Memphis Minnie became known as ‘the queen of country blues’ for her amazing talent as a blues guitarist, singer & songwriter, who made waves amongst the mainly male-dominated blues scene of the 1930s.
Her real name was Lizzie Douglas, and she was born in 1897 in Mississippi, just south of Memphis. The oldest of 13 children, everyone in her large family called her ‘Kid’. She developed a love for music at a young age, taking up the banjo and receiving her first guitar at the age of 8 as a Christmas present.
Opportunities for a black girl growing up in the South were limited, with domestic service or farm work being the two most likely options. However, Lizzie ‘Kid’ Douglas saw another way. When she was only 13 years old she ran away from home to Memphis, where she made her way to Beale Street, known as the heart of Mephis music & an important place in the history of the blues.
Once there she performed as ‘Kid Douglas’, singing on street corners, in shops and at parties to scrape a living. For a while she dueted with ‘Father of the Blues’, Charlie Patton – who said that she was the ‘Guitar King’, so good was her playing. Then for four years she toured with a travelling circus, honing her performance skills even further.
By 1929 she was married for a second time to a fellow musician, Joe McCoy, and together they were making a living playing duets around the city. One day they were playing together outside a barber’s shop when someone from Columbia Records happened to pass by. He liked what he heard and invited Kid & Joe to New York to cut a record. Once their the record company decided to rename them Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe, and so her stage name was born.
The song they recorded in New York was called Bumble Bee Blues and went on to become one of Minnie’s most popular hits. From here things took off for Minnie & Joe, and they began recording music for a number of different record companies, including Vocalion and Decca.
Minnie & Joe moved to the heart of the growing blues scene in Chicago where her innovative style and sounds in combination with her honest lyrics and virtuoso guitar playing increasingly drew attention. There were a few other female blues musicians at the time, but none like Minnie who sung, played with such skill and wrote her own songs, carving out a spot for herself in what was a very male dominated field. The men she played with had respect for her skill and accepted her as one of their own. When one of the most well known guitarists on the Chigaco scene, Big Bill Broonzy, challenged Minnie to a competition she played him under the table, with a jury of other musicians judging her to be the better player.
Eventually Joe & Minnie split, but Minnie continues to play on her own, touring the South extensively. Soon she met and married Little Son Joe and began to duet with him, recording some of her most well known songs into the forties. By the end of her career she had recorded around 200 songs.
Later in life Minnie’s health declined and she moved back to Memphis with Little Son Joe. She continued to play until she couldn’t play any more, and would appear on the local radio to encouraging young blues musicians.
She was known throughout her career as a strong independent woman; her extraordinary talent meant that she wasn’t known as one the the best female blues musicians, but just one of the best blues musicians, full stop. She was an incredibly important figure in the blues scene and inspirred many of the greats who came after her. In 1980 she was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame, and covers of her songs have been played by Jefferson Airplane, Donocan & Led Zepplin to name a few.
Find out more…
You have to go and listen to some of Minnie’s recordings to fully appreciate her talent. You can listen to a selection online here.
Woman with Guitar: Memphis Minnie’s Blues is a book which gives a lot more detail about Minnie’s life & music.
The Memphis Music Hall of Fame features Minnie on it’s website, with clips of some recordings and more information about her life.
There are more clips of Memphis Minnie’s Music on YouTube: