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"St. Louis Blues"
File:St. Louis Blues cover.jpg
Sheet music cover
Songwriter(s)W. C. Handy

St. Louis Blues: 9 bars, tenor saxophone

"Saint Louis Blues" is a popular American song composed by W. C. Handy in the blues style and published in September 1914. It remains a fundamental part of jazz musicians' repertoire. It was also one of the first blues songs to succeed as a pop song. It has been performed by numerous musicians in various styles, including Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Guy Lombardo, and the Boston Pops Orchestra. It has been called "the jazzman's Hamlet."[1] The 1925 version sung by Bessie Smith, with Louis Armstrong on cornet, was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1993. The 1929 version by Louis Armstrong & His Orchestra (with Red Allen) was inducted in 2008.


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.[2][3] Details of the story vary. 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."[4]

The song was a massive and enduring success. At the time of his death in 1958, Handy was earning royalties of upwards of US$25,000 annually for the song (equivalent to about $200,000 in 2016). The original published sheet music is available online from the United States Library of Congress in a searchable database of African-American music from Brown University.[5]


The form is unusual in that the verses are the now-familiar standard twelve-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.[6] The tango-like rhythm is notated as a dotted quarter note followed by an eighth note and two quarter notes, with no slurs or ties. It is played in the introduction and in the sixteen-measure bridge.[5]

File:St louis blues.tif

Excerpt from "Saint Louis Blues", by W. C. Handy (1914). The left hand plays the habanera rhythm.

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."[7]

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.


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"Saint Louis Blues"
Song by Bessie Smith
RecordedNew York City, January 14, 1925
LabelColumbia (14064-D)
Songwriter(s)W. C. Handy

Writing about the first time "Saint Louis Blues" was played (1914),[8] Handy noted that "The one-step and other dances had been done to the tempo of Memphis Blues... 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. My eyes swept the floor anxiously, then suddenly I saw lightning strike. The dancers seemed electrified. Something within them came suddenly to life. An instinct that wanted so much to live, to fling its arms to spread joy, took them by the heels."[6]

It has long been reputed that Ethel Waters was the first to sing "Saint Louis Blues" in public.[9] However, historians Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff state that the first singer to perform “St. Louis Blues” was Charles Anderson, a popular female impersonator in his 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.[10]

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.[citation needed]

The following is an incomplete list of the hundreds of renowned musicians who have recorded it.


Musicians List
  • 1919 – Lieutenant Jim Europe's U.S. Infantry Band (Pathe).
  • 1920 – Marion Harris
  • 1921 – Original Dixieland Jass Band
  • 1922 – W. C. Handy
  • 1925 – Bessie Smith, backed by Louis Armstrong on cornet and Fred Longshaw on harmonium.[11]
  • 1926 – Fats Waller, recorded as an organ solo for Victor Records.
  • 1927 – Wild Man Blues
  • 1927 – Sylvester Weaver
  • 1928 – Al Bernard, as "John Bennett" (Madison)[12]
  • 1928 – Katherine Henderson with Clarence Williams and His Orchestra.[13][14]
  • 1929 – Emmett Miller accompanied by his Georgia Crackers, released in New York on September 9, 1929, by Matrix Music Records
  • 1929 – Louis Armstrong & His Orchestra, with Red Allen.
  • 1930 – Rudy Vallee, Cab Calloway, the Mills Brothers, the Boswell Sisters, Jim Jackson.
  • 1932 – Bing Crosby with Duke Ellington and His Orchestra.
  • 1933 – The Whiskey Bottle Boys, played on a water-bottle xylophone.
  • 1934 – Paul Robeson, recorded in London on February 20, 1934, and released by EMI on the His Master's Voice label (B 8219).
  • 1935 – The Boswell Sisters, recorded on May 28, 1935, and released on the Brunswick label (7467).
  • 1935 – Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli
  • 1935 – Bob Wills
  • 1936 – Walter Brennan, Theresa Harris
  • 1939 – Benny Goodman
  • 1940 – Earl Hines, in a rendition entitled "Boogie Woogie on the St. Louis Blues", in which Hines can be heard saying, "Aw, play it till 1951", the year the original copyright was to expire; he also recorded an up-tempo solo piano version in Paris on November 6, 1949, for the Royal Jazz label; and he included the tune on his 1977 Vogue album An Evening with Earl Hines: With Tiny Grimes, Hank Young, Bert Dahlander and Marva Josie.
  • 1940 – Billie Holiday, in a session with Benny Carter and His All Star Orchestra (OKeh). This session was part of an album with eight tracks on four 78-rpm discs planned by John Hammond and Leonard Feather as a tribute to W. C. Handy, but the project was never completed; Carter, better known as a saxophone player, performs a wonderful clarinet solo in the bridge.
  • 1941 – Lena Horne with the Dixieland Jazz Band of NBC's Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street.
  • 1943 – Glenn Miller, "St. Louis Blues–March", played by the U.S. Army Air Force Band, of which Miller was the commander.
  • 1945 – Eddie Rosner
  • 1945 – Annie Laurie with the Dallas Bartley Band for Cosmo Records.[15]
  • 1945 – Maurice Rocco
  • 1949 – Art Tatum
  • 1952 – Chet Atkins, on his first album, Chet Atkins' Gallopin' Guitar.
  • 1953 – Billy Eckstine with the Metronome All-Stars: Roy Eldridge, Kai Winding, John LaPorta, Warne Marsh, Lester Young, Teddy Wilson, Billy Bauer, Eddie Safranski, Terry Gibbs, Max Roach.
  • 1954 – Louis Armstrong, who recorded the song numerous times, included a version on the album Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy.
  • 1950s – Moon Mullican sang and played the song on the Grand Ol' Opry.
  • 1956 – The Teen Kings, featuring Roy Orbison, recorded at KOSA-TV, Odessa, Texas, 1956.
  • 1957 – Shirley Bassey, on the album Born to Sing the Blues.
  • 1957 – Louis Prima, on the album The Wildest Comes Home!.
  • 1958 – Release of St. Louis Blues, a biographical film about Handy, who had died earlier in the year, starring Nat King Cole, who recorded an album of songs from the film, and Ella Fitzgerald,who incorporated the song into her repertoire.
  • 1958 – Pat Boone
  • 1959 – John Fahey, on the album Blind Joe Death, re-recorded in 1967.
  • 1959 – Dizzy Gillespie, on the album "Have Trumpet, Will Excite!".
  • 1959 – Brenda Lee, on the album Grandma, What Great Songs You Sang!.
  • 1960 – Freddy Cannon included it on his debut album The Explosive Freddy Cannon.
  • 1961 – Alberta Hunter, on the album Alberta Hunter with Lovie Austin's Blues Serenaders (Riverside)
  • 1962 – Ace Cannon recorded an instrumental version for his debut album, Tuff Sax.
  • 1964 – Judy Garland and Martha Raye performed it as the final piece in a medley of Glenn Miller songs on The Judy Garland Show.
  • 1964 – Chuck Berry, on the album Chuck Berry in London.
  • 1967 – Mina sang an orchestral version on the Italian TV program Sabato Sera ("Saturday night").
  • 1967 – Jaki Byard, with his trio (Byard, piano; David Izenzon, bass; Elvin Jones, drums), on the album Sunshine of My Soul.
  • 1968 – Paul McCartney used the song to set the mood for the recording sessions for "Hey Jude", and the Beatles can be heard busking the tune on the many bootleg recordings of the sessions.
  • 1969 – Bintangs, Dutch rhythm and blues band, on their album Blues on the Ceiling
  • 1970 – Jula de Palma sang a beat version of the song in a successful concert recorded on the album Jula al Sistina.
  • 1973 – Enrique Villegas
  • 1974 – Eumir Deodato, on the concert album Artistry, a live, big-band jazz-fusion funk arrangement featuring Deodato soloing on synthesizer, perhaps the most unusual arrangement recorded.
  • 1974 – Etta James on the album Come a Little Closer.
  • 1976 – The Flamin' Groovies, on the album Shake Some Action (Chuck Berry's version).
  • 1981 – Johnny Cash, unreleased (Chuck Berry's version).
  • 1981 – Tav Falco's Panther Burns, on the album "Behind the Magnolia Curtain".
  • 1984 - George Wright, on album Red Hot and Blue.[16]
  • 1985 – Doc Watson, on the album Pickin' the Blues; he played his version for many years.
  • 1986 – Hank Williams Jr. recorded it as part of a medley on the album Montana Cafe.
  • 1992 – Wayne Horvitz, jazz keyboardist, did an abstracted but recognizable version on Miracle Mile as "Variations on a Theme by W.C. Handy".
  • 1994 – George Thorogood & the Destroyers performed the song with Johnnie Johnson at Mississippi Nights, which was released on Thorogood's 1995 album Live: Let's Work Together.
  • 1998 – Stevie Wonder recorded the song on Herbie Hancock's jazz album Gershwin's World and won the two Grammys in 1999.
  • 1999 – Odetta recorded it in a medley with "Careless Love" on her album Blues Everywhere I Go.
  • 1999 – Merle Haggard and Asleep at the Wheel, on the Bob Wills tribute album Ride with Bob.
  • 2001 – Dexter Romweber
  • 2001 – Aki Takase, on her album of the same title.
  • 2002 – Peter Cincotti, on his album On the Moon.
  • 2008 – David Sanborn, on his 2008 album Here & Gone.[17]
  • 2008 – Jack Rose, on the album Dr. Ragtime & Pals/Self Titled.
  • 2008 – Ruby Turner with Jools Holland and His Rhythm & Blues Orchestra, on the album The Informer.
  • 2009 – Simone White, on the album Yakiimo.
  • 2013 – Hugh Laurie, on his album Didn't It Rain.
  • 2013 – Margot Bingham performed a version on the TV series Boardwalk Empire as jazz performer Daughter Maitland.

In popular culture[]


File:St Louis Blues (1929).webm

Interpretation by Bessie Smith, 1929

Several short and feature films are entitled St. Louis Blues. The first, in 1929, featured Bessie Smith.

"Saint Louis Blues" is played in the 1914 Charlie Chaplin film The Star Boarder.

It was sung by Theresa Harris and is played several times, including during the opening credits, in the 1933 film Baby Face.[18]

It was sung by Marcellite Garner as the voice of Minnie Mouse in the 1931 animated short film Blue Rhythm.[19]

It is played a number of times in the 1936 film Banjo on My Knee by Walter Brennan and is sung as a major production number by the Hall Johnson Choir as Barbara Stanwyck looks on.[20]

As an instrumental, it is featured in Lewis Milestone's early talkie Rain, in which it comes to symbolize the wanton ways of the main character, Sadie Thompson, played by Joan Crawford.[21]


The St. Louis Blues NHL team is named after the song, and their theme song is Miller's version of Handy's composition.

The title of William Faulkner's short story "That Evening Sun", published in 1931, refers to the famous opening lyrics of the song.

"About Her" by Malcolm McLaren (from Kill Bill Vol. 2 Original Soundtrack) samples the song, in particular the lyric "My man's got a heart... like a rock cast in the sea".

In Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialist play No Exit, Estelle talks about how she and Peter, one of her admirers, used to dance to "Saint Louis Blues".

A unique oddity is the relationship of the "Saint Louis Blues" and the song "Memphis, Tennessee" by Chuck Berry. W.C. Handy was from Florence, Alabama, but moved to Memphis in 1909 at the age of 36, and Chuck Berry was from St. Louis, each writing about the other's town.

Margot Bingham covers the song in season 4 of Boardwalk Empire.

See also[]

  • List of pre-1920 jazz standards


  1. Stanfield, Peter (2005). Body and Soul: Jazz and Blues in American Film, 1927-63. University of Illinois Press. pp. 83–. ISBN 978-0-252-02994-3. Retrieved 12 April 2005.
  2. [1] Archived April 8, 2004, at the Wayback Machine
  3. Handy 1941, p. 119
  4. Handy 1941, p. 147.
  5. 5.0 5.1 "American Memory from the Library of Congress – List All Collections". Retrieved 2015-12-30.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Handy 1941, pp. 99–100
  7. Handy 1941, p. 120
  8. Handy 1941, p. 305
  9. Britannica, Encyclopedia (October 28, 2016). "Ethel Waters: Sweet Mama Stringbean". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved October 28, 2016.
  10. Freeland, David (1 July 2009). "Behind the Song: "St. Louis Blues"". American Songwriter. Retrieved 28 October 2016.
  11. Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books. p. 12. ISBN 1-85868-255-X.
  12. Ginell, Cary (1994). Milton Brown and the Founding of Western Swing. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press. p. 245–246. ISBN 0-252-02041-3.
  13. "Clarence Williams & the Blues Singers Vol 2 1927–1932". Retrieved 2014-09-13.
  14. "Katherine Henderson Songs". Allmusic. Retrieved 2014-09-13.
  15. "Laurie Annie: Encyclopedia of Popular Music Oxford Reference". 2012-02-17. doi:10.1093/acref/9780195313734.001.0001/acref-9780195313734-e-15890 (inactive 2017-08-16). Retrieved 2013-03-12.CS1 maint: DOI inactive as of August 2017 (link)
  16. DeLay, Tom (January 1985). "For the Records". Theatre Organ. 27 (1): 19. ISSN 0040-5531.
  17. Widran, Jonathan. "Here & Gone - David Sanborn". AllMusic. Retrieved 25 August 2017.
  18. "Baby Face (1933): Soundtracks". Retrieved 2015-07-03.
  19. "Blue Rhythm (1931): Soundtracks". Retrieved 2015-07-03.
  20. "Banjo on My Knee (1936): Soundtracks". Retrieved 2015-07-03.
  21. "Rain (1932): Soundtracks". Retrieved 2015-07-03.


  • Handy, W. C. (1941). Bontemps, Arna Wendell (ed.). Father of the Blues: An Autobiography. New York City: MacmillanTemplate:Inconsistent citationsCS1 maint: postscript (link) CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)


External links[]

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