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Memphis Minnie

Known as “Kid” all her life to her family and re-named “Memphis Minnie” by the recording industry, New Orleans native Lizzie Douglas was a prominent and pioneering guitarist, vocalist, songwriter, and blues recording artist.

Memphis Minnie

Courtesy of The Nashville Bridge

Memphis Minnie with "Kansas Joe" McCoy. Memphis Minni (musician) and "Kansas" Joe McCoy (musician)

New Orleans native Lizzie Douglas was a pioneering blues vocalist, guitarist, songwriter, and recording artist from the 1930s to the 1950s. She added a woman’s perspective to a music genre largely dominated by men and was also among the first blues musicians to experiment with the electrically amplified guitar. Known as “Kid” all her life to her family, she was given the moniker “Memphis Minnie” by the recording industry. Douglas honed her performing skills during the Jazz Age before coming into her own during the Great Depression. She continued to perform and record into the post-World War II era, but following her retirement in the mid-1950s, Douglas fell from widespread public notice, despite her more than 200 recordings. Her fall into obscurity ended when a roots music revival around the turn of the twenty-first century restored her as a much-admired icon of modern feminism and an inspiration to contemporary blues musicians.

Songs written by Douglas circulated widely in the mid-twentieth century, from “What’s the Matter with the Mill?”–an early hit for Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys–to “Bumble Bee,” which was remade as “I’m a King Bee” by Muddy Waters. Other songs surfaced in later decades, including Jefferson Airplane’s recording of “Me and My Chauffeur Blues” in the mid-1960s and Led Zeppelin’s revised version of “When the Levee Breaks,” recorded on the British rock band’s fourth album in 1971. With her late-century reinstatement in the pantheon of major blues figures, a new interest emerged in Douglas’s instrumental abilities, particularly the finesse and driving rhythms of her acoustic playing. These aspects of her artistry shine in a series of guitar duets with several male partners playing backup guitar. Douglas took an early interest in the electric guitar, which she adapted for popular Chicago blues ensembles. Arguably, she contributed to the developing sound of electric blues bands more than previously acknowledged and may have been the first blues musician to record with an electrically amplified guitar.

Early Life in New Orleans and Memphis

Lizzie Douglas was born on June 3, 1897, the eldest of thirteen children born to Abe and Gertrude Douglas, Baptist sharecroppers of African American heritage who had settled in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans. At the time Douglas was born, Algiers was a major industrial hub, with shipbuilding and repair yards, stockyards and slaughterhouses, and a sprawling rail yard that attracted hundreds of immigrant workers and their families, including those with German, Irish, Sicilian, and African American heritage.

To provide entertainment for these hard-working laborers and their families, Algiers boasted more than forty bars and dance halls. This vibrant environment produced a wealth of musical talent, including such well-known bandleaders and jazz musicians as Oscar “Papa” Celestine, “Kid” Thomas Valentine, and Henry “Red” Allen. Although the Douglas family relocated to Walls, Mississippi, roughly twenty miles southwest of Memphis, when Lizzie was seven, the musical ambience of her early childhood years made a strong impression on the headstrong, defiantly independent young girl. She asked for a guitar for her first Christmas away from New Orleans, and she often ran away from home, guitar in tow, to partake of the music scene around Beale Street in downtown Memphis. These frequent, short periods away took place even before Douglas reached adolescence. Before long, she left home for good, making a name for herself in the highly competitive music scene of Memphis while still a teenager.

Queen of Chicago Blues

Douglas began to travel with vaudeville and tent shows, including the Ringling Brothers Circus, where she learned showmanship. For several years, she partnered with the highly respected Delta-style guitarist Willie Brown, performing regularly for tourists on a scenic boat ride on a lake near Memphis. While Douglas worked on perfecting her own style, Brown complemented her by playing background rhythm and bass runs. Both experiences prepared Douglas for her life in music: although she collaborated with three different guitar-playing husbands, none outshone her own larger-than-life musical persona. By most accounts, Douglas’s stage presence stemmed from her admiration of vaudeville blues pioneer Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, particularly her self-confident spirit and stylishly exotic wardrobe.

After several years, Douglas moved back to the city to partner with Memphis Jug Band guitarist Casey Bill Weldon, who would become her first husband. She relentlessly promoted herself and her career, playing with jug bands, as a duo with her husband and others, and by herself in clubs and on street corners. She switched partners once again in 1929, marrying guitarist Joe McCoy, and soon after recorded for Columbia Records, which billed the duo as “Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe.” Their recordings sold well, which encouraged the couple to relocate to Chicago, then considered the blues capital. Her reputation preceded her, so that it was not long before the reigning “king” of Chicago blues, Lee Conley Bradley, better known as “Big Bill Broonzy,” challenged Douglas to a “cutting contest.” Legend tells that, while Douglas won the contest based on intensity of the audience applause, Broonzy nonetheless walked away with the bottle of whiskey, the contest’s formal award. More verifiable is the fact that Douglas established herself as the queen of Chicago blues, a status unchallenged through World War II, and that she and Broonzy remained close friends for the rest of their lives.

Memphis Minnie’s  Legacy

Throughout the 1930s, Douglas recorded frequently and performed to great acclaim on both the Chicago blues scene and tours throughout the Midwest. By 1935, she parted ways with her second guitarist-husband. She signed on as a client of producer, music publisher, and entertainment promoter Lester Melrose, an association that provided a modicum of professional stability and placed her among his nationally known stars. On the other hand, Melrose focused on producing records geared toward commercial success, with sometimes formulaic results. His management contrasted with Douglas’s virtuosity and restless spirit, as demonstrated in her late 1920s experiments with the steel-bodied resonator guitars produced by the National Guitar Company. After leaving “Kansas Joe,” Douglas began performing with a full backup band that included piano, bass, and drums.

During the late 1930s and early 1940s, Douglas experimented with electrically amplified guitar. Unfortunately, her recordings during this time reflect a more conservative style, with restrained studio musicians, standard vocals by Douglas, and conventional solo guitar runs. These records do not bear witness to the true depth of her musicianship. As music journalist JoBeth Briton wrote in tribute, “Memphis Minnie was a phenomenal musician who [eventually] moved beyond intricate blues fingerpicking and phrasing to play ferocious stand-up electric guitar live on stage in Chicago at least one year before Muddy Waters. … Unfortunately, no vinyl exists to verify what she surely was: the foremother of electric, blues-based rock guitar.”  Briton suggests that Melrose’s conservative approach left no room for her “hard-driving electric guitar.”

While the recorded output fails to give full testimony to Douglas’s musical prowess, written impressions offer a glimpse of Memphis Minnie in her prime. Harlem Renaissance writer and poet Langston Hughes published an account of her performance for a 1942 New Year’s Eve audience in The Chicago Defender newspaper:

The singing, the electric guitar, and the drums are so hard and so loud, amplified as they are by General Electric … that sometimes the voice, the words, and melody get lost under sheer noise, leaving only the rhythm to come through clear. … The rhythm is as old as Minnie’s most remote ancestor. … Then, through the smoke and racket of the noisy Chicago bar float Louisiana bayous, muddy old swamps, Mississippi dust and sun, cotton fields, lonesome roads, train whistles in the night, mosquitoes at dawn, and the Rural Free Delivery, that never brings the right letter. 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.

Prior to the recording ban imposed from 1942 to 1944, when musicians’ unions struggled to gain royalties from record sales, Douglas established herself as a major figure, with 158 recorded releases between 1920 and 1942, almost as many as Bessie Smith’s 160. Douglas continued to record well into the mid-1950s, accompanied now by her third husband, guitarist Ernest “Little Son Joe” Lawlers, whom she married in 1939; the couple remained together for more than twenty years. By the late 1950s, Douglas’s health began to fail and, after playing with Little Son Joe in a 1958 tribute concert for Big Bill Broonzy, she headed back to her family in Memphis. There she assumed the role of a senior blues mentor, playing occasionally on the radio and encouraging young blues artists, just as she had done most of her life. Despite more than two hundred recorded tracks and the distinction of towering success for over two decades in the male-dominated, hardscrabble world of blues, Douglas lived the last years of her life in poverty and anonymity.

A Critical Reevaluation and Historical Reassessment Begins

In 1960, at sixty-three years old, Douglas suffered a debilitating stroke that confined her to a wheelchair. Douglas was too poor to afford a nursing home and was cared for by a sister, and by the time she died on August 6, 1973, her family could not even afford a headstone for her grave. Nevertheless, Douglas had left a legacy in both her music and her independent spirit. Readers of the British publication Blues Unlimited voted Douglas “Best Female Vocalist,” just ahead of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, in 1973, perhaps in acknowledgment of her death. Douglas was among the Blues Foundation and Blues Hall of Fame’s first twenty inductees when it was established in Memphis in 1980. Douglas was the only woman in the group besides Bessie Smith.

In 1996 blues singer and songwriter Bonnie Raitt had a headstone installed at Douglas’s grave at the Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Walls, Mississippi. An inscription 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.”

In 2012 folk, blues, and jazz vocalist and record producer Maria Muldaur put together First Came Memphis Minnie, a collection of Memphis Minnie’s best-known songs performed by female blues artists such as Raitt, Ruthie Foster, Rory Block, Phoebe Snow, and Koko Taylor.