Black History Month: Honoring the legacy of W.C. Handy

Updated: Feb. 5, 2020 at 9:22 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - In honor of Black History Month, we’re remembering W.C. Handy, “The Father of the Blues.”

The composer and trumpet player did not create the blues, but he made it popular as one of the first to write down the notes to his songs.

In 1912 the song, "Memphis Blues" became his first commercial hit.

But it was Handy's second hit that catapulted him to super star status.

It's a building you've likely driven by countless times.

Falls Building on Front Street is more than a century old -- once steep in cotton history.

But it was on this rooftop in 1914 that blues history was made.

Band Leader W.C. Handy premiered a little diddy he wrote called "St. Louis Blues".

“And when he played it, people began dancing and swaying, and he just knew this would be the song,” said Elaine Lee Turner, director of W.C. Handy Memphis Home.

Elaine Lee Turner, director of the W.C. Handy Memphis Home, said the 11th floor of the Falls building once housed a nightclub called “Alaskan Roof Garden” where audiences couldn't get enough of Handy and this new form of music sweeping across the South.

“W.C. Handy says the Blues came out of some of the African beats, it came out of the work songs. It came out of the experience of African people here in America,” said Turner.

Turner says the song "St. Louis Blues" was Handy's biggest hit -- becoming a Blues staple, recorded more than 500 times and turning the genre into popular music.

And giving this city on the bluff an identity.

“Even the people during that period of time, when Handy lived here, they understood what the music was doing for Memphis and how it made Memphis more popular as a city and people wanted to come to Memphis,” said Turner.

It's a tradition that continues today. A good example is the International Blues Challenge.

The competition brought out the young and the young at heart on Beale Street last month.

The five-day event rakes in more than $4 million for the city looking for the next great blues artist every year.

“So we owe a lot of credit to W.C. Handy because of what he did for this city, and we’re still riding on that popularity,” said Turner.

And it all started on a rooftop in Downtown Memphis, with a song that would change American music forever.

Handy sold the rights to his first hit, "Memphis Blues" for $100. He was sure not to make that mistake again.

"St. Louis Blues" was the first song that Handy maintained the copyrights to.

Handy Brothers Music Company is still around today.

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