Memphis Minnie - Biography

By J Poet

While Memphis Minnie was a great singer and songwriter, it’s her blazing guitar work that made her a giant in the blues field. She was a masterful fingerpicker and evolved with the music moving from acoustic country blues to a more raucous Chicago style on electric guitar. She influenced and was influenced by other legends like Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rodgers and Johnny Shines. Largely forgotten today, she was one of the most popular blues artists of the 30s and 40s and made more than 200 double-sided 78 RPM singles. She was in poor health in the 50s and spent her last years in a nursing home in Memphis. She was one of the inaugural inductees into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980.


Elizabeth Douglas was born in Algiers Louisiana in 1897, the oldest of 13 children. She was playing banjo by the time she was seven, entertaining her family at house parties and country dances. The family moved to Walls Mississippi, a town not far from Memphis and she got her first guitar when she was 11. Even as a girl, Douglas wasn’t interested in picking cotton or domestic work and was soon playing for tips on Beale Street, the main drag of the African American community in Memphis. By the time she was 15 she’d left home and was a traveling musician, playing duets with Willie Brown who wrote, “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor” and later played with Charlie Patton. They played frequently on ferryboats traveling between Mississippi and Arkansas and often made more than $100 a day in tips.


By the early 20s, Minnie was in Memphis living with Casey Bill Weldon, one of the guitar players with the Memphis Jug Band. She solo sang on the streets and joined Jed Davenport's Beale Street Jug Band. In 1929 she was singing and playing with Joe McCoy, who backed her on guitar. An A&R man from Columbia Records saw them and offered them a recording contract. At their first session, Columbia dubbed them Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe. One of their first hits was “When the Levee Breaks,” later covered by Led Zeppelin. Other early sides include "Bumble Bee," "Hoodoo Lady," and "I Want Something for You."


The records by Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe were hits, but people doubted that a woman could play guitar as aggressively as she did. In 1933, Minnie and Joe moved to Chicago and Minnie had her legendary face off with Big Bill Broonzy. After trading solos with Broonzy for an hour the crowd went crazy and the judges, all fellow blues musicians, awarded her the prize, a bottle of whiskey. Minnie and Big Bill became long time friends and touring partners. Between recording dates, Minnie toured relentlessly, and her marriage broke up. When Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys saw her they took her song “What's The Matter With The Mill?” and made it one of their standards.


In the 30s, Minnie expanded her sound to include piano, drums, horn players, lap-steel, and mandolin. She stopped playing in her fiercely rhythmic style and started playing electric lead guitar lines with bent notes and comped chords. In 1939, she married another guitar player, Little Son Joe Lawlars. The records they made were marked by her aggressive vocals. They waxed sides for Vocalion, Bluebird, Okeh, Regal, Checker, and JOB. In the 40s, Minnie found steady work, with and without Joe, playing blues, swing, jazz and pop tunes, although she recorded mostly blues numbers. By 1942 she was playing electric guitar in a trio that had a Monday night residency at Ruby Lee Gatewood's Tavern. By the end of the 40s, record labels lost interest in the blues and moved on to what was to become R&B and rock’n’roll. Minnie and Joe kept playing clubs, and even tried playing R&B, but the business had changed too much for them to remain viable. Minnie had a heart attack in 1957 that ended here career. Minnie and Joe went back to Memphis and lived with Minnie’s sister until Joe died in 1962. Minnie spent the last years of her life in a nursing home and died in 1973 at 76.


Britain’s Document label has reissued most of Minnie’s records on CD in chronological order on Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 1 (1929 - 1930) (1994 Document UK), Memphis Minnie Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 2 (1935-1941) (1994 Document UK), Memphis Minnie Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 3 (1935-1941) (1996 Document UK), Memphis Minnie Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 4 (1929-1934) (1994 Document UK) and Memphis Minnie Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 5 (1935-1941) (2000 Document UK.) Another great collection is Queen of Country Blues 1929-1937 (2003 JSP), which gives you 124 songs on five CDs and Queen of Delta Blues 1937- 1953 (2005 JSP), with another 121 songs on five CDs. For a more concise overview try The Essential Memphis Minnie (2001 Classic Blues) a two CD 36 track collection.



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