Spivey, Victoria (1906–1976)
Spivey, Victoria (1906–1976)
African-American blues singer and songwriter whose performances set the pattern for singers today. Name variations: Victoria Regina Spivey; Vicky Spivey; Queen Victoria; occasionally recorded as Jane Lucas. Born on October 15, 1906, in Houston, Texas; died on October 3, 1976, in New York City; daughter of Grant Spivey (a musician) and Addie (Smith) Spivey (a nurse); married Reuben Floyd, in 1928 (divorced c. early 1930s); married William Adams (a dancer), in the mid-1930s (marriage ended c. 1951); married twice more.
Woman Blues (Bluesville, 1054); The Blues is Life (Folkways, FS 3541); Basket of Blues (Spivey, 1001); Victoria and Her Blues (Spivey, 1002); Three Kings and the Queen (Spivey, 1004); The Queen and Her Knights (Spivey, 1006); Three Kings and the Queen, Vol. 3 (Spivey, 1014); Victoria Spivey's Recorded Legacy of the Blues, 1927–37 (Spivey, 2001).
One of eight children, Victoria Spivey was born in Houston, Texas, in 1906. Both her father Grant Spivey, a musician who had a string band with several of her brothers, and her mother Addie Smith Spivey , a nurse and amateur singer, were the children of ex-slaves. Growing up in a household filled with music, Vicky learned to play the piano as a child and often entertained at parties to make extra money. After her father was killed in an accident, these jobs became important for the family's economic survival, and while still in her early teens she and a brother played in local bordellos and music halls. In the 1920s, as the blues craze swept the country, she began working at clubs in Houston and Dallas, where she also heard such performers as Ma Rainey , Mamie Smith , and Ida Cox . Another important influence in these years was bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson, with whom she frequently performed at house parties and picnics.
Spivey then moved on to St. Louis, where in 1926 she made her first recording for the local Okeh label. "Black Snake Blues" was a hit that later became a classic, and within two years she had recorded about 38 songs for Okeh, including such hits as "Spider Web Blues," "Dirty Woman Blues," and "TB Blues." Written while she was working for the Saint Louis Music Company and recorded in 1927, "TB Blues" reflected the huge increase of tuberculosis among African-Americans in the era (as well as the popular belief that the disease was divine punishment for immoral behavior) and was one of Spivey's most well-known songs from the '20s. Many of her songs were characterized by double entendres,
sly sexual references, even rollicking obscenities, while others were bitterly honest descriptions of hard lives, all sung in a somewhat nasal voice and employing what she called her "tiger moan." Jim O'Neal described her music in Rolling Stone as "grim tales of death, despair, cruelty, and agony, underscored by her somber piano and stark Texas blues moans." Spivey also performed in revues, including 1927's Hits and Bits from Africana; a fellow performer in that show was Jackie Mabley , who would later become famous as "Moms" Mabley. As well, she performed on occasion with her sisters Addie "Sweet Pea" Spivey, Elton "Za-Zu" Spivey , and Leona Spivey .
Spivey moved to Chicago in 1930, and although the national enthusiasm for blues began to wane as the Depression took hold and swing began its rise, she continued to work regularly. She performed with such musicians as Sonny Boy Williamson, Memphis Minnie (Lizzie Douglas ), and Big Bill Broonzy in Chicago, and starred in the revue Tan Town Topics 1933 on tour in Texas and Oklahoma. With her second husband Bill Adams, a dancer, she also appeared in the revue Hellzapoppin. Spivey worked colleges, dances, pavilions, and radio remotes throughout the Midwest and Southwest, as well as in vaudeville theaters and the Apollo Theater in New York City, and recorded with the Decca and Vocalion labels (sometimes using the name Jane Lucas). In the mid-1930s, she toured with Louis Armstrong. While many blues artists had faded into obscurity by then, Spivey continued performing throughout the 1940s. She retired from the stage only in 1952, when she became an organist for a church in Brooklyn.
During the late 1950s and '60s, younger white artists and audiences rediscovered the blues. Spivey was soon performing in the newly popular blues festivals and in clubs in New York City. She also set up her own recording company, Spivey, reissuing a number of her own albums and reintroducing such singers as Alberta Hunter , Lucille Hegamin , and Hannah Sylvester from career oblivion. Among the other artists who recorded on the Spivey label were Luther Johnson, Lucille Spann, Olive Brown , Sugar Blue, Memphis Slim, Big Joe Williams, and a young Bob Dylan (who also played on a few of her albums). A legend by the 1970s, Spivey appeared in the 1974 concert "Philadelphia Folk Festival," broadcast on PBS. She also performed on the BBC program "The Devil's Music—A History of the Blues" in 1976. Spivey died of an internal hemorrhage later that year in New York City.
Harris, Sheldon. Blues Who's Who: A Biographical Dictionary of Blues Singers. New Rochelle, NY: Random House, 1987.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.