Keeping the Blues Alive / Blues News  / Memphis Minnie – Photo Of The Week

Memphis Minnie – Photo Of The Week

Memphis Minnie, known as a scrappy guitar player in a time when few women played guitar on their own recordings.  Whether it was a female or male artist, Minnie, gave everyone a run for their money.  She was such a great country blues guitarist that she was able to turn Chicago into her musical stomping ground.  She became the lone female voice in the male dominated 1930’s urban Blues scene. 

Her singing and songwriting, spirited demeanor, and superlative guitar playing propelled her to the upper echelons of a field then dominated by male guitarists and pianists. In the early 1900s Minnie lived in Tunica and DeSoto counties, where she began performing with guitarist Willie Brown and others. As a teenager, she struck out on her own, determined to make a living with her voice and guitar. 

The Allure of Beale Street

The lure of Beale Street drew her to Memphis, where she worked the streets, cafes, clubs, and parties. She began performing with Joe McCoy, whom she married in 1929. After a talent scout heard the duo performing for tips in a barbershop, they made their first recordings that year, billed as “Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie.” “Bumble Bee” was their big hit and has been recorded by many other blues singers. Although in later years their most recognized song would become “When the Levee Breaks.” 

Her Musical Style

Her musical style is country roots and blues, but she could play pretty much several musical genres. Here songs covered a wide variety of subjects. She also worked and gained the respect of a host of blues performers.  Among those that recorded with her were, Joe McCoy her husband from the late 1920’s, the Jed Devenport Jug Band, Georgia Tom, Tampa Red, Black Bob, Blind John Davis and Little Son Joe. She also sat in with Little Son, Bumble Bee Slim and the Memphis Jug Band.

She also worked live with Big Bill Broonzy, Sunnyland Slim and Roosevelt Sykes. By 1935 Minnie and Joe McCoy had split up, and Minnie married Little Son Joe in the late 30s.  Minnie was an early convert to the electric guitar which she used to good effect in her biggest hit, ‘Me and My Chauffeur Blues’, recorded in 1941 with Little Son.  Jefferson Airplane did their version of this song ” ‘Chauffeur Blues’ on their 1966 debut album.  But it was pretty much Minnie’s version but without the royalties.  Bukka White rated her as “about the best thing goin’ in the woman line”.

When The Levee Breaks

Led Zeppelin turned an obscure 1929 recording from Memphis Minnie into an epic rock monolith.  Kansas Joe McCoy, a fellow singer/songwriter/guitarist, whom she hooked up with a few years earlier are talent-spotted by a Columbia Records scout, and the duo are whisked off to New York to record.

From that session came Minnie’s first classic, Bumble Bee. It becomes a huge hit, upon which Muddy Waters based his Honey Bee, just as, a little later on, Minnie’s If You See My Rooster generated a song credited to Willie Dixon and associated with Howlin’ Wolf and The Rolling Stones. The NY session also reaped McCoy’s composition, When The Levee Breaks, sung by him and garnished with Minnie’s deft, sparkling lead guitar. It was credited to ‘Joe & Minnie McCoy’, though they didn’t marry until the following year.  “When the Levee Breaks”, is adapted (with altered lyrics and a different melody) by Led Zeppelin and released in 1971 on their fourth album. 

Her musical Legacy

Minnie is a rare women of her era to gain prominence as a guitarist, Minnie overcame considerable odds to achieve success. Heralded as a champion of feminist independence and empowerment while battling both racism and sexism. She is 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 are covered by the likes of Big Mama Thornton, Lucinda Williams, and Maria Muldaur.  As well as by men, including Muddy Waters, Elmore James, and Western swing pioneer Milton Brown. She retired from music in 1957. She returns to Memphis where she periodically appeared on Memphis radio stations to encourage young blues musicians.  In 1958, She performs at a memorial concert for Big Bill Broozy.  “She never laid her guitar down, until she could literally no longer pick it up.”

Her Passing

She suffered a stroke in 1960, which confines her to a wheelchair and in 1973 she is laid to rest.  

Her headstone is inscribed:

Lizzie “Kid” Douglas Lawlers

aka Memphis Minnie

The inscription on the back of her gravestone reads:

The hundreds of sides Minnie recorded are the perfect material to teach us about the blues. For the blues are at once general, and particular, speaking for millions, but in a highly singular, individual voice. Listening to Minnie’s songs we hear her fantasies, her dreams, her desires, but we will hear them as if they were our own.

Keeping the Blues Alive

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Credits: MS Blues Trail/Wikipedia – Dates