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W.C. Handy, Composer, musician, music publisher. Born on November 16, 1873, in Florence, Alabama. Sometimes called the “Father of the Blues,” Handy is credited with helping popularize blues music. The son and grandson of ministers, he showed his love of music at an early age. Some reports say that he joined a minstrel show—a theatrical production that featured African American music—at the age of fifteen. Handy later studied at Teachers Agricultural and Mechanical College, in Huntsville, Alabama, around 1892. He became a schoolteacher briefly, but decided to pursue his music career.
In 1896, Handy joined W. A. Mahara’s Minstrels, as its bandleader. He stayed with the group for several years. Handy worked with a few other bands and ended up in Memphis in the early 1900s. He wrote his first song in 1909—a campaign song called “Mr. Crump” for a candidate for mayor of Memphis. The song was later changed and became “Memphis Blues.” He made a deal to get the song published in 1912, making it the first published commercial blues song. “Memphis Blues” became a big hit, but Handy didn’t get to reap the rewards of its success since he had sold the rights to it. To avoid this problem, he published his next successful song, “St. Louis Blues” (1914), using his own company which was later known Handy Brothers Music Company. Other Handy hit songs included Yellow Dog Blues (1914) and “Beale Street Blues” (1916).
In 1918, Handy moved his business to New York and later scored success with the composition “Aunt Hagar’s Blues.” He continued to promote blues to mainstream audiences in the 1920s, editing Blues: An Anthology (1926) and putting together the first blues performance in New York City’s Carnegie Hall in 1928. Handy continued working steadily through the 1930s, publishing collections of African American music.
Handy’s autobiography, Father of the Blues, was published in 1941. Having experienced problems with his eyesight for years, he became blind by the mid-1940s. The legendary blues composer died of pneumonia on March 29, 1958. Only months after his death, his life story was playing on the silver screen in movie theaters across the country in the film Father of the Blues, which starred singer Nat King Cole as Handy.
Daughter: Katherine Handy Lewis