W.C. Handy (1873 - 1958), a middle-class African American, wrote the music for "St. Louis Blues" in one of Memphis' Beale Street bars in 1912. Some say it was plagiarized - Handy was prone to wandering the streets of Memphis and copying down the songs of itinerant street musicians. Handy claimed that he was inspired to write the tune after meeting a woman in St. Louis bemoaning the absence of her husband. "My man's got a heart like a rock cast in the sea," she remarked – a line Handy said he wrote into the song.
One of the first blues songs to succeed as a pop hit, a quarter century later Handy said it was still bringing him $25,000 in annual royalties, earning him over a million dollars in his lifetime.
This has been performed by numerous musicians of all styles from Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith to Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Stevie Wonder, and the Boston Pops Orchestra. No version is bettered than the one by Bessie Smith. Accompanied by just Fred Longshaw on harmonium and Louis Armstrong on cornet, Smith's version was inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1993. The 1929 version by Louis Armstrong & His Orchestra was inducted there in 2008.
Stevie Wonder recorded the song on Herbie Hancock's Jazz album Gershwin's World and won two Grammys in 1999 for his version.
This song has been used in a number of films.
In 1914, it appeared in the Charlie Chaplin movie, The Star Boarder.
In 1929, Bessie Smith made her only film appearance, starring in a movie titled St. Louis Blues that was based on this song.
It was sung by Theresa Harris and played several times, including in the opening credits, in the 1933 movie Baby Face.
St. Louis Blues, a highly fictionalized 1958 biopic of Handy that starred Nat King Cole as the blues composer, was named after his most famous song.
The St. Louis Blues NHL team is named after this tune, and their theme song is Glenn Miller's version of the Handy composition.