Victoria Spivey established herself as a classic blues singer, pianist, and composer in the 1920s. Later, she and her sister Addie and her brother Elton toured the vaudeville circuit and performed in barrelhouses and theaters throughout Texas, Michigan, and Missouri. Spivey went on to perform and record until her retirement in 1952; in the late 1950s, she made a comeback when the blues were “discovered” by white audiences.
Victoria Regina Spivey, or “Queen Victoria Spivey,” was born on October 15, 1906, in Houston, Texas, and died of a liver ailment in New York City on October 3, 1976. She was born into a musical family; her mother, Addie, a nurse, sang semiclassical and religious songs, and her father, Grant, and her brothers played in a family string band. Thus, it is not surprising that Spivey began to play piano early in her childhood.
The parents of Grant and Addie had been slaves. After freedom came, Grant’s father amassed land holdings in Texas and Louisiana but was unable to retain them. After moving to Houston, where they sought a more economically stable life, Grant was accidentally killed while at work, leaving Addie with a family to rear. Apparently, Spivey’s musical talents were drawn upon to help support the family, for her mother reluctantly allowed her to play piano at various places of questionable character in Houston. As a preteen, Spivey also played for the Lincoln Theater in Houston. When it was discovered that she could not read music, she was fired from the job. She and her brother Willie began to play for black entertainments and in whorehouses around Houston.
Spivey very early came under the influence of pioneering blues women such as Ida Cox, Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith, and others through hearing them perform in clubs and theaters and on recordings. She was also influenced by bluesmen such as Daddy Fillmore, with whom she played, and Robert and John Calvin. Perhaps one of the most important influences upon Spivey’s musical development and style came from her association with Blind Lemon Jefferson as they performed together at picnics and house parties. Eventually, Ida Cox heard Spivey perform at such a house party and encouraged Spivey to join her show; however, nothing came of this because Cox, for some unexplained reason, left without Spivey. Spivey later went to St. Louis with the intention of recording.
Spivey aggressively appealed to Jesse Johnson, the owner of a St. Louis record store and scout for Okeh Records, and in 1926 her “Black Snake Blues” was issued on the Okeh Record label. When Blind Lemon Jefferson’s recording of “Black Snake Blues” proved to be more popular than Spivey’s, Spivey accused Jefferson of stealing her song. The dispute was settled amicably and Jefferson and Spivey remained friends. In rapid succession Spivey released a string of hits such as “Dirty Woman Blues,” “Spider Web Blues,” and “Arkansas Blues,” the latter with Lonnie Johnson on the guitar. By 1928 she had written and recorded at least 38 titles for Okeh.
Perhaps the best known of all of Spivey’s songs was “TB Blues,” which was written while she was employed as a songwriter by the St. Louis Music Company. It was recorded in 1927. Blues singers tended to write and sing about contemporary events and conditions, and Spivey’s “TB Blues” was just one of many such songs that grew out of black people’s concern about the devastating disease, tuberculosis, which was spreading rampantly throughout the country and to which black people, more so than any other group, were falling prey. A popular notion was that tuberculosis was God’s punishment for “loose living.” Another Spivey version known as “Dirty TB Blues” was recorded with Luis Russell’s Orchestra in 1929.
Spivey’s vocal style was characterized by angularity, nasality, and a type of moan, which she called the “tiger moan,” reminiscent of a style of black church singing. She also altered the familiar twelve-bar blues structure by adding another four bars, resulting in a sixteen-bar form. Her songs were filled with sexual overtones, double entendres, and outright pornography. The lyrics dealt with contemporary subjects and problems including drugs, the penal system, capital punishment, and lesbianism, all of which were of concern in the daily lives of her listeners.
It has been suggested that Spivey was an assertive personality. This, coupled with an innate business acumen and ambition, led her into areas other than merely
Born Victoria Regina Spivey on October 15, 1906, in Houston, TX, to Addie (a nurse) and Grant (a musician) Spivey; died on October 3, 1976, in New York, NY; married and divorced Reuben Floyd (a trumpeter); married and divorced Bill Adams (a dancer).
Recorded debut single “Black Snake Blues,” 1926; recorded for Okeh, Victor, Vocalion, and Decca Records, 1926-1937; appeared in the musical Hallelujah!, 1929; retired from the stage, 1952; worked as a Church organist, 1950s; created Spivey record label, 1961; popularity revived, late 1950s-60s; played various blues and jazz festivals until her death, 1976.
singing blues. Spivey went on the musical stage in 1927 in Hits and Bits from Africana, a production that also featured Jackie Mabley, who was later to win fame as the shameless comedienne, “Moms” Mabley. In 1929 Spivey entered the film world in the minor role of Missy Rose in King Vidor’s musical, Hallelujah! She later toured Oklahoma and Texas in the starring role in Tan Town Topics 1933. She and her husband, dancer Bill Adams, were featured in the revue Hellzapoppin on the Glaser booking circuit. These activities brought occasional performances with stars such as Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith.
From 1934 to 1951 she managed her husband’s career as a dancer. By 1930, she had settled in Chicago, where she worked with or knew other blues musicians such as “Tampa Red,” “Georgia Tom” (Thomas Dorsey of gospel music fame), “Memphis Minnie,” “Washboard Sam,” Lil Green, Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Bill Broonzy, and “Memphis Slim.” She also recorded for Vocalion and Decca in Chicago, occasionally under the name Jane Lucas. She toured the country as the featured singer with her own band, The Hunter Serenaders, which included Ben Webster on tenor saxophone, her previous husband Reuben Floyd on trumpet, and Joe Jones on drums. Her driving energy, business sense, and passion for perfection enabled her to continue to pursue her career long after many other blues artists had been forgotten.
After she and Adams ended their marriage and after a brief stint with the Balaban and Katz shows, Spivey left the entertainment world in 1952 to become a church organist in Brooklyn, although she continued to perform in clubs occasionally.
The discovery and acceptance of blues by white America in the late 1950s and early 1960s brought recognition once more to many of the early blues performers. Spivey was among the most visible of these “discoveries.” Spurred by the enthusiastic support of white blues lover Leonard Kunstadt, Spivey began to appear frequently in New York clubs and was engaged by promoters of blues festivals, which had by this time become popular. Ever the businesswoman, Spivey set up her own record company, Spivey Records, and reissued many of her old works and recorded such early performers as Lucille Hegamin, Lonnie Johnson, Little Brother Montgomery, Memphis Slim, Big Joe Williams, and younger musicians such as John Hammond, Bill Dicey, and Bob Dylan. A notable issue of Spivey Records was Spivey’s Blues Cavalcade which featured “Bunka” White and Bob Dylan among other performers.
In 1963 Spivey participated in the American Blues Festival in Europe and sang her famous “TB Blues.” In 1965 she and an old friend, Sippi Wallace, appeared together at festivals. Spivey was generous in helping other show business personalities. She continued to write and sing the blues until her death in 1976.
“Black Snake Blues,” Okeh, 1926.
“TB Blues,” Okeh, 1927.
“Dirty TB Blues,” Okeh, 1928.
Woman Blues!, Bluesville, 1961.
Idle Hands, Spivey, 1961.
Victoria Spivey and Her Blues, Bluesville, 1961.
Songs We Taught Your Mother, Spivey, 1961.
Basket of Blues, Spivey, 1962.
Three Kings and the Queen, Spivey, 1962.
Spivey’s Blues Parade, Spivey, 1963.
The Queen and Her Knights, Spivey, 1965.
Victoria Spivey and Her Blues, Vol. 2, Spivey, 1972.
The Blues is Life, Folkways, 1976.
Victoria Spivey & the Easy Riders Jazz Band, GHB, 1990.
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—Ben E. Bailey
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