Against all odds this woman guitarist made blues popular in 1930. The story of Memphis Minnie

Memphis Minnie
Memphis Minnie

Lizzie Douglas, popularly known as Memphis Minnie, was one of the foremost blues guitarists of the 1930s.

The singer shot to fame at a time the profession was male-dominated. Minnie recorded around 200 songs including “Bumble Bee”, “Nothing in Rambling”, and “Me and My Chauffeur Blues,” according to accounts.

Since the early days of the great vaudeville blues women – Ma Rainey, Bessie and Mamie Smith – the blues genre of music had largely become the preserve of men. However, Minnie, born in Algiers, Louisiana in 1897 challenged the men with her talent.

She was the oldest of 13 brothers and sisters. Minnie started playing Banjo at age seven, and got her first guitar a couple of years later. She started making a living from playing guitar on the Memphis streets and in the towns surrounding Walls.

Minnie at a point became a traveling musician with the Ringling Brothers circus, and had stints with Willie Brown, Willie Moore, and other bluesmen around Lake Cormorant and Walls.

In the 1920s, she moved to Memphis Beale Street and would later be discovered by scouts of Columbia Records. She later married Joe McCoy, her second husband and the duo began performing together in 1929.

The couple made their first recordings that year, billed as “Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie.” Their song “Bumble Bee” was a big hit and has been recorded by many other blues singers. Over the years, their most recognized song would become “When the Levee Breaks.”

 

The couple shortly moved to Chicago and continued to perform and record together but failed to shine. They continued to produce influential blues music until 1935, when they severed ties.

Minnie started her “band period” and took on a new guitar-playing husband, Ernest Lawlars a.k.a. “Little Son Joe,” according to Mississippi Blue Trail

His guitar work was heard alongside hers for many years on popular tracks such as “HooDoo Lady.” In their “Me and My Chauffeur Blues,” recorded in 1941, Minnie showed her conversion to the electric guitar.

Throughout the 1930s and ‘40s, Minnie recorded many songs with hits such as “Me and My Chauffeur Blues,” “Please Set a Date,” “In My Girlish Days,” and “Nothing in Rambling.”

Her feisty performances and instrumental skill aided her to defeat some top bluesmen of Chicago like Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy, in blues contests.

Her style was rooted in country and she contributed to the Blues’ urban transformation.

With her powerful vocals and unique guitar skills, Minnie’s career spanned through the 1920s of country blues to the electric blues in 1950s. She helped form the electric Chicago blues, as well as, integrate what would later be R&B and rock ’n’ roll into her music.

Memphis Minnie
Memphis Minnie

Throughout her career, Minnie worked with notable blues performers including Joe McCoy, the Jed Devenport Jug Band, Georgia Tom, Tampa Red, Black Bog, and Blind John Davis. She also sat in with Bumble Bee Slim, the Memphis Jug band, the Big Bill Broonzy, Sunnyland Slim, Roosevelt Sykes, Sunnyland Slim and Little Walter.

Minnie’s records covered a wide range of subject matter. With her vivacious voice and lyrics, she was reportedly in tune with the lives of Black Americans.

At a time of limited possibilities for black women, she had a particularly strong influence throughout her 25-year career resulting in over 200 tracks.

Memphis Minnie was known as the “Queen of the Blues,” a title she earned from her legacy of successfully recording music across four decades being the only female voice in a male-dominated blues scene.

In 1955, Minnie returned to Memphis with Little Son Joe, who died in 1961. After a failed health, she also passed away in a nursing home on August 6, 1973 at the age of 86.

Considered by many to be the best female blues singer of all-time, today, Minnie remains an influential musician because of her ingenious guitar prowess and songs that captured people across generations.

According to the Missisipi Blues Commission, she has been heralded as a champion of feminist independence and empowerment. She was elected to the Blues Hall of Fame in its first year of balloting (1980). The Mt. Zion Memorial Fund erected a headstone for her in 1996. Her songs have been recorded by women such as Big Mama Thornton, Lucinda Williams, and Maria Muldaur, as well as by men, including Muddy Waters, Elmore James, and Western swing pioneer Milton Brown.