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St Louis Blues (1914)

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Origin and Chart Information
Jay Thomas’ homemade mute gives his trumpet a unique sound ... Pianist Williams adds to the lazy feeling abetted by the soft swing of Jeff Johnson (b) and Mel Brown (d).”

- Sandra Burlingame

AKASaint Louis Blues
Rank 20
Words and Music W.C. Handy

When it comes to standards written before 1920, none has enjoyed more recordings by jazz artists than W.C. Handy’s classic, “St. Louis Blues.” Considered the most famous blues composition, the song was the most-recorded of all time from the 1930’s until “Star Dust” took the title over twenty years later.

Handy, in his 1941 autobiography Father of the Blues: An Autobiography, says, “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 the lightning strike. The dancers seemed electrified.”

Handy was determined to create a hit that would compensate for his loss on the popular “Memphis Blues” (1912). Unscrupulous publishers had tricked him into selling his copyright for fifty dollars, which barely covered his expenses. After a near miss with the instrumental “Jogo Blues,” (with its difficult arrangement) Handy found solitude in a rented a room in the Beale Street district and began to write “St. Louis Blues.”

In Father of the Blues: An Autobiography Handy says, “A flood of memories filled my mind. First there was the picture I had of myself, broke unshaven, wanting even a decent meal, and standing before the lighted saloon in St. Louis without a shirt under my frayed coat.” He goes on to remember a downcast woman stumbling and muttering, “My man’s got a heart like a rock cast in de sea.” And then he wrote down, “I hate to see de evenin’ sun go down,” commenting, “And if you ever had to sleep on the cobbles down by the river in St. Louis, you’ll understand the complaint.”


More on W.C. Handy at JazzBiographies.com

Although “St. Louis Blues” electrified dancers, success was not as sudden. Failing to find a music publisher who would accept his song, Handy and sometime collaborator Harry H. Pace published “St. Louis Blues” under the recently formed Pace and Handy Music Company. Sheet music sales were moderate but it would take years for the song to come into its own. Sophie Tucker sang the song on vaudeville, Ethel Waters performed it on stage, and Gilda Gray created a sensation when she used the music to introduce “The Shimmy” at New York’s Winter Garden Theater.

As a recording “St. Louis Blues” broke into the top ten with Prince’s Orchestra in 1916, rising to number four. Subsequent charting renditions include:

And for the variation “Boogie Woogie on St. Louis Blues”:


Chart information used by permission from
Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954

The song’s popularity was not just restricted to the United States. David Ewen comments in his book Great Men of American Popular Song, “When Prince George of England married Princess Marina of Greece, they danced to its strains at the wedding ceremony. Queen Elizabeth of England, mother of Elizabeth II, once singled it out as one her favorite songs. Ethiopia used it as a war song when it was invaded by Italy in the 1930’s.”

Handy’s formalization and popularization of blues music, including “St. Louis Blues,” would have a profound impact on composers for generations. In Father of the Blues: An Autobiography Handy says, “The primitive Southern Negro as he sang was sure to bear down on the third and seventh tones of the scale, slurring between major and minor...” He goes on to explain that he employed this device in “Memphis Blues” and “St. Louis Blues.”

In The Song Is Ended: Songwriters and American Music, 1900-1950, William G. Hyland discusses Gershwin’s unusual feeling for the blues. Although Gershwin did not rely on the twelve-bar blues structure, he “absorbed early in his career a feel for what gave the blues their melancholia ...the flattened third, or the ‘blue note’ and the flattened seventh added to the tonic chord.” Hyland comments on the effect of blue notes in “St. Louis Blues” on the word “sun” in the phrase, “I hate to see the evenin’ sun go down.” Similarly in Gershwin’s “Somebody Loves Me” (1924) it is found on the word “who” in the phrase “Somebody loves me, I wonder who.”

More information on this tune...

Will Friedwald
Stardust Melodies
Pantheon; 1st edition
Hardcover: 416 pages

(Friedwald thoroughly covers the song over 36 pages which include its history, lyric and music analyses, performers, recordings and information on the songwriter. Eleven other popular American songs are examined in depth as well.)
See the Reading and Research panel below for more references.

- Jeremy Wilson

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