Memphis Minnie (born Lizzie Douglas) was a guitar player, vocalist and songwriter for over three decades. The ‘Queen of the Country Blues’ recorded around 200 songs, which have secured her legacy. She was tough, independent, gutsy and fearless. She was also a top guitar player who did everything the men could, including chewing tobacco and whistling, but she added a dress, a fancy hairdo, jewelry and makeup to the mix. Minnie was no shrinking violet; supposedly she even beat Big Bill Broonzy in a blues guitar picking contest.
Born in 1897, Minnie ran away from home in Walls, Mississippi at 13 years old, taking her guitar with her. She made her name on Beale Street, Memphis, playing blues in the clubs and on street corners. In 1929, she and her then-husband, Joe McCoy, were invited to New York to record for Columbia Records. She re-recorded Bumble Bee Blues, a song from those sessions, several times more during her career.
After divorcing McCoy, who was apparently jealous of her success, she toured the South and continued recording for the next decade. By the 1940s she had added electric blues guitar to her repertoire and was singing songs which influenced r’n’b, rockabilly, rock’n’roll and the famous Stax Records sound.
Minnie often wrote autobiographically. Songs like In My Girlish Days, Nothing in Rambling, Me and My Chauffeur Blues, Garage Fire Blues and The Joe Louis Strut told of her upbringing, local events and Black heroes.
Memphis Minnie regularly played live until the 1950s, before returning to Memphis with her final husband Ernest Lawlars (Little Son Joe). In 1960 she suffered the first of a series of strokes, which left her using a wheelchair. After Lawlars died in 1961, she had another stroke, and became unable to survive on her Social Security income. Several magazines picked up on her plight and readers sent money to cover her expenses. She died of a third stroke in 1973 and is buried in Walls, Mississippi. Her headstone was paid for by Bonnie Raitt. Minnie also had a marker placed on the Mississippi Blues Trail in Walls in 2007.
Minnie’s style influenced singers such as Big Mama Thornton, Jo Ann Kelly, Lavern Baker, Maria Muldaur and Rory Block. Several other artists have covered her songs and she was posthumously inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 1980.
Memphis Minnie is supposed to have married three times, although no marriage certificates have ever been found. She was a remarkable woman, a lifelong trailblazer and later, an icon to many women who admired her no-nonsense attitude. Today her music is rightly regarded as groundbreaking, given that she made her name in a world which was totally male-dominated. Her rough, tough country blues style served as a metaphor for her life.