Innocent Words Blues Series: Remembering Memphis Minnie: June 3, 1897 – August 6, 1973

Memphis-MinnieThe name Memphis Minnie sounds like a character from a Walt Disney cartoon, but truth be told it’s the stage name for one of the greatest blues singers and musicians to ever perform.

Being a black musician in the early 1900’s was tough enough, but to be a black female musician during those times, well, that was unheard of. But from the 1920s to the 1950s Memphis Minnie threw caution to the wind, stood her ground and became one of the most popular performers of her time. She was a gifted singer/songwriter and guitarist who had a back catalog of more than 200 songs recorded including a string of hits—”Bumble Bee,” “Nothing in Rambling,” and “Me and My Chauffeur Blues,” which were recorded by Jefferson Airplane for their debut album. Led Zeppelin also covered the Memphis Minnie song “When the Levee Breaks,” (although they altered the lyrics and melody) and Mazzy Star covered Minnie’s song “I’m Sailin.'”

Memphis Minnie wasn’t the first of her nicknames in her life time. Despite being the eldest of 13 siblings her parents called her “Kid.” Her legal name was Lizzie Douglas and she was born on June 3, 1897 in Algiers, Louisiana. Her parents moved the family often, from Louisiana to Walls, Mississippi when Kid was seven, and again to Brunswick, Tennessee. But when Kid’s mother (Gertrude) passed away, her father (Abe) moved the family back to Walls.

In between the moving, Kid received her first instrument for a Christmas present. By the time she was 10 she learned how to play the banjo and a year later, took on the guitar and was playing parties under the name Kid Douglas.

When Kid turned 13 she ran away from home and headed north up to Memphis. Kid played on street corners all over town to earn a living, but then times were bleak she returned home to the family farm. From 1916 to 1920 Kid found steady work touring the South with the Ringling Brothers Circus. When the tour was over Kid landed back on Beale Street in Memphis playing street corners for change and eventually turned to prostitution to survive. This was commonplace for female musicians at the time.

Things changed in 1929 when Kid was performing in front of a barber shop along with her second husband Kansas Joe McCoy. They were discovered by a talent scout from Columbia Records. The label flew Kid and Joe out to New York to record some demos and Kid was given the name Memphis Minnie. A year later Columbia released the single “Bumble Bee” and it was the big break the label was looking for with their new duet act Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe. Minnie and Kansas Joe stayed with Columbia until August of 1934 and then moved to Decca Records in September of the same year. A few months after changing record labels, Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe divorced and their duet was no more.

Now single and settled in Chicago, the polished professional recorded regularly for record producer and talent scout Lester Melrose experimenting with her sounds beyond the duets she was known for. If Minnie wasn’t recording for the labels Bluebird, Vocalion, or Decca, she was playing shows in the south. The road and the studio were her home.

The independent woman explored a new sound when she married guitarist and singer Ernest Lawlars (a.k.a. Little Son Joe). His guitar style was more rhythmic, fitting perfectly to Minnie’s single, guitar playing. Throughout their relationship in the 1940s the couple recorded for the legendary Okeh Records and played gigs all over Chicago with the popular 708 Club being their home away from home.

When the 1950s rolled around and the aging singer was not the hot commodity she once was, Memphis Minnie had a hard time getting gigs as the clubs wanted the younger, hottest thing in town. Even Columbia Records dropped Minnie from their roster. Minnie saw the writing on the wall and with her health declining, the once in demand artist retired from music and moved back to Memphis.

Minnie continued to play the guitar and encourage up and coming singers but when she suffered a stroke in 1960 she was no longer able to play, as she was bound to a wheelchair for the remainder of her life. A year after her stroke her husband, Earnest “Little Son Joe” Lawlars passed away and Minnie suffered another stroke. She was unable to care for herself on her social security income. The legendary musician spent the final years of her life in the Jell Nursing Home in Memphis where she died of yet another stroke in 1973. She was 76. Memphis Minnie is buried at the New Hope Baptist Church Cemetery in Walls, her headstone was paid for by Bonnie Raitt.

Rest In Peace Kid.

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