Memphis Minnie
Pictured: Memphis Minnie, Seated with guitar, circa 1938
Vocalion Promotional Photo
Courtesy Photo Archive, Delta Haze Corporation

Background: DSC03454 by jeremy1choo, Some rights reserved
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It’s been said that Memphis Minnie played guitar “like a man.”

But there were plenty of men who wanted to play guitar like Memphis Minnie. She once even beat the great Big Bill Broonzy in a picking contest. Her title “Queen of the Country Blues” was no hype. Minnie did everything the boys could do, and she did it in a fancy gown with full hair and makeup. She had it all: stellar guitar chops, a powerful voice, a huge repertoire including many original, signature songs and a stage presence simultaneously glamorous, bawdy and tough.

She transcended both gender and genre. Her recording career reached from the 1920s heyday of country blues to cutting electric sides in 1950s Chicago studios for the Chess subsidiary Checker. Minnie helped form the roots of electric Chicago blues, as well as R&B and rock ‘n’ roll, long before she plugged in. Her unique storytelling style of songwriting drew such surprising fans as Country Music Hall of Famer Bob Wills, the King of Western Swing, who covered her song about a favorite horse, “Frankie Jean,” right down to copying Minnie’s whistling. Though she inspired as many men as women, her influence was particularly strong on female musicians, her disciples including her niece Lavern Baker, a rock and R&B pioneer in her own right, as well as Maria Muldaur (who released a 2012 tribute CD) Bonnie Raitt (who paid for her headstone), Rory Block, Tracy Nelson, Saffire and virtually every other guitar-slinging woman since.

A Tough Kid

She sang about being “born in Louisiana, raised in Algiers” (a town just across from New Orleans), but that was poetic license. She was actually born in Mississippi, raised in Walls, a small farming community in DeSoto County south of Memphis, according to US Census data uncovered by Dr. Bill Ellis. She learned music early on, getting a guitar for Christmas at the age of 8. She was a wild child, running away from home for the last time at 13, heading for the bright lights of Beale Street, where, as “Kid” Douglas, she quickly made a name for herself with the jug bands and string groups that played on the street and at Memphis’ Church Park. Life was hard for a homeless kid and she grew up fast, earning a reputation for toughness, both personally and musically.

Listen Now:

In My Girlish Days - Performed by the Reba Russell Band

In the early 1920s, the most popular blues performers were Bessie Smith and the other classic blues singers - bejeweled women standing in front of jazz bands singing Tin Pan Alley blues. By contrast, Minnie’s style was far more raw and personal, and it endured long after that first blues craze.

She described her life in “In My Girlish Days” &
“Nothing in Rambling” sang about a favorite cafe in “North Memphis Blues” documented local events in “Garage Fire Blues” and paid tribute to the great African-American boxer Joe Louis in “The Joe Louis Strut.”

Bumble Bee Blues

She recorded her most popular song, “Bumble Bee Blues,” at her first session in 1929 and re-recorded the song repeatedly throughout her career, including a session with The Memphis Jug Band. That version, with its laid-back, behind-the-beat, jug-driven groove, points the way to the Memphis Beat later perfected at Stax Records.

Listen Now:

Bumble Bee Blues

Soo Cow Soo

Her guitar playing was just as visionary; her up-the-neck solo on 1931’s “Soo Cow Soo” foreshadowing the rockabilly revolution to come. On record, her second guitarist was usually one of her guitar-playing husbands, first “Kansas Joe” McCoy, and then Ernest “Little Son Joe” Lawlers.

Listen Now:

Soo Cow Soo - Performed by Andy Cohen

In 1930, she and McCoy, who’d married the year before, joined the thousands of other African-Americans leaving the Delta for Chicago.

It was there in 1933 that she bested Broonzy in the guitar contest immortalized in his autobiography Big Bill’s Blues.” And it was there that she recorded many of her best-known songs. She and McCoy broke up in 1935 and within a few years she was married to Lawlers, with whom she made some of her best, most enduring records in the early 1940s - "including “Me and My Chauffeur Blues” and her autobiographical “In My Girlish Days” and “Nothing in Rambling.”

She adapted to the big city, performing in clubs, organizing “Blue Monday” shows and forming a vaudeville troupe to tour theaters. She formally studied music and added some of the jazz and pop standards of the day to her repertoire. Minnie joined the musicians union and bought a National electric archtop guitar, becoming part of that transitional generation between acoustic Delta blues and the electrified Chicago sound. But she was at heart a country blues singer/guitarist, and even though she was one of the greatest of all time, the changing tastes of the African-American audience found little room for what they considered a reminder of the grim life left behind in Mississippi.

By the late 1950s, a new audience for that acoustic blues sound was growing, as some of her contemporaries were rediscovered by urban collegiate folk music fans. Broonzy, Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, Rev. Gary Davis and many others all enjoyed renewed popularity, national and international tours and steady incomes.

Minnie, in failing health, was unable to take part. She moved home to Memphis in the 1960s and lived quietly, even as small, independent labels were reissuing her classic 78s on LPs aimed at her new audience. In 1970, folk-blues revivalist Maria Muldaur, a few years away from her “Midnight at the Oasis” success, recorded Minnie’s “Me and My Chauffeur Blues.” In 1971, Led Zeppelin released the Kansas Joe McCoy/Memphis Minnie composition “When the Levee Breaks” on its fourth album, crediting it to the band and Minnie.

But there would be no triumphant comeback. Memphis Minnie died of complications from a stroke in Memphis in 1973 and buried in Walls, Miss. Today, 40 years later, her songs continue to be recorded by contemporary artists. Her image of the powerful, take no-crap guitar hero was perfectly suited to the modern women’s movement and she continues inspiring new generations. With such ongoing tributes as a new album of her songs by Muldaur, there seems little chance she’ll ever go out of style.

Unlike her stilted vaudeville blues counterparts, Memphis Minnie’s music sounds as fresh today as when it was first set in shellac. In 2012, every single record Memphis Minnie ever released is still available. And most importantly, they all still rock.

“I got me a bumble bee, don’t sting nobody but me.”

Memphis Minnie
Memphis Minnie
Hooks Bros, Memphis, 1950s
© 1993 Delta Haze Corporation
All Rights Reserved. Used By Permission

What Others are Saying

  1. I really like Memphis Minnie. I hope they have B.B King too.

  2. Thank you. I appreciate knowing a bit about Memphis Minnie a most powerful figure in American music.

    Doug Newman

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