Memphis Minnie

Memphis Minnie - Walls

Memphis Minnie (Lizzie Douglas, 1897-1973) was one of the premier blues artists of the 1930s and ‘40s. Her singing and songwriting, spirited demeanor, and superlative guitar playing propelled her to the upper echelons of a field then dominated by male guitarists and pianists. In the early 1900s, Minnie lived in Tunica and DeSoto counties, where she began performing with guitarist Willie Brown and others. She is buried here in the New Hope M.B. Church Cemetery.

Memphis Minnie spent most of her childhood in Mississippi, where she was known as “Kid” Douglas. U.S. Census listings of 1900 and 1910 place her in Tunica County, but she gave her birthplace as Algiers, Louisiana (June 3, 1897). When she was a teenager, her family moved to Walls, but Minnie soon struck out on her own, inspired to make a living with her voice and guitar. She reportedly joined the Ringling Brothers circus as a traveling musician, and performed locally at house parties and dances with Willie Brown, Willie Moore, and other bluesmen around Lake Cormorant and Walls.

The lure of Beale Street drew her to Memphis, where she worked the streets, cafes, clubs, and parties. She began performing with Joe McCoy, whom she married in 1929. After a talent scout heard the duo performing for tips in a barbershop, they made their first recordings that year, billed as “Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie.” “Bumble Bee” was their big hit, and has been recorded by many other blues singers, although in later years their most recognized song would become “When the Levee Breaks.” The couple soon relocated to Chicago and continued to perform and record together before Minnie took on a new guitar-playing husband, Ernest Lawlars (or Lawlers), a.k.a. “Little Son Joe.” Minnie recorded prolifically throughout the 1930s and ‘40s, scoring hits such as “Me and My Chauffeur Blues,” “Please Set a Date,” “In My Girlish Days,” and “Nothing in Rambling.” Her showmanship and instrumental prowess enabled her to defeat the top bluesmen of Chicago, including Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy, in blues contests. Minnie gained a reputation as a down-home diva who could handle herself, and her men, both on and off the stage. In 1958 Minnie returned to Memphis, where she died in a nursing home on August 6, 1973.

One of the rare women of her era to gain prominence as a guitarist, Minnie overcame considerable odds to achieve success, battling both racism and sexism. She has been heralded as a champion of feminist independence and empowerment. She was elected to the Blues Hall of Fame in its first year of balloting (1980). The Mt. Zion Memorial Fund erected a headstone for her here in 1996. Her songs have been recorded by women such as Big Mama Thornton, Lucinda Williams, and Maria Muldaur, as well as by men, including Muddy Waters, Elmore James, and Western swing pioneer Milton Brown.

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