History and Highlights
Mississippi River cities Memphis and St. Louis boomed in population and became major centers for blues music during the northward mass migration of Southern blacks in the early 1900s. The wanderers who left their marks on, and took inspiration from, both cities launched the fusion of blues, gospel, and country music to create not only new forms of the blues, but the earliest forms of rock and roll.
Memphis has been a music hub since the first Mississippi Delta bluesmen started drifting north, making Beale Street the center of the city's African American community and a melting pot of musical styles. When the self-proclaimed "Father of the Blues" W.C. Handy, an accomplished bandleader and songwriter, arrived on Beale Street from the Delta in 1908, he brought with him the blues, a new style of music he "discovered" down south. With his publication of "Memphis Blues" in 1912, Handy arguably became one of the first people to publish a song featuring characteristic "blue notes" and containing the word "blues" in its title. The first song of its kind to achieve wide acclaim and sales, it launched innumerable imitations nationwide.
Memphis embraced the blues and Beale Street soon became the launching point for many aspiring blues musicians. By the 1920s Beale Street was a showcase for jug bands, who played a mixture of blues, ragtime, and humorous tunes, and were popular among both blacks and whites at medicine shows, juke joints, on riverboats, and at political and civic events.
In 1920, Mamie Smith recorded "Crazy Blues" in New York, arguably the first blues song ever recorded, and its enormous success spawned a new craze for female blues singers and for "race records" featuring black artists. Back in Memphis, Memphis Minnie, one of blues most influential female artists, was discovered on Beale Street by Columbia Records and recorded her first hit, "Bumble Bee," in 1929. Although blues recording slowed down significantly during the Great Depression and early years of World War II, by the early 1940s independent record companies throughout the U.S. began actively recording the blues, while the genre continued to be ignored by the large labels. In Memphis, imminent legends including B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, and Ike Turner laid down their first tracks with Sam Phillips' Memphis Recording Service. Phillips licensed their recordings to other independent labels, and put them out on his own as well, helping establish his label, Sun Records.
With the advent of black radio, both black and white populations were able to hear blues, gospel, and jazz programming over the airwaves. Beginning with Memphis' WDIA, which in 1949 became the nation's first radio station to feature an all-black format and on-air staff (though the ownership was still white), these stations helped popularize many blues artists who might otherwise have never been heard outside the region where they often played.
Radio was an integral part of the thriving musical community of Beale Street, which, throughout the forties and fifties, hosted talent such as vocalists Junior Parker and Bobby Blue Bland, drummer Willie Nix, and piano player and vocalist Rosco Gordon. By the mid-1950s, the glory days of Beale Street were all but over and the former hub of the Memphis music scene was in steady decline. Many blues artists moved north to Chicago, Detroit or New York and toured the country in buses, playing to venues that were not always welcoming to black musicians. Legendary Memphis bluesman B.B. King tells of his first experience playing to a primarily white audience in this clip from The Road to Memphis:
WATCH VIDEO CLIP (B.B. King and the "White Embrace," from The Road to Memphis)
The rich musical tradition of Memphis can be experienced today in blues clubs in the now-restored Beale Street area, festivals, and historic landmarks. A Memphis park was named after W.C. Handy in tribute to his contribution to the blues and the Blues Foundation recognizes the genre's achievements annually with the prestigious W.C. Handy award.
As a major center of transportation, St. Louis was also a frequent stopping point for many people drifting both north and west in the early twentieth century, among them many blues and jazz musicians.
The primarily black community of East St. Louis, Illinois was the area's hotbed of the blues and, later, rock and roll. In the 1930s popular East St. Louis pianist Peetie Wheatstraw, "The Devil's Son in Law," touched millions of Depression-era listeners with his moaning vocals in songs about the hardships of working class life. In the 1950s artists like Chuck Berry, Albert King, Ike Turner and his wife Annie Mae Bullock later known as Tina Turner took the city by storm before moving on to national and international success. While St. Louis did not make as major or as lasting an imprint on the evolution of the blues as Memphis, the artists that passed through created a strong musical tradition that permeates the city to this day.