Hailing from Algiers, Louisiana Memphis Minnie was a blues musician known for recording roughly 200 songs across almost 30 years. A tough musician not above fighting off stage, her life kept her involved in entertainment as singer, guitarist, and circus performer.
The Roaming Musician
She was born Lizzie Douglas on June 3, 1897. Minnie took to string instruments learning both the guitar and the banjo by 11-years old. Minnie’s family moved around regularly up into her 20s. After leaving Algiers, they settled in Walls, Mississippi in 1904 before moving to Brunswick, Tennessee.
A young Memphis Minnie ran away from home at 13 and arrived in Memphis. Since her parents nicknamed her “Kid” early on, she originally performed as “Kid Douglas” while playing on street corners. When she was low on money she would return home but eventually, she ended up as a regular performer with Ringling Brothers Circus between 1916 and 1920.
After her time with the circus was over, she continued her career on Beale Street just as the blues scene exploded. While she got regular work through her music, she bolsters her living expenses via prostitution.
Minnie was said to have been a tough person willing to fight anyone if things escalated that far. She was reported to have carried a gun or knife on her at any given time.
As A Recording Artist
It wouldn’t be until 1929 that Memphis Minnie recorded music. By 1929 Minnie was married to her second husband, guitarist Joe McCoy. At this time “race records” were popular among fans and labels were out scouting whatever talent could be scooped up that competitors didn’t have. This resulted in Minnie and McCoy ending up on Columbia Records.
The two headed to New York to record but the names “Kid Douglas” and “Joe McCoy” didn’t really pack the most star power or “pop” as blues musicians. Columbia’s A&R renamed them “Memphis Minnie” and “Kansas Joe.” Between 1929 and 1934, the duo recorded for Columbia and Vocalion before the tandem broke up while recording for Decca Records.
In 1935, Minnie divorced Kansas Joe and went back to playing the clubs. A big name in Memphis, she had also become a name in the Chicago blues scene. She recorded with a number of musicians in the Chicago scene with Bluebird Records in the summer and the fall of 1935.
In part two we’ll go into the second half of Memphis Minnie’s career as she takes on new music partners and adapts to a big change in blues: the electric guitar.
-Me and My Chauffeur Blues: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KiRoNuw5x4M
-Bumble Bee: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RKBzv5lWLQs
-When The Levee Breaks (w/ Kansas Joe): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=swhEa8vuP6U