The “St. Louis Blues” is perhaps the most venerable of all standards. Composed and published in 1914 by W.C. Handy, the song was not the first to incorporate the blues (Handy’s 1911 “Memphis Blues” has that honor), but it was Handy’s greatest success, recorded thousands of times by musicians of nearly every genre. Tom Lord’s online “The Jazz Discography” lists over 1800 jazz or jazz-related versions dating from 1915 to 2010 (and that does not include alternative titles such as “The St. Louis Blues Cha-Cha”).
It is said that Handy was inspired to write the song after hearing a woman in the street sing My man’s got a heart like a rock cast in the sea. While the location of the story has changed over the years, there’s little evidence to contradict the story as a whole. The three-note motive that dominates the final chorus (Got the Saint/Louis Blues/Just as blue/as—I/can be) was said to be derived from a black preacher’s incantation during his church offering. What made the song unique was its 16-bar tango section which alternates with the 12-bar blues choruses. In his autobiography, Handy describes an early performance: 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.
The original sheet music lays out the form as AABA with the A sections 12-bar blues and the B, a 16-bar tango. The final A is marked with a repeat. There are lyrics for three choruses of the AAB and 5 choruses of the final A. The familiar I hate to see the evening sun go down lines appear as the first stanza, and the Went down to the gypsy to get my fortune told lyric recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1954 is the first part of the second. But the second A of the second chorus, Gypsy done told me, don’t you wear no black/Go to St. Louis, you can win him back, does not appear in any recordings that I’ve heard. In the recordings discussed below, we’ll hear lyrics that were part of the original song (I love my man like a schoolboy loves his pie) and several that were not (If you don’t like my peaches, why do you shake my tree?).
The recordings discussed below were included in a compilation I created in 2003 which collected 48 different recordings of the Handy classic recorded between 1925 and 1991. I do not claim that my selections are a definitive collection, but they offer the song in a wide variety of approaches, styles, keys and tempos. Many of the major innovators are included (most in multiple versions) and there are several surprising renditions along the way. Most of the recordings can be found in MP3 editions online and the links below correspond to sites where those recordings can be purchased. In addition, I have created a Spotify playlist containing most of the recordings (Seven of the tracks were not available on Spotify. These tracks, by Red Nichols, Fats Waller (1943 organ solo), James P. Johnson, Machito, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, Dave Brubeck/Marian McPartland and Cleo Laine, can be found by following their respective links below). To access the list, you must be a Facebook fan of our page and have a Spotify account. Become a Facebook fan by clicking here and join Spotify here. The link for the playlist appears on our Facebook fan page. Because my list was created for a CD collection, I left out several early recordings of the song that featured only the melody and no improvisation. These omissions include recordings by James Reese Europe, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and W.C. Handy himself. Obviously, with over 3 hours of music and 4 dozen versions of the same song, there was no need to include several recordings that simply stated the melody. However, they have obvious historical value as the earliest renditions of the Handy classic.
The earliest recording discussed here is also an undisputed classic: Bessie Smith’s 1925 Columbia version with Louis Armstrong on cornet and Fred Longshaw on harmonium. Recorded just 9 years after the song’s original publication, “St. Louis Blues” was already considered a classic of the repertoire and Smith gives the song a stately and dignified performance. The tempo is extremely slow and they only get through one full AABA chorus in the three minutes of recording time. Smith’s vocal includes several expressive slides, but she leaves the vocalized effects to Armstrong. It sounds like Armstrong is playing with a straight mute and his accompaniment is restrained, so not to take the listener’s attention from Smith and the composition. The wheezy reed organ sounds like it belongs in an old southern church, which ties the sacred harmony of hymns to the secular feeling of the blues.
Moving to the early big bands, Fletcher Henderson’s 1927 version (as “The Dixie Stompers”) is a Don Redman reworking of a Mel Stitzel stock arrangement. Tommy Ladnier is the main cornet soloist and his solos show the influence of both Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke. Bessie Smith’s favorite cornetist, Joe Smith, comes up later in a muted solo and he makes great use of a single melodic idea. There’s a different stock arrangement shared in the 1929 Louis Armstrong recording and the 1930 version by Cab Calloway. The Armstrong is the non-vocal “alt take B” rediscovered in the 1990s, which leaves room for solos by trumpeter Henry “Red” Allen, trombonist J.C. Higginbotham and clarinetist Albert Nicholas in addition to Armstrong. Allen was still heavily influenced by Armstrong and he utilizes Armstrong’s method of swinging and developing a simple motive to build his solo. In fact, when Armstrong solos, he uses that same method in both creating his solo statement and leading the final ensemble. And while many of Louis’ later big bands did not swing well, this ensemble features some of the finest swing of its era. Cab Calloway’s version starts differently than Louis’, but the same punch figures appear in the final chorus. Calloway’s vocal is prime early hipster, barely touching on Handy’s lyric and moving into hysterical gibberish at the end. Calloway holds a single note through most of the first chorus, which predicts an effect played by Buster Bailey on the John Kirby version of 1942. Red Nichols’ 1930 radio transcription version opens with a spoken introduction that acknowledges that listeners have heard the song many times before, but that Nichols’ arrangement was a “furnace cooked, Hades approved hot mama-papa version” of the standard. The opening melodic statement and Glenn Miller’s trombone solo fail to live up to the announcement’s hype, but Benny Goodman’s solo is a real treasure with stunning angular lines, deep blues feeling and flawless technique. After Joe Sullivan’s rather fussy piano and Nichols’ soulful cornet, there is a sudden tempo jump at the coda.
As noted in an earlier historical essay, Fats Waller recorded organ versions of “St. Louis Blues” at the beginning and ending of his career. He also recorded several piano versions, including an interesting piano duet with Bennie Payne in 1930. Like the organ versions, this duet opens with a bit of the tango section. But when the pianists move to the blues section, the melody is buried below a high register improvisation in octaves. The melody predominates again when the tango returns, and remains audible in the final blues chorus. The arrangement was not worked out carefully in advance and there are several spots where the pianist’s chords and rhythms clash. It seems that both pianists used octaves to raise their solo lines over the general din below. By the final chorus, both pianists lock into a groove. Art Tatum’s 1933 solo recording comes from his debut session, and we can hear some Waller-esque ripples from Tatum’s right hand. While Tatum’s style developed throughout the 30s, much of his core style was already in place by the time of this recording. His left hand is beautifully modulated throughout and his smooth walking tenths contribute to the swing, and camouflage a few mild reharmonizations. Near the end of the performance, there is a stunning example of Tatum’s abstract relationship to time where his right hand piles one idea on top of another while he maintains the tempo with his left. Is it any wonder that when some pianists heard this recording, they thought they were hearing two pianists?
With the onset of the Depression, record sales plummeted. At Brunswick Records, Jack Kapp boosted the sales of his artists by bringing together his top stars for recorded collaborations. In 1932, he paired his star vocalist, Bing Crosby, with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Cootie Williams opens the recording with growling trumpet over moaning saxes, and then hands the lead over to trombonist Joe Nanton before Crosby enters with the melody. Crosby was still close to his jazz roots during this period and his performance of the melody seems to veer between straight pop singing and a looser jazz approach. The tempo picks up for Johnny Hodges’ alto solo and then Crosby scats a chorus, singing convoluted lines on top of the beat. Then the original tempo returns for a brief coda, Crosby slides back into his pop style, and the performance ends with a quick brass fanfare.
The Boswell Sisters recorded their studio version of “St. Louis Blues” in late May, 1935. Although hampered by the jerky rhythms and bland orchestration of Victor Young, it contains many hallmarks of the Boswell’s style. On the opening chorus, the sisters sing in three-part harmony but with the rhythmic flexibility of a solo singer. Connee Boswell takes the tango section as a solo with trombone responses by Larry Altpeter. There is a sudden tempo jump for the final choruses, a chanting band vocal, a stunning harmonic glissando by the sisters and an effective series of dynamic contrasts near the end. The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra recorded several sides with the Boswells; their raucous instrumental version of “St. Louis Blues” dates from August 1934. Both Tommy and Jimmy get solo spots, along with an unidentified trumpeter. Glenn Miller’s arrangement has excellent variations for the trombones and the saxes, but the whole thing starts to wind down around the two-minute mark and the remaining minute seems to be mere padding.
The next four big band versions are all from live performances. The first two, by Artie Shaw (1939) and Benny Goodman (1937) both stem from the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York. Shaw’s is propelled by the drums of Buddy Rich, and the leader’s clarinet glides over the immaculate brass and reed sections. Tony Pastor contributes a booting tenor solo between Shaw’s two solo turns. Shaw’s improvised lines aren’t loaded with catchy melodies, but his technique and concept is very sound, and he sounds quite inspired. Yet this band fell apart just three weeks later when the leader walked off the bandstand and moved to Mexico. Goodman’s version is of the polished Fletcher Henderson arrangement (not the Redman chart heard above). Like Shaw’s band, the Goodman crew were expert technicians and while the rhythm section had issues with swing, they sound relaxed and comfortable here. During the performance, Goodman was enjoying the groove so much that he signaled to keep the tune going. Harry James responded with a fiery trumpet solo, backed by a solid backbeat from Gene Krupa and the riffing saxes, and then Jess Stacy experimented with delayed right hand patterns before the band kicked into the final choruses from Count Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump”. Basie was a newcomer to the Big Apple in 1937 and his live version comes from a broadcast at the Chatterbox in Pittsburgh’s William Penn Hotel. Recorded in the last five minutes of the program, it sounds like the band is playing a head arrangement to fill the time. The rough, unpolished nature of the band only adds to the excitement of this recording. Basie discographer Chris Sheridan lists Joe Keyes and George Hunt as the trumpet and trombone soloists that precede Jimmy Rushing’s ebullient vocal. Rushing is followed by prime examples of Lester Young and Buck Clayton, and some powerful riffing by the band. The biggest surprise may be the raw, earthy violin of Claude Williams. Williams had come East with Basie, and played both solo violin and rhythm guitar with the band (Freddie Green, who became an indelible part of the Basie rhythm section had not yet taken his spot). The version by Duke Ellington comes from the final moments of his 1940 concert in Fargo, North Dakota. Ellington’s piano intro is rather oblique and the opening chorus is rather disorganized as members of the band try to find their copies of the arrangement. By the time Barney Bigard starts his clarinet solo, the band has settled into a medium-fast groove. Ellington modulates into a new key, and Ivie Anderson sings a wide variety of blues stanzas, including the earliest version I’ve found of the peach tree lyrics. Ben Webster glides in for an extended solo punctuated by Sonny Greer’s drums, Trombonist Joe Nanton quotes “Whistle While You Work” to start his solo turn and the band offers expressive backgrounds that eventually overwhelm the soloist. The arrangement sounds like it’s heading toward “Black and Tan Fantasy” but instead, it makes an abrupt jump to “Rhapsody In Blue” to signal the end of the evening’s music.
While the big bands dominated the jazz scene in the late 30s and early 40s, some of the best music of the era came from soloists and small groups. Not all of these groups were situated in New York, of course, and two of the finest soloists of the era were not even in the United States. Violinist Stéphane Grappelli and guitarist Django Reinhardt were founding members of Paris’ Quintette du Hot Club de France. Their recording of “St. Louis Blues” is billed under Grappelli’s name. Still, Reinhardt is featured for all but the last minute of the recording. His unaccompanied introduction might be mistaken for that of a classical player, but when he moves into the slow, walking tempo of the opening chorus, one recognizes that he is a dedicated jazz musician. He utilizes bent notes and flashy runs in the blues choruses and emphasizes the tango melody by playing in parallel octaves. When the blues section returns, the tempo increases and Reinhardt climaxes his solo with block chords and one of his classic guitar rolls. Reinhardt remains the center of attention even behind Grappelli, as the guitarist accompanies with choppy block chords and rolls at the turnarounds. Albert Ammons was a giant of boogie-woogie piano, but he was not limited by the style. On his 1939 Solo Art recording of “St. Louis Blues”, his left hand patterns alternate between eight-to-the-bar boogie and four-beat stride. He tends to switch to the boogie pattern whenever his right hand patterns seem to call for it, but otherwise he seems perfectly happy playing in the manner of other swing pianists.
In addition to being husband and wife for a few years, Maxine Sullivan and John Kirby had a close musical association during the Swing Era. Kirby was the bassist on Sullivan’s 1938 version of “St. Louis Blues” with a small band led by pianist Claude Thornhill. Buddy Rich’s drums seem a little heavy for the cool-voiced singer, but Bobby Hackett provides superb accompaniment on cornet. Sullivan sings the song straight with virtually no melodic embellishments, and her detached delivery seems at odds with the material. In fact, it is not until the last choruses of the record that she starts to loosen up and swing with the band. On Kirby’s sextet version from 1942, the tempo is quite fast and the section work extremely tight. Buster Bailey is the star of the show, not just for the long held note referred to above, but in his dominance of the opening choruses and his fluid clarinet solo over the tango section. Charlie Shavers delivers an intense, tightly muted trumpet solo, and Billy Kyle sparkles on piano before Bailey returns to show off his skills at circular breathing.
The term “record album” actually dates back to the days of the 78rpm shellac record, and refers to a group of related discs packaged together in a book-like container. In 1940, John Hammond and Leonard Feather decided to create a W.C. Handy tribute album featuring newly-recorded versions of his songs. Billie Holiday and Benny Carter collaborated to record “St. Louis Blues” and “Loveless Love”, but the other six sides were never recorded. It has been said that Billie didn’t like to record old standards, but I find her interpretation very deep and convincing. Backed by a marvelous ensemble including trumpeter Bill Coleman, trombonist Benny Morton and Carter on clarinet, she lays into the blue notes and swings magnificently. Count Basie’s sextet version from 1942 offers plenty of solo room for Buck Clayton’s trumpet, Don Byas’ tenor and the leader’s piano, but surprisingly for a Basie recording, the tempo never really gels. Unfortunately, these sides were recorded before a union recording strike and I suspect that Columbia was more interested in the quantity of sides rather the quality. Jack Teagarden’s Dixie-cum-Swing version dates from 1947 and finds a happy medium between the two styles. While the solos and Teagarden’s vocal echo the style of earlier jazz, the tidy arrangement hews to a small group swing model. Most of the jazz musicians in this era were employed in the big bands and played Dixie for their own enjoyment, so it was easy for them to switch and mix the styles at will. Roy Eldridge’s 1944 version for three trumpets and rhythm was originally issued as “Little Jazz and His Trumpet Ensemble”. The tempo burns and Eldridge comes out breathing fire and smoke over Cozy Cole’s brushes. Joe Thomas stretches out his long lines over the surging rhythm, and after Johnny Guarnieri’s stride piano, Emmett Berry turns up the heat. Cozy Cole’s drum solo builds up to Eldridge’s scorching final chorus. Fats Waller’s rare solo version on electronic organ was recorded at his home just three months before his death. There’s no shortage of energy in Waller’s playing as he provides a mighty swing with the pedals and delightful variations on the manuals. The YouTube video version also includes his 1926 pipe organ solo and a piano solo from 1939.