Bukka White called Memphis Minnie “about the best thing goin’ in the woman line.” In the 1930s and ’40s she was one of the top blues recording artists. A powerful singer and skilled songwriter who played guitar better than most of her male contemporaries, she recorded over 180 songs, most of which she wrote, between 1929 and 1959. Musicians who appeared on her records included Big Bill Broonzy and Little Walter. Her songs were covered by a wide variety of musicians including Bob Wills, Led Zeppelin, and the Jefferson Airplane.
Memphis Minnie was born Lizzie Douglas in Algiers, Louisiana on June 3, 1897. Her family called her “Kid.” In 1930 a record company A & R man named her Memphis Minnie. In 1904 her family moved to Walls, Mississippi, a few miles south of Memphis. Her first guitar was a Christmas present when she was 8. She attended school long enough to pick up the rudiments of reading, writing and arithmetic. In her teens she ran away to Memphis numerous times, coming home when she ran out of money. During WWI she joined a Ringling Brothers show that toured the south. From that point she was on her own as an entertainer.
In the early 1920s she worked with Mississippi blues artist Willie Brown, who also played regularly with Charley Patton and Son House. She and Brown played together for five or six years. Willie Moore, who often played with her and Brown said “Wasn’t nothing he could teach her… Everything Willie Brown could play, she could play and then she could play some things he couldn’t play.”
After leaving Brown she moved to Memphis and started working with Joe McCoy. In 1929 they were signed by a Columbia Records scout who heard them playing for tips in a barbershop. They recorded eight songs in New York including “When the Levee Breaks” and “Bumble Bee,” a song she was to record five times. The record company released the records under the names Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie. The records did well. She dropped Kid Douglas in favor of Memphis Minnie. It was the beginning of 20 years of blues stardom for her.
She and McCoy settled in Chicago shortly after their records came out. They recorded frequently and played clubs in Chicago as well as the South and Midwest. Their sound was based on intricate guitar duets that combined a rural feel with sophisticated interplay. She played lead while McCoy played a bass line. Her vocals were simple and straight forward with an air of power and self assurance. Many of their songs had rural themes like Plymouth Rock Blues, a song about chickens, and Frankie Jean, a song that showed how to call a horse. What’s the Matter with the Mill combines sexual innuendo with a farmer’s regular trips to the grist mill. They recorded many double entendre songs with titles like My Butcher Man . Daily life was the theme for songs like North Memphis Blues, a commercial for a restaurant called the North Memphis Cafe and Memphis Minnie-jitis Blues, a song about a bout with meningitis that’s notable for its stark, elegant language.
Her biggest hit from this part of her career was Bumble Bee, which she recorded several times. It celebrated lust in a way that transcended the double entendre material she recorded so often. “I got a bumble bee, don’t sting nobody but me… ” she sang. In the second version she recorded, she sang “He had me to the place once that I wish to God that I could die.” The lyrics to each version of the song are markedly different.
Minnie and Joe McCoy split in 1935. Their last recording was a two sided duet called You’ve Got to Move on side one and You Ain’t Got to Move on side two. Joe did have to move. In the mid ’30s Minnie’s style took on a more urban flavor. For the next four years or so she usually recorded with a piano player, often Big Bill Broonzy’s frequent accompanist, Black Bob, to complement her guitar.
Around 1939 she connected with Ernest (Little Son Joe) Lawlars, the love of her life. They lived together until he died in 1961. She and Lawlars did guitar duets that were similar to her earlier work with Joe McCoy but stripped down to deliver the rhythmic pulse that drove the blues of the late 1930s and ’40s. With Lawlars she recorded some of her best songs. In My Girlish Days, a deep blues about coming of age, ends with, “All of my playmates is not surprised. I had to travel ‘fore I got wise. I found out better but I’ve still got my girlish ways.” Lonesome Shack is about relationship insurance. She sings about a “lonesome shack” “out cross the hills” where she can go if her current relationship falls apart. Me and My Chauffeur Blues combines double entendre with fact. Although she owned a car, Memphis Minnie never learned to drive. Nothing in Rambling is another deep blues that contrasts security and life on the road. It begins with “I was born in Louisiana, raised in Algiers. Every place I go it’s the peoples all say ‘Ain’t nothing in rambling, either running around.’” Lawlars did the vocal on Black Rat Swing, a comic tune that features the refrain “gonna find my shoe somewhere near his shirt tail.” The song was released with the vocal credit “Mr. Memphis Minnie.”
During this period she began playing the electric guitar. Other blues players in Chicago like Big Bill Broonzy and Tampa Red started using amplification too. It was not a revolutionary development. At the time people used the electric guitar because it helped them be heard in noisy clubs. Record company publicity pictures from around 1940 show her with an electrified National arch top guitar.
She and Lawlars continued to record into the early fifties. Their last release came in 1953. In a 1952 session for Chess they were assisted by Little Walter on a remake of Me and My Chauffeur. While they recorded less frequently than in the previous two decades, they were a popular live act in Chicago in the early ’50s, working at well known spots like the Club de Lisa, Sylvio’s, Gatewood’s Tavern, and others. By the middle of the decade club work their fell off as the electric music she pioneered with Big Bill and a few others in the early ’40s matured and supplanted the music of the older artists. In 1958 she moved back to Memphis with Lawlars.
In Memphis they played music as long as their health allowed. They appeared on local radio with Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Nighthawk and worked in local clubs. In 1959 they recorded an unreleased three song test for a local label. In 1960 Minnie had a stroke that put her in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Lawlars died in 1961. Minnie had a second stroke soon after. She spent the remainder of her life in a nursing home. She died in 1973 and was buried in Walls, Mississippi.
The best bang for the buck is the two 4 disc box sets on JSP, Queen of Country Blues 1929-1937 and Queen of the Delta Blues, Vol. 2. Both are available at all of the usual on line CD sources for around $25. Her entire recorded output is available on mp3 from your favorite download site.