William Christopher Handy "The Father of the Blues," was born in Florence, Alabama, on November 16, 1873. As a young boy, Handy had an almost insatiable desire to learn more about music. While the Florence Concert Band practiced inside the local barber shop, Handy would peek through the windows and play his cornet, along with the help of a fingering chart displayed on a blackboard. In 1893, he organized a vocal quartet and travelled to Chicago, St.Louis and Evansville, Indiana, ending up in Henderson, Kentucky, where he joined Mahara's Colored Minstrels. Handy stayed on the road for the next seven years, save two years spent at A&M College in Huntsville, Alabama, where he taught music. The year 1903 found W.C.Handy leading the "Knights of Pythias" Band in Clarksdale, Mississippi. One afternoon in Tutwiler, Mississippi, he heard an itinerant musician playing a guitar with a knife blade and singing "Going where the Southern Crosses the Yellow Dog." (The Southern and The Yellow Dog were railroad lines). Handy made a particular mental note of the singer and his unique songs and style and moved to Memphis. Trying to keep in step with the demand for music in Memphis, Handy organized his own band to compete for the more lucrative jobs in a burgeoning musical community. There was, however, stiff competition with the likes of Eckford and Higgins' Imperial Orchestra and Bynum's Superb Orchestra. The mayoral race in 1909 saw a ticket with three candidates and three bands. Handy and his band were hired by the Crump campaign to draw and entertain the crowd's (E.H.Crump had a huge political machine that ran Memphis for most of the first half of the twentieth century). Handy turned to the blues form, and to that itinerant street musician for his composition "Mister Crump" (this song would later be retitled "The Memphis Blues." In 1913, Theron Bennett, a Denver publisher, reissued "The Memphis Blus" with lyrics added by George A.Norton. The song was a huge success, however, Handy was misled by Bennett and Phillips into thinking the song has flopped and, consequently, sold the copyright for $50.00. Undaunted, Handy went back to writing and produced "St.Louis Blues" in 1914, a song which has been one of the most recorded songs in history and has been hailed as the "National Anthem of the Blues." In September of 1917, Handy, along with four band members from Memphis, made the trip to Chicago. There, Handy acquired 4 Chicago musicians and 4 others who had previously played under his direction. With the band assembled, Handy's Orchestra of Memphis headed to New York to make their first recordings. For the first time in over three quarters of a century the recordings of W.C.Handy have been preserved and are available from Memphis Archives in this unique collection.
---Richard James Hite
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