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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

Music and Lyrics Analysis

The heartbreaking lyrics of “St. Louis Blues” tell a woman’s story of how she lost her man to a vamp with diamonds, powder, and store-bought hair. Handy wrote in dialect despite knowing that other African Americans might find them offensive. He said, “…I felt then, as I feel now, that certain words of Negro dialect are more musical and more expressive than pure English.” Later, his brother would supply an additional reason. From an interview in The Nathaniel C. Standifer Video Archive of Oral History: Black American Musicians, Charles Handy says of “St. Louis Blues,” “He wrote that in dialect. He did not do that in ridicule but … [because] in the next century there will be no Negro dialect … he wrote in dialect because he wanted to document the way a black singer talked.”

Handy did succeed in documenting the dialect, but over the decades vocalists and sheet music publishers have transformed the words, if not the phrases, so that “’Cause ma baby he done lef dis town” is now “’Cause my baby he done left this town.” -JW

Musical analysis of “St Louis Blues”

Original Key G major; turns to parallel minor in the “B”section
Form A – A – B – C; “A” and “C” sections are twelve-bar blues, while “B” contains sixteen measures
Tonality Primarily major, except for the minor “B” section
Movement Primarily arpeggiated in both directions; uses chromatically altered third (“blue note”)

Comments     (assumed background)

Although “A” and “C” are a simple blues and “B” is no more than i – V7 –i, the elegant melody should be learned “as is.” Handy’s use of the flatted third “blue note” and chromatic melodic movement are basic to the entire blues style in both jazz and the early rhythm and blues music which gave rise to rock ‘n’ roll.
K. J. McElrath - Musicologist for JazzStandards.com

Check out K. J. McElrath’s book of Jazz Standards Guide Tone Lines at his web site (www.bardicle.com).
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Soundtrack information
“St Louis Blues” was included in these films:
  • Is Everybody Happy? (1929, Ted Lewis and His Orchestra)
  • Banjo on My Knee (1936)
  • Is Everybody Happy? (1943, Ted Lewis and His Orchestra)
  • Baby Face (1933)
  • St. Louis Blues (1938, Dorothy Lamour and also Maxine Sullivan)
  • The Birth of the Blues (1941, Ruby Elzy)
  • Jam Session (1944, Louis Armstrong, vocal)
  • The Glenn Miller Story (1954, instrumental arrangement called “St. Louis Blues March”)
  • The St. Louis Blues (1958)
  • The Client (1994, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band)
  • The Thirteenth Floor (Johnny Crawford and His Dance Orchestra)
Reading and Research
Additional information for "St Louis Blues" may be found in:

Philip Furia
The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America's Great Lyricists
Oxford University Press; Reprint edition
Paperback: 336 pages

(1 page including the following types of information: lyric analysis.)

David Ewen
Great Men of American Popular Song
Prentice-Hall; Rev. and enl. ed edition
Unknown Binding: 404 pages

(4 paragraphs including the following types of information: anecdotal and history.)

David Ewen
American Songwriters: An H.W. Wilson Biographical Dictionary
H. W. Wilson
Hardcover: 489 pages

(4 paragraphs including the following types of information: film productions, history and performers.)

Max Morath
The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Popular Standards
Perigee Books
Paperback: 235 pages

(1 paragraph including the following types of information: history and performers.)

Thomas S. Hischak
The Tin Pan Alley Song Encyclopedia
Greenwood Press
Hardcover: 552 pages

(1 paragraph including the following types of information: Broadway productions, film productions, history, performers and style discussion.)

Alan Lewens
Popular Song: Soundtrack of the Century
Watson-Guptill Publications
Paperback: 192 pages

(1 page including the following types of information: history, performers, style discussion and song writer discussion.)

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

(36 pages including the following types of information: history, lyric analysis, music analysis, performers, recordings and song writer discussion.)

W. C. Handy, Arna Bontemps
Father of the Blues: An Autobiography
Da Capo Press; Reprint edition
Paperback: 317 pages

(2 pages including the following types of information: lyric analysis. (Pages 122-23).)

W. C. Handy, Arna Bontemps
Father of the Blues: An Autobiography
Da Capo Press; Reprint edition
Paperback: 317 pages

(2 pages including the following types of information: lyric analysis. (Pages 142-43).)

Robert Gottlieb, Robert Kimball
Reading Lyrics
Hardcover: 736 pages

(Includes the following types of information: song lyrics.)

David Ewen
All the Years of American Popular Music
Prentice Hall Trade
Hardcover: 850 pages

(4 paragraphs including the following types of information: history.)
Also on This Page...

Music & Lyrics Analysis
Musician's Comments
Reading & Research

Jazz History Notes
Getting Started
CD Recommendations
Listen and Compare
By the Same Writers...

Jazz History Notes

The Original Dixieland Jazz Band takes credit for making the first jazz recording of “St. Louis Blues,” and the tune’s popularity hasn’t waned through the years. Part of its endearing quality to jazz musicians is that it can be played at almost any tempo.

Bessie Smith’s 1925 recording is a haunting performance, taken at a slow tempo and perhaps the first time on record in this manner. She is accompanied by a young Louis Armstrong on cornet and Fred Longshaw on reed (pump) organ (an instrument rarely heard on a jazz record). In 1929, Smith made her only film appearance in a short feature entitled St. Louis Blues, turning in an electrifying performance of the tune, accompanied by members of the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra and composer W.C. Handy’s Choir.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

Bessie Smith
Bessie Smith, The Collection
Sony 44441

Getting Started
This section suggests definitive or otherwise significant recordings that will help jazz students get acquainted with “St Louis Blues.” These recordings have been selected from the Jazz History and CD Recommendations sections.

Louis Armstrong participated in several definitive recordings of “St. Louis Blues,” but the most historically significant of these finds him in a supporting role, interjecting his trumpet in support of blues singer Bessie Smith. Smith’s 1925 version (The Collection) is as close to perfect as this tune gets and has influenced countless subsequent performers in different styles. Almost thirty years later, after offering several more classic versions of the tune, Armstrong would give another definitive performance of “St. Louis Blues” (Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy) on an album devoted to W.C. Handy’s music. Meanwhile, in 1933, a young Art Tatum offered a solo piano version (Piano Starts Here) that has also withstood the test of time and emerged as a landmark performance of the tune.

Noah Baerman - Jazz Pianist and Educator

CD Recommendations for This Tune
Click on any CD for more details at Amazon.com
Earl Hines
Live at the New School
Chiaroscuro Records
Original Recording 1973
Hines’ “Boogie Woogie on the St. Louis Blues” is both playful and jaw-dropping in its virtuosity, proving that by the 1970s he had lost none of his vitality.
Art Tatum
Piano Starts Here
Sony 64690
Original recording, 1933
A young Tatum uses “St. Louis Blues” here as a vehicle to display his confident stride, sophisticated harmony and stunning runs.
Max Roach
The Max Roach Trio, Featuring the Legendary Hasaan/Drums Unlimited
1999 Collectables 6256
Original recording 1965
Roach continues his tradition of looking forward with this modernized performance. This incarnation of his group features Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, James Spaulding on alto saxophone and, on this track, Roland Alexander on soprano saxophone.
Jaki Byard
Sunshine Of My Soul
2001 Original Jazz Classics 1946
Original recording 1967
Byard’s tightrope walk between the traditional and the modern is at its pinnacle on this track, which features Byard in a trio with David Izenzon on bass and Elvin Jones on drums and tympani.

- Noah Baerman

Jessica Williams
Jessica's Blues
1997, Jazz Focus 18

Jay Thomas’ homemade mute gives his trumpet a unique sound, recalling the late night jams that probably took place in this city on the Mississippi. Pianist Williams adds to the lazy feeling abetted by the soft swing of Jeff Johnson (b) and Mel Brown (d).

- Sandra Burlingame

Louis Armstrong
Plays W.C. Handy
1997, Sony 64925
Original recording,1954
Armstrong recorded “St. Louis Blues”’ umpteen times but this version stands out as not only one of his best but possibly the best recording of the song, period. Armstrong’s playing is bold and inventive. He takes it to heights which impressed even Handy.
Jimmy Smith
Six Views of the Blues
1999, Blue Note
Original recording, 1958
This almost forgotten recording took 40 years to be released and one has to wonder why. “St. Louis Blues”’ is played in a Latin shuffle beat while organist Smith and guitarist Kenny Burrell trade smoldering solos.
Mildred Bailey
Mildred Bailey 1938
Classics 1160

Vocalist Bailey delivers a wonderfully brassy reading of the song in front of an orchestra of who’s who. Even Red Norvo’s use of the xylophone as a traditional blues instrument is persuasive.
Dave Brubeck Quartet
At Carnegie Hall
2001 Legacy Recordings 61455
Original recording 1963
Pianist Brubeck and company use “St. Louis Blues”’ to serve notice to a Carnegie Hall audience that this will be a concert to remember. Their performance is high on energy, creativity and wit.

- Ben Maycock

Written by the Same Composer(s)...
This section shows the jazz standards written by the same writing team.

W.C. Handy

Year Rank Title
1914 20 St Louis Blues
1916 463 Beale Street Blues

W.C. Handy and George A. Norton

Year Rank Title
1912 725 Memphis Blues

J Tim Brymn and W.C. Handy

Year Rank Title
1920 901 Aunt Hagar's Blues

W.C. Handy and Sy Oliver

Year Rank Title
1921 715 Loveless Love

W.C. Handy, Martha Koenig and Spencer Williams

Year Rank Title
1921 787 Careless Love

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