August 6, 1973 – Memphis Minnie was born Lizzie Douglas on June 3, 1897 in Algiers, Louisiana, just outside New Orleans.
She was the eldest of 13 siblings. Her parents, Abe and Gertrude Douglas, nicknamed her Kid when she was young, and her family called her that throughout her childhood. It is reported that she disliked the name Lizzie. When she first began performing, she played under the name Kid Douglas.
When she was 7, she and her family moved to Walls, Mississippi, south of Memphis. The following year she received her first guitar, as a Christmas present. She learned to play the banjo by the age of 10 and the guitar by the age of 11, when she started playing at parties.
In 1910, at the age of 13, she ran away from home to live on Beale Street, in Memphis. She played on street corners for most of her teenage years, occasionally returning to her family’s farm when she ran out of money. Her sidewalk performances led to a tour of the South with the Ringling Brothers Circus from 1916 to 1920. She then went back to Beale Street, with its thriving blues scene, and made her living by playing guitar and singing, supplementing her income by prostitution (at that time, it was not uncommon for female performers to work as prostitutes out of financial need).
Minnie became one of the most influential and pioneering female blues musicians and guitarists of all time. She recorded for forty years, almost unheard of for any woman in show business at the time and unique among female blues artists. A flamboyant character who wore bracelets made of silver dollars, she was a very popular blues recording artist from the early Depression years through World War II. One of the first generation of blues artists to take up the electric guitar, in 1942, she combined her Louisiana-country roots with Memphis blues to produce her own unique country-blues sound; along with Big Bill Broonzy and Tampa Red, she took country blues into electric urban blues, paving the way for Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Little Walter, and Jimmy Rogers to travel from the small towns of the south to the big cities of the north.
Tracking down the ultimate woman blues guitar hero is problematic because woman blues singers seldom recorded as guitar players and woman guitar players (such as Rosetta Tharpe and Sister O.M. Terrell) were seldom recorded playing blues. Excluding contemporary artists, the most notable exception to this pattern was Memphis Minnie. The most popular and prolific blueswoman outside the vaudeville tradition, she earned the respect of critics, the support of record-buying fans, and the unqualified praise of the blues artists she worked with throughout her long career. Despite her Southern roots and popularity, she was as much a Chicago blues artist as anyone in her day.
Big Bill Broonzy recalls her beating both him and Tampa Red in a guitar contest and claims she was the best woman guitarist he had ever heard. Tough enough to endure in a hard business, she earned the respect of her peers with her solid musicianship and recorded good blues over four decades for Columbia, Vocalion, Bluebird, OKeh, Regal, Checker, and JOB.
She also proved to have as good taste in musical husbands as music and sustained working marriages with guitarists Casey Bill Weldon, Joe McCoy, and Ernest Lawlars. Their guitar duets span the spectrum of African-American folk and popular music, including spirituals, comic dialogs, and old-time dance pieces, but Memphis Minnie’s best work consisted of deep blues like “Moaning the Blues.”
Far more than a good woman blues guitarist and singer, Memphis Minnie holds her own against the best blues artists of her time, and her work has special resonance for later aspiring guitarists. Some of her many songs include “When the Levee Breaks” (later covered by Led Zeppelin and Joe Bonamassa), “Bumble Bee Blues”, “Hoodoo Lady”, “I’m Gonna Bake My Biscuit” and “I Want Something For You”, “Me and My Chauffeur Blues” (later covered by Jefferson Airplane), “Tricks Ain’t Walkin” (covered by Maria Muldaur) etc.
Minnie sadly died from a stroke in a Memphis nursing home on August 6, 1973. She was 76. A headstone memorial bearing engraved roses and a ceramic cameo portrait was paid for by Bonnie Raitt and unveiled in October 1996.
“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.”