Cast & Crew
Nat "king" Cole
In Memphis, around the turn of the century, the young William C. Handy accompanies some men on his cornet as they sing a work song. Distressed that they will once again be late for church, the boy's aunt Hagar hides the instrument and rushes him into the Methodist Episcopal Church, where his father, Charles Handy, is the minister. Will plays the organ as the choir sings a hymn, but the bluesy feel of Hagar's singing angers Rev. Handy, and he cuts the song short. Bellowing from the pulpit, Rev. Handy proclaims, "There are only two kinds of music in this world: the devil's and the Lord's." After church, the minister tells his son that he would rather see him dead than making music for the devil. Years pass, and Will returns home from his studies. His sweetheart Elizabeth, whom he plans to marry, is distressed when he confesses that he played with bands and minstrel shows during school vacations. Not wishing to see Will anger his father, Elizabeth encourages him to apply for a teaching position. Will agrees to this plan, but soon afterward, enters a friend's bar and begins to play the piano. When a white man offers him money to play for a political rally, Will enthusiastically writes a song for the candidate, "Sheriff Honest John Baile." He quickly assembles a band, which, along with the song, is so successful that nightclub singer Gogo Germaine invites him to play at the club of her boyfriend Blade. The combination of Gogo's singing and Will's songs is an instant hit, but the young musician keeps this news from his father. One day a lawyer appears and buys the rights to Will's song "Yellow Dog Blues" for an unnamed client. Will's next song is "Careless Love," and as he rehearses it with Gogo, she realizes that he is attracted to her but cautions him not to let his feelings interfere with their music. Bessie May, a choir member who cleans up at the Big Rooster Club, is horrified to see Will at the piano and tells his father everything. Will tries to explain that the music he plays is the music of their people, and when Rev. Handy forces his son to choose between him and the club, Will reluctantly rents a room on Beale Street. Will writes the popular "St. Louis Blues" and "Chantez les Bas," but misses Elizabeth and his family. One day a publisher offers him six hundred dollars for the recording rights to "Yellow Dog Blues," but Will learns that because Blade had earlier bought full rights to the song for only fifty dollars, he no longer owns it. Furious, Will fights with Blade, but Gogo reminds him that there will be other songs. When royalty checks do begin to appear, Will, remembering his deceased mother's wish for a piano, buys a beautiful instrument for his father and plays "Morning Star" on its keys. Rev. Handy is unmoved, however. Gogo announces that she and Will have been offered work in New York, but after she leaves, Will buries his head in his hands and tells Elizabeth that he has gone blind. Believing that the affliction is God's punishment for his evil music, Will moves home and begins to write hymns for the church. As Bessie May sings one of them, "Steal Away to Jesus," his sight suddenly returns, and "Prof. W. C. Handy" begins to offer piano lessons. Dissatisfied with this profession, Will restlessly takes a walk one day. Passing a club, he hears Ella Fitzgerald and the Memphis Jazz Quartet perform his "Beale Street Blues." At home, Hagar sings his "St. Louis Blues," but when he imagines his father's anger at the song, he runs from the house. After praying for guidance, Will leaves town and is soon performing throughout the Midwest as the leader of the W. C. Handy Trio. Anxious to inform Will that the New York Symphony plans to perform "St. Louis Blues" in Aeolian Hall, Gogo returns to Memphis, and when Elizabeth admits that she is unaware of Will's whereabouts, Gogo angrily accuses both Elizabeth and Rev. Handy of trying to destroy him. Elizabeth is moved by the singer's speech, and on the day of the concert, she arrives at the opulent hall with Hagar and Rev. Handy. The minister is astonished when the symphony's conductor praises his son as the man most responsible for the emergence of America's only pure art form. Will is equally shocked to find his father, his aunt and his onetime sweetheart backstage. Father and son embrace, and Will performs his song with the orchestra.
Nat "king" Cole
George "red" Callendar
Roy Edwin Glenn Sr.
Charles Arthur Space
Samuel R. Mcdaniel
Robert [r.] Benton
John P. Fulton
W. C. Handy
St. Louis Blues
Starring as W.C. Handy was the great Nat King Cole, whose velvet voice and piano prowess had taken him to the top of the musical charts for two decades. Not a natural actor and being a shy man in his private life, Cole worked hard to create a credible portrayal, but it must have been difficult for him to concentrate on his role. At the time that St. Louis Blues was in production (October 7th to November 1st, 1957) Cole was under a lot of pressure doing his fair share of multi-tasking: nightclub singer, film actor, and star of his own television show which had been very popular with viewers, but was in danger of being pulled by the network because they could not find a sponsor. Ad agencies at the time were not enthusiastic about programs starring African-Americans, or as Cole famously declared, "Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark."
Cole wasn't the only cast member who was doing double-duty during filming. Pearl Bailey remembered in her autobiography, "I played Nat's auntie, and we often laughed about that. I was working at the Flamingo Hotel in Vegas for Mr. Parvin and for three weeks I commuted. I'd do the show, leave in a car at 1:30 am, arrive at the studio in time to dress at 8 a.m., finish at 3 p.m., catch a plane (which most of the time was late), arrive in Vegas to bathe and get ready for two shows at eight-thirty and midnight. This went on for the entire picture."
Despite his personal problems, St. Louis Blues was a work of love for Nat King Cole. After Paramount had offered him the role, he drove to Yonkers, N.Y. for W.C. Handy's 83rd birthday party and spoke with him about making the film. Handy approved of the casting; at a dinner given in his honor in November 1957, he called Cole's portrayal of him, "forever a monument to my race." Ironically, St. Louis Blues had its world premiere in St. Louis (as a fundraiser for needy children) on April 10, 1958, only days after Handy's death on March 28th at the age of 84. To coincide with the premiere, April 10th was declared "Handy Day" by the mayor and featured a day-long celebration.
The film was a disappointment at the box office. Critics particularly singled out Cole's performance as "thin and anemic and much too suave and courteous, Cole seemed out of place and it was apparent that he lacked the strength and range to carry the picture." Regardless of what the critics may have thought, St. Louis Blues is well worth watching for the pleasure of seeing such superb musicians as Cole, Fitzgerald, Kitt, Bailey, Jackson, and Preston in their prime.
Producer: Robert Smith
Director: Allen Reisner
Screenplay: Ted Sherdeman, Robert Smith
Cinematography: Haskell B. Boggs
Film Editing: Eda Warren
Art Direction: Roland Anderson, Hal Pereira
Music: Martha Koenig, Nelson Riddle, Spencer Williams
Cast: Nat King Cole (W.C. Handy), Eartha Kitt (Gogo Germaine), Cab Calloway (Blade), Ella Fitzgerald (Singer), Mahalia Jackson (Bessie May), Ruby Dee (Elizabeth).
by Lorraine LoBianco
St. Louis Blues
That's right, Reverend. Stick to your guns. You stick to them because, after all, prejudice is a time saver.- Gogo Germaine
I...I beg your pardon?- Rev. Charles Handy
Well, a busy man like you: You can form an opinion without wasting time bothering about facts.- Gogo Germaine
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.
Released in United States Spring April 1958
W.C. Handy died in New York at the age of 84, on March 28, 1958--a few day's before the release of the film based on his life.
Released in United States Spring April 1958