Memphis Minnie was one of the greatest guitarists and blues singers of her time and a pioneering influence in the urban transformation of country blues. This classic selection of songs is taken from her first prodigious burst of creativity when she recorded with her then-husband Kansas Joe McCoy.
If ever a title was justified, then ‘Queen of the Country Blues’ is the bare minimum that should be afforded to Memphis Minnie, a lone female voice in the male-dominated country blues scene whose musical legacy is nothing short of remarkable. Minnie transcended both gender and genre and her recording career spanned from the late 1920s heyday of country blues to the cutting-edge Chicago scene of the 1940s & 1950s, where she helped pioneer the roots of electric blues, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll.
Born Lizzie Douglas to a poor family in rural Algiers, Louisiana on June 3, 1897, she was the oldest of 13 brothers and sisters, yet was always referred to as “Kid” throughout her childhood. When she was seven years old, the Douglas family moved to Wall, Mississippi, just south of Memphis, where she soon received her first guitar. Something of a wild child, Minnie ran away from home for the last time at 13, heading for the bright lights of the notorious Beale Street in nearby Memphis, where, as “Kid” Douglas, she quickly made a name for herself with the jug bands and string groups that played around the city. Life was hard for a female musician and she had to grow up fast, earning a reputation for toughness, both personally and musically. After touring the South with the Ringling Brothers circus, she eventually found her way back to Memphis where she became a member of the legendary Memphis Jug Band, something of a training ground for the city’s aspiring blues musicians. For a while she was the common law wife of guitarist Casey Bill Weldon, but subsequently went on to marry another budding bluesman by the name of Joe McCoy.
Minnie and McCoy became a formidable musical partnership, with the sheer drive of the two guitars, coupled with Minnie’s vocal abilities, giving their imaginative songs and arrangements a life of their own. They were soon discovered by a talent scout for Columbia Records, whilst playing in front of a barber shop, and went to record in New York where they were given the names Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie. By the beginning of the 1930s, the Memphis blues had become quite a marketing phenomenon in Chicago, which is where Minnie and Kansas Joe migrated to in 1930 to become a part of the city’s burgeoning music scene. Along with Big Bill Broonzy, whom she reputedly beat in a blues contest, and Tampa Red, Minnie helped the country blues style ease into an urban setting. Minnie’s guitar prowess was formidable, as testified by many a famed bluesman, and she literally “stood out” from other musicians by playing lead guitar while standing, at a time when everyone else played their guitars sitting down.
This collection highlights the formative years of Minnie’s career as part of the duo and includes accomplished blues numbers such as ‘Memphis Minnie-Jitis Blues’, probably based on personal experience, as well as ‘Bumble Bee’ their first recorded song and one of Minnie’s most successful of her hundred or so songs that she recorded before retiring in the mid-1950s. Their wonderful versatility shines through on other novelty songs such as the horse-calling ‘Frankie Jean (That Trottin’ Fool)’ and the bawdy ‘New Dirty Dozen’, usually the province of male pianists, sung by Minnie from a female perspective. Further blues inuendo abounds on the comic vocal duets ‘What’s The Matter With The Mill?’ and ‘Can I Do It For You?’ and proves how Minnie had a singular ability to adapt her voice to the drama in hand, be it up-tempo and light-hearted hokum to deep and tortured blues.
The couple recorded songs together and solo for Decca Records until they divorced in 1934. According to several reports, McCoy’s increasing jealousy of Minnie’s fame and success caused the breakup. Whilst McCoy achieved further moderate success, it was Minnie who went on to become a central figure in the early Chicago scene as the blues went electric.