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As noted in the opening credits, this film is based on the life and music of noted blues composer and musician W. C. Handy. Born on November 16, 1873 in Florence, AL, William Christopher Handy was educated in public schools and by his father and paternal grandfather, both of whom were clergymen. He left home at age fifteen to begin a career as a cornet player with a traveling minstrel show. In 1893, Handy formed a quartet that performed at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. After working as a music teacher at the Agricultural and Mechanical College in Huntsville, AL, Handy turned to composing in 1907, and his first published song was "Memphis Blues," which was based on a campaign song he had written for Edward "The Boss" Crup, the mayor of Memphis, TN. Most notable among his sixty-plus compositions are "St. Louis Blues" (1914), "Beale St. Blues" (1917) and "Loveless Love" (1921).
Although he lost his eyesight in 1903, Handy continued to conduct his own orchestra until 1921. His eyesight was partially restored for a time, but then was completely lost again after a fall from a New York City subway platform in 1943. During a Hollywood dinner given in his honor in November 1957, Handy proclaimed Nat King Cole's depiction of him as "forever a monument to my race," according to an April 1958 DV news item. Handy died in New York on May 29, 1958, just a few days before the premiere of St. Louis Blues.
According to New York Times and Los Angeles Times news items, because producer Robert Smith was unable to obtain copyright clearance for Handy's "Memphis Blues," a later Handy composition, "Yellow Dog Blues," is presented as the song that launched the musician's career. Billy Preston, who played Handy as a child in the film, went on to have a successful career in music as a singer and keyboard player. Constantin Bakaleinikoff, who plays the symphony conductor in the film, was the music director at Paramount at the time of the production.
According to Hollywood Reporter news items, the film's world premiere in St. Louis was a benefit for the St. Louis Variety Tent's special charity for needy children. The day of the premiere, April 10, 1958, was proclaimed "Handy Day" by the mayor of St. Louis and featured a day-long tribute to the composer. The Daily Variety reviewer noted: "A real and successful effort has been made to avoid any possible charge of 'Uncle Tom' in the characters. But for this reason or others, the result is such a genteel portrayal of life in Memphis in the early years of this century that you might wonder why the Negroes ever sang the blues." On August 6, 1958, Hollywood Reporter noted that the film was to be shown out of competition on the closing night of the Venice Film Festival.