Minnie, Memphis 1897–1973
Memphis Minnie 1897–1973
Blues singer, guitarist, composer
The blues scene in the 1920s and 1930s was diverse in style—spanning classic, urban, and country blues—but almost completely homogenous in terms of gender. Men dominated the stages of juke joints and nightclubs, with very few women breaking the ranks of blues musicians. However, there were a few exceptions who made their mark. One such woman was Memphis Minnie, the most significant female country blues singer to emerge during that era.
She is credited as being one of the first blues artists—male or female—to use the electric guitar, preceding Muddy Waters’ use of the instrument by a year. Memphis Minnie’s style of guitar playing reflected how she lived her life—hard-driving, passionate, and contrary to what was expected of women at the time. Although she made numerous recordings over the course of a career which spanned three decades, none of them captured the raw energy of the live performances that earned her a place next to other female blues greats like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. Fortunately, the power of her musical style lives on through the many well-known blues performers influenced by this dynamic musician, including Brewer Phillips, Big Momma Thornton, and Koko Taylor, as well as Rock & Roll artists such as Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and the Rolling Stones.
Minnie, who also went by the names Texas Tessie, Minnie McCoy, and Gospel Minnie, was born Lizzie Douglas on June 3, 1897, in Algiers, Louisiana, a city located near the mouth of the Mississippi River, across from the old slave docks in New Orleans. Minnie was the first of thirteen children born to Abe and Gertrude Douglas, who were Baptist sharecroppers. In 1904 Minnie moved with her family to Walls, Mississippi, located just south of Memphis. Soon after the move, Minnie’s parents gave her a guitar for her birthday. She quickly learned how to play her guitar and began entertaining at parties in her neighborhood, picking up the nickname “Kid Douglas.” When she got a little older, “Kid” often snuck into Memphis, where she sang and played in parks and on the street corners around town for tips, meeting other musicians and getting her first taste of the early Memphis blues scene.
In the mid-1910s, Minnie joined the Ringling Brothers Circus and traveled throughout the South, entertaining crowds with her music. Eventually, Minnie quit the
At a Glance …
Born Lizzie Douglas, June 3, 1897, in Algiers, Louisiana; died August 6, 1973, in Memphis; married Casey Bill Weldon (divorced); Kansas Joe McCoy (divorced); Little Son Joe. Religion: Baptist.
Career: Blues artist, member of Memphis Jug Band; recorded with Sunnyland Slim, Blind John Davis, Hambone Lewis, Charlie McCoy, Myrtle Jenkins. Recorded on several labels including Decca, Vocalian, Columbia, Bluebird, Okeh, Regal, Checker, and JOB.
Awards: Inducted into Blues Foundation Hall of Fame, 1980; Blues Unlimited Reader’s Poll, 1973.
circus and moved to the Bedford Plantation in Mississippi. There she spent several years “woodshedding” with a guitar and mandolin player, Willie Brown, who had at one time played with both Charley Patton and Robert Johnson. According to www.worcesterphoenix.com, guitarist Willie Moore, who played with Minnie and Willie Brown said, “Wasn’t nothing he could teach her. Everything Willie Brown could play, she could play, and then she could play things he couldn’t play.”
Minnie eventually returned to Memphis, and was already tough and street-wise by the time she established herself as part of the Beale Street blues scene, an environment that had the reputation of being rough and somewhat seedy, in which only a woman of extraordinary strength and resourcefulness could survive. As quoted in the book Woman with Guitar: Memphis Minnie Blues, one observer said,”Any men fool with her she’d go right after them right away. She didn’t take no foolishness off them. Guitar, pocket-knife, pistol, anything she get her hand on she’d use it.” Economic necessity dictated Minnie’s close proximity to street life as she subsidized her income with prostitution, charging the relatively large sum of $12 for her services. Minnie also gained a reputation for partying and gambling.
For several years, Minnie was a member of the Memphis Jug Band and recorded with several artists. In 1929 Minnie was discovered by a talent scout from Columbia Records and recorded her first song, “Bumble Bee,” under the name of Memphis Minnie, along with her second husband, the guitarist Kansas Joe McCoy (her first husband was guitarist Casey Bill Weldon). The recording brought the pair enough recognition to move on to Chicago, the hub of the blues scene, where Minnie would live for the next twenty-five years. Besides being a woman in a male-dominated music scene, Minnie literally “stood out” from other musicians by playing lead guitar while standing, at a time when everyone else played their guitars sitting down. She also tried new styles of music, new picking styles, and new instruments. Minnie was the first to record with what came to be known as the “classic” 1950s blues combo: electric guitar, piano, bass, and drums. It has also been noted that Minnie was among the first to play the electric guitar in 1943, at least one year before Muddy Waters did. Writer Langston Hughes described her performance in an article about her in the January 9, 1943, Chicago Defender, noting,”She grabs the microphone and yells, ‘Hey now!’ Then she hits a few deep chords at random, leans forward ever so slightly on her guitar, bows her head and begins to beat out…a rhythm so contagious that often it makes the crowd holler out loud.…All these things cry through the strings on Memphis Minnie’s electric guitar, amplified to machine proportions—a musical version of electric welders plus a rolling mill.”
Minnie proved that she could hold her own with her male peers during energetic guitar contests where the winner was decided by the intensity of applause from the audience. Competing sometimes for just a bottle of whiskey, Minnie took on blues artists such as Big Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red, Sunnyland Slim, and Muddy Waters. She often won, although she sometimes picked an opportune moment during these contests to lift her skirt in order to increase the applause.
Unfortunately, Minnie was never recorded playing her characteristic hard-driving electric sound. Minnie, like many other African-American blues artists, was essentially controlled by the impresario Lester Melrose, who handled all the details of the recording business for most of the “race record” labels during that era. Melrose instructed his musicians to record a toned-down version of the blues, a formulaic approach that became known as the Melrose Sound, the Bluebird Beat, the Melrose Mess, or the Melrose Machine. Even Minnie’s recordings for other labels such as Decca failed to capture her spirited approach to the blues. However, Minnie’s willingness to teach and nurture other young musicians ensured that her style was passed on to the next generation of blues artists.
In addition to watering down her music, the record labels prevented Minnie from reaping the economic benefits of her success. One of her protegés, Brewer Phillips, conveyed that Minnie claimed to have been “messed around in the music” and gave him the advice, “You can learn to play, but don’t let them take your money.” In 1958 Minnie and third husband Little Son Joe returned to Memphis, and lived in poverty. Aside from an occasional live radio spot, Minnie was no longer performing; her last performance was at a memorial for her friend and fellow musician, Bill Broonzy, in 1959. She had a stroke in 1960, Joe died in 1961, and shortly thereafter Minnie suffered another debilitating stroke which left her confined to a wheelchair for the last thirteen years of her life. Her sister, Daisy, cared for Minnie during her remaining years. Sadly, the woman who contributed so much to the early blues scene was ill and destitute at the end of her life. However, word of her predicament spread through the music community. Several artists held benefits to raise money for her care and the magazines Living Blues and Blues Unlimited helped to spread the word about Minnie’s need, generating monetary support from fans.
Memphis Minnie died August 6, 1973, in Memphis. She is buried in New Hope Cemetery in Walls, Mississippi, in an unmarked grave. Posthumously, Blues World described Minnie’s 1934 recording, Early Rhythm & Blues, as “the seminal electric sound guitar, bass, piano, drums which eventually cohesed into the style heard round the world.” She was among the first musicians to be inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame, in 1980.
Hoodoo Lady, Columbia, 1933.
Early Rhythm & Blues, Biograph, 1934.
I Ain’t No Bad Gal, Indigo, 1988.
Garon, Paul, and Beth Garon, Woman With Guitar: Memphis Minnie Blues, Da Capo, New York, 1992.
Harrison, Daphne Duval, Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s, New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1987.
—Christine Miner Minderovic
For nearly three decades, Memphis Minnie was one of the most influential blues artists in the United States. From the early 1920s until she retired in the mid-1950s, she released more than 180 songs, in addition to those released after her death in 1973. Minnie’s songwriting and performances thrived in a genre dominated by men. Unlike most female blues singers of the time, Minnie also wrote her own songs and played guitar. She cemented her place in blues history with such classics as “Bumble Bee,” “Hoodoo Lady,” and “I Want Something for You.” Her repertoire included country blues, urban blues, the Melrose sound, Chicago blues, and postwar blues.
Born Lizzie Douglas in Algiers, Louisiana, Memphis Minnie was the eldest of Abe and Gertrude Wells Douglas’ 13 children. Throughout her childhood, her family always called her “Kid.” When she was seven years old, the Douglas family moved to Wall, Mississippi, just south of Memphis. The following year, she received her first guitar for Christmas. She learned to play both the guitar and banjo and performed under the name Kid Douglas.
In 1910, at the age of 13, she ran away from home to live on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee. Throughout her teenage years, she would periodically return to her family’s farm when she ran out of money. The majority of the time, she played and sang on street corners. Her sidewalk performances eventually led to a tour of the South with the Ringling Brothers Circus.
Still performing under the name Kid Douglas, she returned to Memphis and became embroiled in the Beale Street blues scene. At the time, women were highly valued—along with whiskey and cocaine—and Beale Street was one of the first places in the country where women could perform in public. In order to survive financially, most of the female performers on Beale Street were also prostitutes, and Minnie was no exception. She received $12 for her services—an outrageous fee for the time.
Beyond the buzz she created as a performer, she also developed a reputation as a woman who could take care of herself. “Any men fool with her, she’d go for them right away,” blues guitarist/vocalist Johnny Shines told Paul and Beth Garon in Woman With Guitar. “She didn’t take no foolishness off them. Guitar, pocket-knife, pistol, anything she got her hands on, she’d use it; y’know Memphis Minnie used to be a hell-cat.”
During the 1920s, she reportedly married Will Weldon, also known as Casey Bill. However, some historians claim the two didn’t meet until their first recording sessions together in 1935 and never married. If she did
Born Lizzie Douglas on June 3, 1897, in Algiers, LA (died August 6, 1973); married: Will Weldon (a.k.a. Casey Bill), circa 1920s; Joe McCoy, 1929-1934; Earnest Lawlars (a.k.a. Little Son Joe), 1939.
Began performing on the streets of Memphis, Tennessee, 1910; signed recording contract with Columbia Records, 1929; released more than 180 songs on various labels until her retirement in 1953, including Columbia Records, Vocalion, Decca, Bluebird, Okeh, and Checker.
marry Weldon, she had left him within the decade, and married guitarist Kansas Joe McCoy in 1929. Minnie and McCoy often performed together and were discovered by a talent scout from Columbia Records that same year. They went to New York City for their first recording sessions, and it was then that she changed her name to Memphis Minnie.
McCoy and Minnie released the single “When the Levee Breaks” backed with “That Will Be Alright,” but McCoy performed all the vocals. Two months later, they released “Frisco Town” and “Going Back to Texas.” Minnie sang alone on “Frisco Town” and sang a duet with McCoy on “Going Back to Texas.”
In 1930, Minnie released one of her favorite songs “Bumble Bee,” which led to a recording contract with the Vocation label. Later that year, she and McCoy released “I’m Talking About You” on Vocation. The couple continued to produce records for Vocation for two more years, then left the label and decided to move to Chicago. It didn’t take long before Minnie and McCoy had become a part of the city’s blues scene, and they had introduced country blues into an urban environment.
McCoy and Minnie recorded songs together and on their own for Decca Records until they divorced in 1934. According to several reports, McCoy’s increasing jealousy of Minnie’s fame and success caused the breakup. The two-part single “You Got To Move (You Ain’t Got To Move)” was the last record issued by the couple.
Back on her own, Minnie began to experiment with different styles and sounds. She recorded four sides for the Bluebird label in 1935 under the name Texas Tessie. They included “Good Mornin’,” “You Wrecked My Happy Home,” “I’m Waiting on You,” and “Keep on Goin’.” In August of that year, she returned to the Vocation label to record two songs in tribute to boxing champion Joe Louis: “He’s in the Ring (Doing That Same Old Thing” and “Joe Louis Strut.” Columbia later released “He’s in the Ring” on the collection The Great Depression: American Music in the ’30s in 1994.
In October of 1935, Minnie recorded with Casey Bill Weldon for the first time on “When the Sun Goes Down, Part 2” and Hustlin’ Woman Blues.” It was about this time that Minnie had teamed up with manager Lester Melrose, the single most powerful and influential executive in the blues industry during the 1930s and 1940s. By the end of the 1930s, Minnie had recorded nearly 20 sides for Decca Records and eight sides for the Bluebird label. In 1939, she returned to the Vocation label. She had also met and married her new musical partner, guitarist Earnest Lawlars, also known as Little Son Joe.
Minnie and Little Son Joe also began to release material on Okeh Records in the 1940s. Their earliest recordings together included “Nothin’ in Ramblin’” and “Me and My Chauffeur Blues.” The couple continued to record together throughout the decade. In 1952, Minnie recorded a session for the legendary Chess label, when it was just two months old. Singles from the session included “Broken Heart” and a re-recording of “Me and My Chauffeur Blues.” The following year, she released her last commercial recording after 24 years in blues music, “Kissing in the Dark” and “World of Trouble” on the JOB label.
Within the next few years, Minnie’s health began to fail. She retired from her music career and returned to Memphis. She performed one last time at a memorial for her friend, blues artist Big Bill Broozny in 1958. Periodically, she would appear on Memphis radio stations to encourage younger blues musicians. As the Garons wrote in Woman with Guitar, “She never laid her guitar down, until she could literally no longer pick it up.” In 1960, Minnie suffered from a stroke and was bound to a wheelchair. The following year, Little Son Joe passed away. The trauma provoked Minnie to have a second stroke.
By the mid-1960s Minnie had entered the Jell Nursing Home and she could no longer survive on her social security income. The news of her plight began to spread, and magazines such as Living Blues and Blues Unlimited appealed to their readers for assistance. Many fans quickly sent money for her care, and several musicians held benefits to help her. On August 6, 1973, Memphis Minnie died of a stroke in the nursing home. In true blues fashion, she was buried in an unmarked grave at the New Hope Cemetery in Memphis.
In 1980, Memphis Minnie was one of the first 20 artists inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. Her work was featured on several blues compilations throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Compilations of her own work also continued to surface, including I Ain‘t No Bad Girl in 1989 and Queen of the Blues in 1997.
“When the Levee Breaks”/“That Will Be Alright,” Columbia, 1929.
“Frisco Town”/“Going Back to Texas,” Columbia, 1929.
“Bumble Bee,” Columbia, 1930.
“Stinging Snake Blues,” Vocation, 1934.
“You Got to Move (You Ain’t Got to Move),” Decca Records, 1934.
“He’s in the Ring (Doing That Same Old Thing),” Vocation, 1935.
“When the Sun Goes Down, Part 2,” Bluebird, 1935.
“Hustlin’ Woman Blues,” Bluebird, 1935.
“Me and My Chauffeur Blues,” Okeh Records, 1941; rereleased, Chess Records, 1952.
“Joe Louis Strut,” Vocation, 1935.
“In My Girlish Days,” Okeh Records, 1941.
“Looking the World Over,” Okeh Records, 1941.
“Broken Heart,” Chess Records, 1952.
“Kissing in the Dark”/“World of Trouble,” JOB, 1953.
I Ain’t No Bad Girl, Portrait/CBS Records, 1989.
Queen of the Blues, Sony Music, 1997.
Garon, Paul and Beth, Woman with Guitar: Memphis Minnie’s Blues, Da Capo Press, New York, 1992.
American Heritage, September 1994.
Down Beat, May 1995, March 1998.
High Fidelity, April 1989.
http://www.blueflamecare.com/Memphis_Minnie.html (September 23, 1998).
http://www.memphisguide.com/music2/blues/bluesartists/minnie.html (September 23, 1998).