one of the most important centenaries in the history of the blues. As soon as
the year ticks over to 2014, we start celebrating the 100th anniversary of the world’s
first blues recording. When I say we, I mean probably just me and you, loyal
readers, as I doubt this milestone is going to get much publicity anywhere
Well, in 2012, the 100th anniversary of the first published blues sheet music (released
in 1912) got zilch coverage. In fact, the total lack of interest from
mainstream media for that
|The sheet music to the world’s first blues recording|
anniversary was one of the reasons I started blogging
about blues history in the first place. That was in April this year and I’ve
been staggered by the many, many thousands of readers who have since dropped by
in such a comparatively short time; so a big thank you to you all.
started blogging, of course, was to publicise my book ‘How Blues Evolved’,
written mainly because I couldn’t find out, anywhere else, exactly how and why
blues got to where it’s at today.
business and discuss that first blues record ever released. Almost universally, this is
regarded as the instrumental ‘The Memphis Blues’, with its now traditional 12-bar
chorus. The historic track was cut in New York on 15 July 1914, by the
all-white house orchestra of the Victor Talking Machine Company. And while the
original sheet music, published two years earlier, was subtitled
‘That Southern Rag’, there was now no mention of rags or ragtime on the record
packaging. This reinforces the fact that the changeover from ragtime to blues
was now firmly in place.
Memphis Blues’, the great African-American cornet player and band leader,
|A young W. C. Handy|
Handy, was now a comparatively elderly 41. Even so, Handy’s musical output over
the next six years was phenomenal. Through his own original blues compositions,
plus countless transcriptions he made of traditional unwritten African-American
folk music from the Mississippi Delta, Handy virtually single-handedly
standardised blues into the familiar 12-bar format we know today. By the 1930s,
practically every blues player and band was playing chord sequences and
turnarounds the W.C. Handy way.
Victor’s house band cut Handy’s ‘The Memphis Blues’, another orchestra called
Prince’s Band made the second blues recording in history. Again, the band was
an all-white ensemble, led by the 45-year-old pianist and conductor, Charles
Adams Prince, who also enjoyed the kudos of being related to earlier U.S.
Presidents, John Adams and John Quincy Adams.
was an instrumental rendering of Handy’s ‘The Memphis Blues’. The label was Columbia, the
date 24 July 1914, and just four days later, World War One would start. For
that reason alone, I’m sure the 100th anniversary of these first blues
recordings will be totally overshadowed by the centenary in 2014 of the start
of WW1. That’s how it should be, of course, in the grand scheme of world
importance, but let’s hope this blues milestone, at least, gets some sort of recognition.
second blues recordings ever made were instrumental versions of ‘The Memphis Blues’. But,
wait, there’s more. That third blues recording, too, the third
made in 1914, was yet another version of ‘The Memphis Blues’. Cut in October
1914, two months after Britain declared war on Germany, who by now had invaded
Belgium, this third version was distinguished by being the first blues with
vocals ever recorded. Again, everyone involved was white, except for the
|W. C. Handy in later years|
W.C. Handy, the African-American composer. Performed by the all-white New York Philharmonic Orchestra, it
featured vocals by Morton Harvey, a 28-year-old
white vaudeville star from Nebraska. Harvey
admitted later that, apart from the trombone, the orchestra accompanying him
didn’t quite capture an authentic blues feel.
in 1953. “The ‘Blues’
style of singing and playing, which became so familiar later, was just about to
be born.” It would take the black female blues divas, who started recording
from 1920 onwards, to establish “the blues style of singing and playing” that
we now know and love. Now known as the classic blues period, this period of
glamorous, sassy black blues singers personified by Bessie Smith, lasted until
the Great Depression stuck and the more homespun solo male blues players, led
by Blind Lemon Jefferson, started recording.
when W.C. Handy moved his band to Memphis where they started playing the clubs
on Beale Street. That same year, Handy wrote a political jingle promoting a
local Memphis mayoral candidate, Edward Crump. Handy named the instrumental, a
combination of what he called blues, ragtime and tango, ‘Mister Crump’.
Overwhelmingly popular, the jingle worked its magic and Mr. Crump was elected
Mayor of Memphis. Those three different versions of Mr
|Mr. Crump, whose jingle became The Memphis Blues|
Crump, now renamed, ‘The
Memphis Blues’, would go on to become the first three recorded blues in history.
The first 1,000 copies of the sheet music of the
first version, the story goes, sold out in the department stores in three days,
but there were also rumours of a swindle. Many of the later sales went
unreported and Handy never received the royalties he was owed. Unaware of the
true success of The Memphis Blues, he sold the rights a year
later for just $100. The instrumental is also famous for inspiring the birth of
the bunny hug, the dance quickly renamed the foxtrot, which had a similar impact on the world in the 1920s as
the twist did in 1960.
Memphis Blues was recorded, Handy self-published another song he had written
called, ‘St. Louis Blues’, the song they say introduced blues to the world. This
time, thankfully for him, Handy didn’t sell the rights.
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