W C HandyW C Handy was born on 16/11/1873 in Florence, Alabama. His full birth name was William Christopher Handy. The log cabin where he was born was built by his grandfather William Wise Handy and has been preserved. Handy's first musical influences came from the church music he sang and played. He would also be inspired by wildlife and his surroundings. Handy's father believed that musical instruments were tools of the devil. Despite this, Handy bought his first guitar after secretly saving money for picking berries and nuts as well as making lye soap. His father ordered him to take it back to where he got it but also arranged for him to take organ lessons. The lessons didn't last long and Handy changed to learning to play the cornet. He secretly joined a local band in his teens.
Handy worked on a shovel brigade at the McNabb furnace. The workers would beat shovels in complicated rhythms altering the tone as they thrust and withdraw the metal against the iron buggies to pass the time.
In 1892, Handy travelled to Birmingham, Alabama to take a teaching exam. He passed the exam and got a teaching job there. After learning that it was poorly paid, he quit the job and started working at a pipe works plant in Bessemer.
Handy would also organise a small string orchestra and teach musicians how to read music. He would organise the Lauzetta Quartet. The group decided to attend the World's Fair in Chicago, paying their way by performing odd jobs along the way. When they reached Chicago, they found that it had been delayed a year and headed to St Louis, Missouri where they discovered poor working conditions. The quartet soon disbanded and Handy went to Evansville, Indiana. In 1893, Handy played cornet at the World's Fair. In Evansville, Handy joined a successful band which performed in nearby cities and states. He would sing first tenor in a minstrel show, work as a band director, choral director, cornetist and trumpeter.
When he was 23, Handy became the bandmaster of Mahara's Colored Minstrels. They went on a three-year tour of the US and Cuba. After returning from Cuba, the band travelled north through Alabama, stopping in Huntsville. Handy and his wife Elizabeth decided to stay with relatives in Handy's hometown of Florence instead of continuing on the tour.
In 1900, Handy became a faculty member of the Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College or Negroes, teaching music. He would teach till 1902.
In 1902, Handy travelled throughout Mississippi listening to black popular music. He rejoined the Mahara Minstrels and toured the Midwest and Pacific Northwest.
In 1903, Handy became a director of a black band organised by the Knights of Pythias in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
In 1903, Handy and his band moved to Memphis, Tennessee. He would play in clubs on Beale Street.
In 1912, Handy published the sheet music for his song "Memphis Blues" which was his own style of 12 bar blues. It is considered the first published blues song. Originally the song was written as a campaign song called "Mr Crump" for Memphis mayoral candidate Edward Crump, before Handy rewrote the lyrics and changed the name. Handy sold the rights to the song for $100. Also in 1912, Handy met Harry H Pace at the Solvent Savings Bank in Memphis. Pace was a valedictorian at Atlanta University and a student of W. E. B. Du Bois. Pace would later become the manager of Pace and Handy Sheet Music.
By 1914, Handy had established his musical style and was a popular and prolific composer. He would use flat thirds and sevenths in his music and a three chord basic harmonic structure inspired by the music he heard from impoverished African Americans in the south. He became one of the first African Americans to achieve economic success from publishing.
In 1917, Handy moved to New York and moved his publishing business there to offices in the Gaiety Theatre office building in Times Square. By the end of the year, his most successful songs "Memphis Blues", "Beale Street Blues", and "Saint Louis Blues" had been published. In the same year, the Original Dixieland Jazz band recorded the first jazz record and a lot of Handy's songs would become jazz standards.
Handy sent the performer Al Bernard to Thomas Edison to be recorded. The recordings brought Bernard success. Handy published Bernard's songs "Shake Rattle and Roll" and "Saxophone Blues".
In 1919, Handy signed a deal with the Victor company The Joe Smith for his third recording called "Yellow Dog Blues". The song would become Handy's best selling recording.
In 1920, Perry Bradford persuaded Mamie Smith to record "That Thing Called Love" and "You Can't Keep a Good Man Down", two of his non-blues songs which were published by Handy. Smith's recording of Bradford's song "Crazy Blues" became a hit and African American blues singers became increasingly popular. Handy's business began to decrease because of the new competition. In the same year, Pace amicably dissolved his partnership with Handy. A lot of employees followed Pace. Pace set up Pace Phonograph Company, which set up the company Black Swan Records.
Handy continued his publishing company and in the 1920s founded the Handy Record Company in New York.
In 1925, Bessie Smith's recorded with Louis Armstrong the song "Saint Louis Blues".
In 1926, Handy wrote the book "Blues: An Anthology—Complete Words and Music of 53 Great Songs". It was the first work to attempt to record and describe the blues as an integral part of the south. In October, Handy hosted a party in Harlem to celebrate the book#s publication starring Adelaide Hall, Lottie Gee, Maude White and Chic Collins.
In 1929, Handy and director Dudley Murphy collaborated on an RCA motion picture, to be shown before the main feature, called "Saint Louis Blues" after the success of the song. Handy suggested Bessie Smith for the starring role. The picture was shown till 1932.
In 1944, Handy published a book on African American musicians called "Unsung Americans Sung". He would also write an autobiography and the three other books called "Blues: An Anthology: Complete Words and Music of 53 Great Songs", "Book of Negro Spirituals" and "Negro Authors and Composers of the United States".
Handy spent his latter years living on Striver's Row in Harlem, New York.
In 1943, Handy became blind after an accidental fall from a subway platform.
In 1954, Handy remarried after the death of his first wife.
In 1955, Handy suffered a stroke and began using a wheelchair.
On 28/03/1958, Handy died of bronchial pneumonia at Sydenham Hospital, New York.
In 1970, Handy was posthumously inducted into the National Academy of Popular Music Songwriters Hall of Fame.
In 1979, New York named one block of West 52nd Street in Manhattan, New York.
In 1983, Handy was posthumously inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
In 1985, Handy posthumously inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame.
In 1993, Handy posthumously received a Grammy Trustees Award. Also in that year, he was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame with the Lifework Award for Performing Achievement.
In 2003, the US Senate declared the year beginning 01/02/2003 as the "Year of the Blues" marking the 100th anniversary of when W. C. Handy composed the first Blues music.
The Blues Music Award was known as the W. C. Handy Award until it changed the name in 2006.
The W. C. Handy Festival has held annually in Florence, Alabama. W. C. Handy Park is a city park on Beale Street, Memphis, Tennessee.
Handy is known as the "Father of the Blues".