Handy, better known as W.C. Handy, is widely considered the "Father of the Blues."
Handy was born on November 16, 1873 in the family log cabin Florence, Alabama. (The Log cabin has been saved and preserved)
As a youth, he worked odd jobs, and saved money to buy a Guitar without his parents' permission. HIs father was noted as asking Handy, "What possessed you to bring a sinful thing like that into our Christian home?," and ordered Handy to take it back. He was then quickly enrolled in organ lessons, which did not last long. He went on to learn the cornet, and as a teenager joined a local band, of course keeping it secret from his parents.
While working as a laborer, he was exposed to the music made by workers as they beat shovels, noting that "With a dozen men participating, the effect was sometimes remarkable... It was better to us than the music of a martial drum corps, and our rhythms were far more complicated." He also noted that the "Southern Negroes sang about everything." These various inspirations helped him combine them into what we now call the blues.
Handy, travelled around, in September 1892, Handy took a teaching exam in Birmingham, and handily passed, however the job paid poorly, and he continued to do more physical work. Outside of work he organized a variety of musical groups, and taught the musicians to read music. He even played cornet in the Chicago World's Fair of 1893.
In 1896, Handy Married, and in 1900 Handy, his wife, and his six children, settled in Florence.
In 1902, Handy travelled Mississippi, listening to the various black musical styles.
In 1909, Handy moved with his band to Memphis, playing the clubs and bars of Beale Street. His music was influenced by his travels in Mississippi, and he started using the “Three-chord basic harmonic structure” that was already in use by the “underprivledged but undaunted class.”
Handy was groundbreaking as he was among the first blacks to achieve economic success from music publishing. In 1912, Handy met Harry H. Pace, a businessman, and student of W.E.B. Du Bois, who had earned a reputation for recreating failing businesses. Handy and Pace founded Pace and Handy Sheet Music.
In 1917, Handy, and his publishing business moved to New York City. In 1920, Pace left the business, and started his own Pace Phonograph Company, issuing Black Swan Records. In the same year, Handy started the Handy Record Company.
Handy lived on Strivers’ Row in Harlem. After an accidental fall from a subway platform in 1943, Handy became blind. In 1954, Handy remarried, after the death of his first wife. A year later in 1955, Handy suffered a stroke, and was forced to use a wheelchair.
For his 84th birthday, a party of over 800 attendees was held at the Waldorf-Astoria.
Over 25,000 people attended his funeral in Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, and over 150,000 people gathered in the streets near the church to honor his memory. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetary in the Bronx.