By Doug Levine
It’s true you learn something new every day. Take the great country blues guitarist, singer and songwriter Memphis Minnie (1897-1973). I never knew that Minnie was actually born and raised in Algiers, Louisiana, not in Memphis, Tennessee. And, it was news to me that her real name wasn’t Minnie, but Lizzie Douglas. Check out this clip of Minnie singing “Please Set A Date” and then I’ll fill you in on a new tribute album to this blues pioneer.
Ok, I promised a word or two on the tribute album, but first here’s the skinny on Minnie. When she was 7 years old, Lizzie (Minnie) and her family moved from Algiers, Louisiana to Walls, Mississippi. But, in 1910, when she was 13, Lizzie ran away from the family farm in Walls for the bright lights of Memphis. There, she first made a name for herself as “Kid” Douglas, honing her vocal and guitar skills on and around Beale Street. She also toured the South in tent shows with the Ringling Brothers Circus. Changing her name to Memphis Minnie, she moved north to Chicago where she helped pioneer the city’s famous electric blues scene. Minnie wrote and recorded more than 200 songs before retiring from music in the 1950s.
Jump to October 2012 and the release of “…First Came Memphis Minnie,” a new tribute album produced and compiled by singer Maria Muldaur. Muldaur is best known for her ‘70’s hit “Midnight At The Oasis,” but over the years, she’s kept her blues roots intact. She describes Minnie as “tough, independent and outspoken,” pointing out that she was “one of the few figures to make the successful transition from the rural acoustic guitar-dominated blues of the 1920s to the urban nightclub styles of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s.”
The album features recordings of vintage Memphis Minnie tunes sung by Muldaur, Ruthie Foster, Del Rey and Bonnie Raitt, as well as the late Koko Taylor and Phoebe Snow. One of my favorites from the collection is Muldaur’s spicy rendition of “Me And My Chauffeur Blues,” composed by Minnie’s husband and collaborator Ernest Lawlers.
Memphis Minnie was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 1980, seven years after her death at age 76. By the way, she is buried back in Walls, Mississippi and her grave marker was paid for by one of the singers on the new tribute album, Bonnie Raitt. In part, the marker reads, “Listening to Minnie’s songs we hear her fantasies, her dreams, her desires, but we will hear them as if they were our own.”