly into a low-down blues. My eyes swept the floor anxiously, then suddenly I saw lightning strike. The dancers seemed electrified. Something within them came suddenly to life. An instinct that wanted so much to live, to fling its arms to spread joy, took them by the heels.”

W.C. Handy’s Orchestra, 1918
By the following year (1915), Columbia’s house band directed by Charles A. Prince had recorded an instrumental version of St. Louis Blues as well as creating piano rolls of the tune for the new electronic player pianos. An African American band working in the U.K. recorded it there in 1917. In 1918, a recording of St. Louis Blues with lyrics was logged in by Al Bernard. The song was a sensation and everyone wanted to sing and play this new blues hit from Memphis. In 1925, Bessie Smith sang the song for its first film appearance.

Louis Armstrong had backed up Bessie Smith’s performance for the film and followed with a
Papa John Creach
recording of his own in 1930. Rudy Vallee, Cab Calloway, the Mills Brothers, Count Basie and Glen Miller all soon recorded their renditions. Benny Goodman’s treatment of the St. Louis Blues was a hit in 1939. Earl “Fatha” Hines adapted the song to a boogie woogie style creating yet another hit - Boogie Woogie On The St. Louis Blues. Richard Himber’s dance band featured a string quartet playing the St. Louis Blues in a major motion picture in 1937. The first violinist in this string quartet was Wladimir Selinsky who was born in Russia in 1910 and emigrated to the United States in 1925. He soon began working as a concertmaster and assistant conductor on Broadway as well as playing under famous conductors Bruno Walter and Leopold Stokowski. But it was Papa John Creach, one of the most famous blues violinists of the 20th century and recipient of the W. C. Handy Award, who captured the true spirit of the St. Louis Blues on the violin. Born in Pennsylvania in 1917 and graduating from the Conservatory of Music in Chicago in the 1930s, he was librarian for an Illinois symphony orchestra for a short time. But ultimately, the doors were closed to African Americans trying to earn a living in Classical music. Creach started playing violin in the Chicago jazz and blues clubs and made a name for himself. His popularity initiated by his solo records was greatly increased when he joined the famous (white) rock bands The Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna. His gypsy-styled intro to St. Louis Blues partially inspired the duo version in this book.

Everyone seems to have performed and loved Handy’s special song. Even Queen Elizabeth II loved St. Louis Blues! In 1954, Louis Armstrong released a record of W.C. Handy songs and teamed up with singer Velma Middleton to create a long-form version of the St. Louis Blues that also inspired this book’s violin duet arrangement and vocal verse.

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