Memphis Minnie (June 3, 1897 – August 6, 1973) was among the most influential and pioneering blues musicians and guitarists of all time. The longevity of her career has hardly been matched, and her unique style affected much of the blues that followed thereafter. She was, like her idol Ma Rainey, a flamboyant character who traveled to shows in luxury cars and wore bracelets made of silver dollars. She was born Lizzie Douglas in Algiers, LA, near the mouth of the Mississippi River, across from the old slave docks in New Orleans. Memphis Minnie combined those roots with the blues she encountered in Memphis to point the way for the future of that style… taking rural blues into the electric, band-oriented sound that would be the hallmark in Chicago for decades after. She was among the first to take up the electric guitar.

youtube: ‪‪Bumble Bee

After learning to play guitar as a child, she ran away from her family’s farm in Walls, MS to Memphis at the age of thirteen. She began playing for tips at Church’s Park on Beale Street as Lizzie “Kid” Douglas, but she also went by the names Texas Tessie, Minnie McCoy, and Gospel Minnie. Shortly thereafter, she left town to tour with the Ringling Brothers Circus. After playing in the tent shows, it is thought that she spent time on the Bedford Plantation in Mississippi learning guitar from Willie Brown.

During the late 1920s, Minnie began playing with the Memphis jug bands. In 1929, a Columbia Records scout heard her and Kansas Joe McCoy playing “Bumble Bee” in a Beale Street barbershop. That began a long recording career with labels like: Decca, Vocalion, Bluebird, Okeh, Regal, and Checker. McCoy would be her musical partner for the next six years. She took up with a few accomplished blues guitarist: Casey Bill Weldon, Kansas Joe McCoy (later of the Harlem Hamfats) and Ernest “Little Son Joe” Lawlers. In the 1930s she moved to Chicago with McCoy; by 1939 she was with Lawlers. While in Chicago, she transformed that musical style by adding bass and drums, anticipating the sound of the 1950s Chicago blues.

In the 1940s she formed a touring vaudeville company. Some of her strongest and lasting recordings were made in that decade.  From the 1950s on, however, public interest in her music declined, and in 1957 she and Lawlers returned to Memphis, after moving around the north, and lived in poverty. After her health began to fail in the mid 1950s, Minnie retired from performing and recording. She suffered several debilitating strokes, but she lived to see her reputation rediscovered with the blues revival of the ’60s. In 1980, she was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame.

Her song “When the Levee Breaks” was covered by Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan, and her “Bumble Bee Blues” was turned into “Honey Bee” by Muddy Waters. Also, check out “Hoodoo Lady”, “I’m Gonna Bake My Biscuit” and “Can I Do It For You”.

youtube: ‪‪When the Levee Breaks

The end of her life was spent in a nursing home in Memphis, where she died of a stroke in 1973. A headstone paid for by Bonnie Raitt was erected on October 13, 1996. Laverne Baker was one of her nieces in attendance at the ceremony.

Langston Hughes wrote of her in 1943, “She grabs the microphone and yells, ‘Hey now!’ Then she hits a few deep chords at random, leans forward ever so slightly on her guitar, bows her head and begins to beat out… a rhythm so contagious that often it makes the crowd holler out loud…. All these things cry through the strings on Memphis Minnie’s electric guitar, amplified to machine proportions… a musical version of electric welders plus a rolling mill.”

youtube: ‪‪Bad Luck Woman

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image credits: JSP Records; Michael Ochs Archives; Frank Driggs Collection

  1. Alexander says:

    queen of the delta blues

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