Ik had er uiteraard beter vijf jaar geleden een stuk aan gewijd, maar goed, beter laat dan nooit, het is vandaag precies 105 jaar geleden dat William Christopher Handy zijn “St.Louis Blues” heeft gepubliceerd.

Handy said he had been inspired by a chance meeting with a woman on the streets of St.Louis distraught over her husband’s absence, who lamented, “Ma man’s got a heart like a rock cast in de sea”, a key line of the song. Handy’s autobiography recounts his hearing the tune in St.Louis in 1892: “It had numerous one-line verses and they would sing it all night.”

When it was completed he learned from a past mistake – when he had sold all rights to his 1912 composition Memphis Blues for just 50 dollars – and held on to the rights for St Louis Blues

The song was a massive and enduring success. It was one of the first blues songs to succeed as a pop song. At the time of his death in 1958, Handy was earning royalties of upwards of US$25,000 annually for the song (equivalent to $217,000 in 2018). Such was his popularity that when Handy died the Mayor of New York told President Eisenhower that he was proclaiming ‘WC Handy Week”. 

The form is unusual in that the verses are the now-familiar standardtwelve-bar blues in common time with three lines of lyrics, the first two lines repeated, but it also has a 16-bar bridge written in the habanera rhythm, popularly called the “Spanish tinge” and characterized by Handy as tango. “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.”

While blues often became simple and repetitive in form, “Saint Louis Blues” has multiple complementary and contrasting strains, similar to classic ragtime compositions. Handy said his objective in writing the song was “to combine ragtime syncopation with a real melody in the spiritual tradition.” T-Bone Walker commented about the song: “You can’t dress up the blues… I’m not saying that Saint Louis Blues isn’t fine music you understand. But it just isn’t blues”. T-Bone zou dan zeker het epitheton father of the blues aanvechten dat Handy werd toegekend, en wellicht wel terecht.

With traditional New Orleans and New Orleans–style bands, the tune is one of a handful that includes a set traditional solo. The clarinet solo, with a distinctive series of rising partials, was first recorded by Larry Shields with the Original Dixieland Jass Band in 1921. It is not found on any earlier recordings or published orchestrations of the tune. Shields is often credited with creating this solo, but claims have been made for other early New Orleans clarinetists, including Emile Barnes.

Singer and actress Ethel Waters was the first woman to sing “Saint Louis Blues” in public. Historians Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff state that the first male singer to perform “Saint Louis Blues” was Charles Anderson, a popular female impersonator of the day who included the song in his act as early as October 1914. This backs the claim by Waters, who said she learned it from Anderson and featured it herself during a 1917 engagement in Baltimore.

St Louis Blues was also played in the 1914 Charles Chaplin film, The Star Boarder. (Uiteraard bestond er toen nog geen klankfilm, maar ik neem aan dat een partituur werd bijgevoegd voor de lokale pianist – of misschien zelfs orkestje – waar de film werd vertoond. Het is anderzijds zeer twijfelachtig of deze plaatselijke vertoningen zich aan deze “verplichte” partituur hielden.)

Researcher Guy Marco, in his Encyclopedia of Recorded Sound in the United States, stated that the first audio recording of “Saint Louis Blues” was by Al Bernard in July 1918 for Vocalion Records. However, the house band at Columbia Records, directed by Charles A. Prince, released an instrumental version in December 1915. Bernard’s version may have been the first U.S. issue to include the lyrics, but Ciro’s Club Coon Orchestra, a group of black American artists appearing in Britain, had already recorded a version including the lyrics in September 1917. Handy zelf nam het nummer pas voor het eerst op in 1923.

The film St. Louis Blues, from 1929, featured Bessie Smith singing the song.

Op plaat had ze reeds in 1925 een versie opgenomen met Louis Armstrong op cornet. She changed  the mournful opening in: ‘I hate to see the evening sun go down.’ Dit vers zou later het originele openingsvers in populariteit ver overstijgen.

Die bracht het nummer zelf eveneens uit in 1929, Cab Calloway volgde een jaar later en in 1931 zowaar Minnie Mouse in een Disney-tekenfilm. Een andere merkwaardige uitvoering is die van Bing Crosby samen met het orkest van Duke Ellington in 1932. In 1934 was er Paul Robeson en in 1937 Django Reinhardt met Stéphane Grapelli. Billie Holiday volgde in 1940, waarna er de beroemde marsversie kwam van Glenn Miller.

Chet Atkins maakte er in 1952 een country-versie van en in his only major role on screen, Nat King Cole portrayed WC Handy in the 1958 film St Louis and the song was arranged by the great Nelson Riddle.  Dat jaar zong en speelde Sidney Bechet het nummer op de Wereldtentoonstelling in Brussel. Saxophone genius Sidney Bechet had recorded St Louis Blues as a youngster but this lovely flowing seven-minute version, with a band that included Buck Clayton on trumpet, was recorded at the Brussels Fair in 1958. 

Chuck Berry zong het live in Londen in 1965 (verkrijgbaar op de live-elpee). WC Handy’s song has also proved popular with British singers, and Hugh Laurie, George Melly, Cleo Laine, Chris Barber and Shirley Bassey have all recorded the song. It inspired a novel by William Faulkner and a play by Jean-Paul Sartre.  [Wikipedia]

Referentie

Martin Chilton, St Louis Blues: story of the WC Handy classic song, The Telegraph, 11 september 2015

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