Born Lizzie Douglas on June 3, 1897, in Algiers, Louisiana; died on August 6, 1973, in Memphis; married Casey Bill Weldon (divorced); Kansas Joe McCoy (divorced) and finally; Little Son Joe. Used the name ‘Minnie’ after several other names came and went.
Minnie was a talented Blues singer, guitarist and composer with one of those classic reedy slightly penetrating vocal tones, full of a kind of piercing sincerity. She used a syncopated guitar style picking with the fingers covering bass with the thumb, similar in approach to Blind Lemon Jefferson (who was around the same age).
Minnie recorded on several labels including Decca, Vocalian, Columbia, Bluebird, Okeh (along with everybody else in the Blues brigade), Regal, Checker, and JOB.
She is credited as being one of the first blues artists – male or female – to use an electric guitar.
Like me, but alas to date rather more successfully, began playing at a young age.
Born Lizzie Douglas on June 3, 1897, in Algiers, Louisiana, across the Mississippi from the old slave docks in New Orleans. Minnie was the first of thirteen children born to Abe and Gertrude Douglas, who were Baptist sharecroppers. Minnie’s parents gave her a guitar for her birthday. She quickly learned how to play her guitar and began entertaining at parties in her neighbourhood, picking up the nickname “Kid Douglas.” When she got a little older, “Kid” often snuck into town, where she sang and played in parks and on the street corners around town for tips, (as I did, in addition to the earnings potential, great practice).
In the mid-1910s, Minnie joined the Ringling Brothers Circus and travelled throughout the South, entertaining crowds with her music. Minnie eventually returned to Memphis and gained a reputation for partying and gambling, sometimes subsidising her obviously minimal income from music with earnings from the oldest profession. Minnie was a tough lady, and despite her good looks was known for her immediate and violent response if anyone sought to take advantage.
Minnie created a hard-driving electric sound a full year before Muddy Waters got around to it and she was known to perform ‘dynamite’ gigs.
For several years, Minnie was a member of the Memphis Jug Band and recorded with several artists. In 1929 Minnie was discovered by a talent scout from Columbia Records and recorded her first song, “Bumble Bee,” under the name of Memphis Minnie, along with her second husband, the guitarist Kansas Joe McCoy. The recording brought the pair enough recognition to move on to Chicago, the hub of the blues scene, where Minnie would live for the next twenty-five years.
In addition to watering down her music, the record labels prevented Minnie from reaping the economic benefits of her success. One of her protégés, Brewer Phillips, related that Minnie claimed to have been “messed around in the music” and gave him the advice, “You can learn to play, but don’t let them take your money,” (which apparently she felt ‘they’ had). In 1958 Minnie and third husband Little Son Joe returned to Memphis, and lived in poverty.
Following a couple of debilitating strokes Minnie was confined to a wheelchair towards the end of her life.
Memphis Minnie died August 6, 1973, in Memphis.