W.C. Handy is one of the most recognizable names in Memphis music. Handy was born in 1873 in Florence, Alabama, to freed slaves. He was a literate man who wrote down the songs of black workers, which formed the basis of the blues. Handy moved to Memphis in 1903 and kept an office on Beale Street. In 1909, E.H. Crump hired Handy to play music as part of his mayoral campaign. He wrote “Boss Crump,” which he later renamed “Memphis Blues,” that became the campaign’s theme song. He moved to New York City in 1917 and worked there until he passed away in March 1958 at age 84.
In September 1958, Memphis hosted a “Blues of Glory” show at Crump Stadium to honor Handy and raise money for a memorial statue to be placed in Handy Park on Beale Street. One of the night’s special performers was gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. Mrs. W.C. Handy presented her husband’s trumpet to Mayor Edmund Orgill who accepted on behalf of the city and had the trumpet placed in the Memphis Museum (now the Pink Palace). Before the trumpet was retired, Luther Steinberg of the show’s orchestra played “Memphis Blues” one last time on the instrument.
Two years later, entertainer Danny Thomas was in Memphis to lay the cornerstone for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Back in March 1955, Thomas put on a show at Crump Stadium to raise money for the hospital. He played a song that he wrote titled “Bring Back Our Beale Street Blues,” which called attention to the fact that the name had been changed to Beale Avenue to conform to the city plan that all east/west thoroughfares be avenues. However, after Thomas’ song, Mayor Frank Tobey had it renamed Beale Street. During his October 1960 visit, Thomas visited Handy Park and was invited to play a few notes Handy’s trumpet, which was on loan from the museum for the occasion. Newspaperman Clark Porteous noted, “He’s not so good on the trumpet, yet…it was the sentiment that counted.”
W.C. Handy’s trumpet is on permanent display in the Pink Palace mansion exhibits.
Caroline Mitchell Carrico works in the Exhibit Department at the Memphis Pink Palace Museum. She has a graduate degree in history from The University of Memphis, and her favorite artifacts are the Cold War civil defense supplies.