by Michael "Hawkeye" Herman
For those of you who are not aware of the woman who was among the first twenty
performers elected to the Hall of Fame in the inaugural W.C. Handy Awards in
1980, who won the top female vocalist award in the first Blues Unlimited
Readers' Poll in 1973 (finishing ahead of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey), let me
take a few moments to explain this woman's massive contribution to the blues.
Universally regarded as one of the greatest blues artists of all time, Memphis
Minnie (1897-1973) wrote and recorded hundreds of songs, among them the
famous, "Bumble Bee Blues," "Me and My Chauffeur," "Black Rat Swing," "I'm
Talking About You," and "What's The Matter With The Mill?" Blues people as
diverse as Muddy Waters, Koko Taylor, Johnny Shines, Big Mama Thornton, and
Chuck Berry have acknowledged her as a major influence. At a time when most
female vocalists sang Tin Pan Alley material, Minnie wrote her own lyrics and
accompanied her singing with magnificent guitar-playing. Thanks to her
merciless imagination and dark humor, her songs rank among the most vigorous
and challenging poetry in any language.
Although organized feminism was at its lowest ebb, Memphis Minnie, a black
working-class woman, called no man her master, defied gender stereotypes, and
exemplified a radically adventurous lifestyle that makes most careers of the
20's and 30's seem dull by comparison. At a time when women were "kept in
their place," both personally and professionally, Memphis Minnie helped to
make it okay for her sisters to be tough, outspoken, and play a mean guitar.
Johnny Shines recalls, "Any men fool with her, she'd go for them right away.
She didn't take no foolishness off of them." She was more than just a guitar
hero. She was capable of modernizing her style and ably adapted to newer
trends, which helped account for her years of popularity. Memphis Minnie was
one of the few figures to make the successful transition from the rural,
guitar dominated blues of the 1920's to the urban nightclub styles of the
Born Lizzie "Kid" Douglas, in Algiers, Louisiana, on June 3rd, 1897, her
family moved to Walls, Mississippi (just outside Memphis), in 1904. She was
the oldest of thirteen children. She got her first guitar as a Christmas
present in 1905, and began to teach herself to play. She ran away from home at
the age of 13, and began to perform on the streets of Memphis, and neighboring
communities, as "Kid" Douglas, eventually working in tent shows throughout the
South for Ringling Brothers Circus. She settled in Memphis between 1916 and
1920, and began to play on Beale Street and in its saloons and bars. In her
early years, she often played lead guitar and sang with Willie Brown and
Willie Moore, two Delta blues heavy hitters who were pals of Son House, and
mentors of Robert Johnson. While living in Memphis, she formed a partnership
with Kansas City Joe McCoy, who became her husband. Her first recordings, in
1929, "Bumble Bee Blues" / "I'm Talking About You," were hits, and between
1929 and 1941 she was one of the most prolific blues recording artists,
producing over 150 songs. Her songs were even covered by the western-swing
bands of Bob Wills, Milton Brown, and the Maddox Brothers and Rose. In 1930,
she moved to Chicago, where she became a mainstay of the blues community. In
Chicago, in 1933, she won first prize in a local blues singing contest over
Big Bill Broonzy (!!) with whom she would later tour. In 1935, she left Joe
McCoy, and the tight guitar duet work they had created, and began working with
rhythm sections on records designed for dancing and jukeboxes. In 1941, after
she acquired an electric guitar, she had another major hit, "Me and My
Chauffeur," which made all the jukeboxes, as well as the hit song, "Black Rat
Swing." She remained active into the mid-1950's. She returned to Memphis, and
in failing health, became inactive in music, confined to various local nursing
homes. Memphis Minnie suffered a fatal stroke on August 6th, 1973. She is
buried in New Hope Cemetery, Walls, Mississippi.
1.) The Blues Who's Who, by Sheldon Harris, Arlington House Pub., NY, NY.
2.) Nothing But the Blues, by Lawrence Cohn, Abbeville Press, NY, NY.
3.) Woman With Guitar: Memphis Minnie's Blues, by Paul and Beth Garon, DaCapo
Press, NY, NY.