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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. 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."
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 $212,000 in 2017). The original published sheet music is available online from the United StatesLibrary of Congress in a searchable database of African-American music from Brown University.
The form is unusual in that the verses are the now-familiar standardtwelve-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. 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.
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."
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.
Writing about the first time "Saint Louis Blues" was played (1914), 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.
Singer and actress Ethel Waters was the first woman to sing "Saint Louis Blues" in public. Historians Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff state that the first male singer to perform "St. Louis Blues" was Charles Anderson, a popular female impersonator of the day who included the song in his act as early as October 1914, the year Handy issued the song. This backs the claim by Waters, who said she learned it from Anderson and featured it herself during a 1917 engagement in Baltimore.
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.
The song was featured in the 1930 Talkartoon cartoon Hot Dog, the performance taken directly from a 1929 recording by Eddie Peabody.
It is sung and played several times, including during the opening credits, in the controversial 1933 film Baby Face. The song is used as a thematic motif for Barbara Stanwyck's Lilly each time she metaphorically uses her "apron strings" (like the song's St. Louis woman) to manipulate a male staff member in her upward climb on the corporate ladder. The song is presented each time as either a jazz band part of the score, or sung by Lilly's friend, Chico (portrayed by Theresa Harris).