For our final W.C. Handy song of the day we turn to one of his later gems that was a lesser hit, especially at first. “Chantez-les Bas” was composed in 1931, and is the only Handy piece in its genre, a Louisiana-inspired love song. Handy never visited New Orleans, but played many engagements in Baton Rouge and points north and on one occasion, while his band serenaded a young lady by night, a neighbor gently asked them to pipe down, i.e., “Sing ‘Em Low,” in the local patois. The song went nowhere at first, but was picked up in 1940 by swing sensation Artie Shaw, one of the greatest clarinetists of the 1920s-1950s.
The song’s heyday was the mid-late 1950s, when it was selected by Louis Armstrong for his great 1954 all-Handy LP. Eartha Kitt, one of several musical stars in the 1958 Handy biopic “St. Louis Blues,” was assigned this number for the film, and she delivers it in her inimitable slinky style. Kitt, along with co-stars Nat “King” Cole and Pearl Bailey, recorded all-Handy LPs in conjunction with the release of the Handy biopic. All this activity occurred in the year of Handy’s passing from the scene; it was quite a send-off.
W.C. Handy named several blues for cities of significance in his life: Memphis, where he lived from 1905-17, St. Louis, where he was a penniless, flea-infested hobo in 1893; Atlanta, where he played some career-enhancing concerts in the World War I era. “Beale Street Blues” is his only masterpiece named for a street, the main drag of the black entertainment district in Memphis. The song was composed in 1916, and in 1917 Handy added words based on his experiences on the thoroughfare. One late night he happened into a local barber shop and asked the proprietor why he hadn’t closed for the evening: “well, ain’t nobody got killed yet” was the reply. The beginning of the chorus, though omitted in our day’s recording, sets the scene leading into the “I’d rather be here…” finale: “And the Blind Man on the Corner, who sings these Beale Street Blues.” Handy was a great folklorist. His bandmates would ask why he was always lingering on street corners listening to singing beggars. He always had a pencil and a scrap of paper with him, and the foresight to know what should be disseminated rather than lost in the mists of time.
“Beale Street Blues” was Handy’s farewell to a city he loved, where he had written his greatest works. He would soon head to New York’s Tin Pan Alley and the big time. Among the many musicians he befriended in New York was the pride of Harlem, Thomas “Fats” Waller, a great pianist, composer, and comedian. Fats could also swing the pipe organ, a mighty beast. Most of this 1927 recording is his, with the great blues singer Alberta Hunter limited to a brief interjection: “Ah, play that thing, Mr. Waller, Lord.” Toward record’s end we are blessed with Ms. Hunter’s rendition of the chorus, and though she mysteriously replaces the word “sergeant” with “surgeon,” the substitution works just fine. Hunter was a Memphis native, born in 1897; she absconded for Chicago aged 11, but would have heard Handy’s inescapable bands in Memphis in her childhood. By 1920, now a cabaret diva, she was making a sensation singing Handy’s latest compositions. Hunter vanished from the entertainment scene in midlife, opting for work as a nurse. She returned to show business in old age and was a sensation all over again.
W.C. Handy’s great “Yellow Dog Blues” incorporates an idea he picked up in the Mississippi Delta during his residencies in Clarksdale, Mississippi (1903-1905) then Memphis, his home base for endless gigs up through 1917.
“Yellow Dog” was written as a 1914 answer song to a 1913 hit by Handy’s friend Shelton Brooks entitled “I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone” (an “Easy Rider” was a gentleman caller or pimp depending on whose definition you prefer). In a wonderful mix of appreciation and appropriation, Handy takes the okay chorus (closer) of Brooks’s song–the closer always being the most memorable section–and re-uses Brooks’s best stuff as his verse. He’s got a much stronger chorus up his sleeve, a real Mississippi Delta lyric, and he springs that as his chorus. In our NYFOS concert, listen for the thematic idea to travel from end of “Easy Rider” to opening of “Yellow Dog.”
This week we focus on recordings of Handy’s works dating from his own lifetime, and this is the oldest track in our set list, and like the first 3 in the series, up-tempo. The band is Ben’s Bad Boys; the performance incorporates an archaic laughing effect that made the earliest recordings of “Yellow Dog,” a decade before this one, extremely successful. The trombone laugh is a direct quote from those records. Why listen to this 1929 version? Like most early “blues” recordings, it is up-temp, non-lugubrious. Then there’s the quality of this band: Glenn Miller on trombone, Jimmy McPartland on trumpet, and especially the clarinetist, a not-yet-famous Benny Goodman. His first feature has a bluesy smudged-note feel, over a “stop-time” accompaniment with a hint of that era’s dance craze, the Charleston.
Handy’s first hit, “Memphis Blues,” was self-published as a piano rag, which Handy sold, lock, stock and barrel, to a clever music publisher visiting Memphis on business in 1912. The loss of royalty income due to this transaction haunted Handy for the remainder of his life. The following year saw two pivotal developments in Handy’s career. He founded Pace and Handy Music Publishing Company with the brilliant businessman Harry Pace; and his “Memphis Blues” was issued as a song, with words by George Norton, who had another smash hit with “Melancholy Baby.” Norton’s words extolled Handy and his band, and the song caught on immediately and nationally, making Handy, a successful regional bandleader, famous, somewhat to his surprise, from coast to coast.
In her performance of “Memphis Blues” in “Belle of the Nineties” (1934), Mae West exemplifies the pizzazz of vaudeville. West, one of the biggest stars of early talking pictures, was steeped in the milieu of early 20th-century stage comedy, and she swaggers through “Memphis Blues” with authority. The house band in the film, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, plays along with a bit of hokum involving a drum stick, without losing a beat. Though “Memphis Blues” wasn’t composed until 1912, Handy had come to prominence as a minstrel band cornetist, conductor, and arranger in the 1890s, and the use of this song as a marker of nostalgia is highly successful.
“Memphis Blues” has a happy ending. Handy’s copyright lawyer, Abbe Niles, kept an eye on the date the song would enter the public domain, and Handy gained control of the property in 1940, in time to profit from his first hit toward the end of his life.
We kick off our week of W.C. Handy songs with his biggest hit, “St. Louis Blues,” a song that has been so-often recorded that no full accounting of the recordings is possible, to be counted in thousands, not hundreds, starting in 1914. Handy wrote the song on a single night at the end of that summer, the year after he founded the Pace and Handy Music Company. His partner Harry Pace was a business genius, which permitted Handy to concentrate on his increasingly busy performing career, punctuated by the occasional song composition and/or arrangement. “St. Louis Blues” has been recorded by everyone from Memphis street singers to Country-Western singers, avant-garde Jazzers, Bing Crosby with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Guy Lombardo (a remarkably good version), and Minnie Mouse, and it was performed by Ella Fitzgerald dozens of times, some fortunately immortalized on live recordings. It also appeared in dozens of movies from the 1930s to the 1950s, often to signify sin, especially when connected with the great Barbara Stanwyck. By this time, the song had become so globally popular you could hear it in a nightclub in Sydney, Seoul, Moscow, or Calcutta. A group of African Americans, visiting a Paris nightspot, were serenaded with “St. Louis Blues,” as if it were the U.S. national anthem (maybe it is). The apotheosis of Handy on record is the 1954 LP “Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy,” produced by the legendary George Avakian. Armstrong had recorded the song many times before, and his slow version backing Bessie Smith in 1923 is a treasure. But here, with his All-Stars, Louis really pulls out all the stops, from his impromptu verses to his searing trumpet lines. At a little over 5 minutes into the track, listen for Barney Bigard’s wonderful clarinet solo. Like Armstrong a New Orleans musician, Bigard had the distinction of being the only permanent member of not only Armstrong’s band but also the orchestras of Duke Ellington and King Oliver. This brief solo shows us why. Enjoy.
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