cream of the crate: album review # 163 – memphis minnie: queen of the blues
cream of the crate: album review # 163 – memphis minnie: queen of the blues
CD Cover – [CLICK to enlarge]

 

  This review was originally posted on the first Toorak Times web site where publications ceased on that site in March 2017. The old site will be permanently closed in 2020 and these reviews are being re-published in order to preserve them on the current Toorak Times/Tagg site.

 

 

"Memphis Minnie was one of the premier blues artists." - (msbluestrail) . . . "One of the most prolific blues singers in history." - (Woman With A Guitar - Memphis Minnie's Blues by Paul and Beth Garon) . . . "Minnie helped form the roots of electric Chicago blues, as well as R&B and rock 'n' roll" - (Memphis Music Hall of Fame, on Memphis Minnie)

This is album retro-review number 163 in the series of retro-reviews of both vinyl and Cd albums in my collection.

The series is called
“Cream of The Crate” and each review represents an album that I believe is of significant musical value, either because of it’s rarity, because it represents the best of a style or styles of music or because there is something unique about the group or the music.

Links to the previous 150 reviews can be found at the bottom of this review.

There is a proliferation of fantastic blues artists that are men, and although there may not be as many woman, proportionally female blues artists do not get the same recognition.

I dip deep into my crate and bring out a woman who has been dubbed – “Queen Of The Blues”

The artist is Memphis Minnie and the album is titled – Queen Of The Blues.

Released on CD in 1997 on the ‘Mojo Workin” label, it is in fact a subsidiary of Columbia which in turn is part of the Sony Empire. It has the identifying code of COL 487845 2.

cream of the crate: album review # 163 – memphis minnie: queen of the blues
CD Label – [CLICK to enlarge]
The CD has 22 tracks of which it is claimed 3 have never been previously released.

 

There is much to support the contention that Memphis Minnie is indeed, Queen of the Blues.

So let’s just drop back a few years and look at her history. Born Lizzie Douglas in Louisiana in 1897, Lizzie was brought up in Mississippi, and was just across the state line from Memphis.

Her parents gave her the nickname “kid”, which she readily accepted as she so disliked her given name of Lizzie. She received her first guitar for Christmas at the age of 8, and learned to play mandolin by the age of 10 and guitar by the age of 11, when she started playing local parties, using the name “Kid Davis“.

At the age of 13 she ran away from home and began playing at circuses and tent shows. It wasn’t until the age of 32 that she made her first record (1929) with her then husband Joe McCoy, under the name of Kansas Joe & Memphis Minnie.

cream of the crate: album review # 163 – memphis minnie: queen of the blues
Memphis Minnie with Kansas Joe – [CLICK to enlarge]
 

Musically there were three basic phases to her style: the duet years with Kansas Joe, the “Melrose” band sound of the late thirties and early forties, and her later electric playing.

She was always a finger picker, and played in Spanish (DGDGBD) and standard tunings, often using a capo.

For guitar players, the first part of her career is definitely the most inspiring, as her inventive variations make masterpieces of tunes like “When The Levee Breaks”(1930) or “Let’s Go To Town”(1931).

In terms of her influence on the development of blues, she was an important player in the Chicago clubs during the ’40s when musicians like Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rodgers and Johnny Shines, were on the rise with their careers.

cream of the crate: album review # 163 – memphis minnie: queen of the blues
[CLICK to enlarge]
cream of the crate: album review # 163 – memphis minnie: queen of the blues
[CLICK to enlarge]

Two pictures of a young Memphis Minnie

In 1939 she took up with Ernest Lawlers, who was known as Little Son Joe and they remained together as a couple until his death in 1961.

By 1939 Minnie had made a very successful transition from country to urban blues.

By 1941 Minnie had started playing electric guitar, and in May of that year she recorded her biggest hit, “Me And My Chauffeur Blues.”

A follow-up date produced two more blues standards, “Looking The World Over” and Joe’sBlack Rat Swing” (issued as by “Mr. Memphis Minnie”).

At the dawn of the 1940s Minnie and Joe continued to work at their “home club,” Chicago’s popular 708 club where they were often joined by Big Bill Broonzy, Sunnyland Slim, or Snooky Pryor.

She had a rich contralto voice and teamed with her striking looks and flamboyant character, it was no wonder she became a favorite of both those in her audiences, as well as those that bought her records.

She really was one of the rare women of her era to gain prominence as a guitarist. Not only that, Minnie had to overcame considerable odds to achieve success, battling both racism and sexism.

Apart from her amazing music, she had stunning looks – [CLICK to enlarge]

 

Eventually with public interest in her music declining, she retired from her musical career and in 1957 she and Lawlers returned to Memphis.

Periodically, she would appear on Memphis radio stations to encourage young blues musicians.

In 1958 she played at a memorial concert for Big Bill Broonzy. Her association with the greats also went to the fact that she often went head to head with the likes of Big Bill and Muddy Waters in “Cutting Contests”.

Now Cutting Contests originated among jazz players, particularly piano players, where to “cut” another piano player meant to replace him at his job by outperforming him.

A player began a tune; then others took turns “cutting in”, introducing increasingly more complex ideas, changing the key and/or tempo, and otherwise trying to outplay and out-style the previous musician.

Eventually it was picked up to a lesser extend by blues musicians and so it was, that when Minnie came across such a competition in the Chicago clubs, she would go out of her way to enter, and very quickly the derision didn’t last long.

She was rarely beaten!

It wasn’t only in music that Minnie would stand for no rubbish. Blues musician and singer Johnny Shines is reported as saying, “Any man fool with her, she’d go for them right away. She didn’t take no foolishness off them. Guitar, pocket-knife, pistil, anything she got her hand on she’d use.”

Minnie had a heart attack in 1957 which certainly weakened her, but she battled on. However, after Son Joe’s death in 1962 Minnie gave up and lived in a nursing home until she died of a stroke on August 6,1973, at the age of 76.

In the year Memphis Minnie died, those that knew her said that in many it was because of her weakened body and her spirit dying when Joe died.

She rarely played in the 1960’s and so missed out on the Sixties blues boom.

But her songs were not forgotten with Jefferson Airplane recording their interpretation of her track Me and My Chauffeur. Another good example of her tracks being covered, is Led Zepplin, who made her track When The Levee Breaks one of the cornerstones of their 4th album.

Track Listing

1. When The Levee Breaks
2. Where Is My Good Man
3. Joiliet Bound
4. Drunken Barrelhouse Blues
5. He’s In The Ring
6. Joe Louis Strut
7. New Orleans Stop Time
8. Blues Everywhere
9. Please Don’t Stop Me
10. Has Anyone Seen My Man
11. I’d Rather See Him Dead
12. Call The Fire Wagon
13. Bad Outside Friends
14. Lonesome Shack
15. Pig Meat On The Line
16. Looking The World Over
17. Little Son Joe: Black Rat Swing
18. Love Come And Go
19. Fashion Plate Daddy
20. Killer Driller Blues

Track 1When The Levee Breaks is a track with a strong historical tale.

In 1927 the area of Mississippi and surrounding areas were inundated by terrible floods that became known as The Great Mississippi Flood.

cream of the crate: album review # 163 – memphis minnie: queen of the blues

Those floods not only destroyed homes and lives but devastated the local economy which was mostly farmed based.

In fact these floods gave rise to an amazing mass migration that became known as the Great Migration, of mostly Black-Americans.

If it keeps on rainin’ levee’s goin’ to break
If it keeps on rainin’ levee’s goin’ to break
And the water gonnna come in and we’ll have no place to stay

Well all last night I sat on the levee and moan
Well all last night I sat on the levee and moan
Thinkin’ ’bout my baby and my happy home

If it keeps on rainin’ levee’s goin’ to break
If it keeps on rainin’ levee’s goin’ to break
And all these people will have no place to stay

Now look here mama what am I to do?
Now look here mama what am I, I to do?
I ain’t got nobody to tell my troubles to

I worked on the levee mama both night and day
I worked on the levee mama both night and day
I ain’t got nobody to keep the water away

Oh cryin’ won’t help you prayin’ won’t do no good
Oh cryin’ won’t help you prayin’ won’t do no good
Whenever the levee breaks mom you got to lose

I worked on the levee mama both night and day
I worked on the levee mama both night and day
I worked so hard to keep the water away

I had a woman, she wouldn’t do for me
I had a woman, she wouldn’t do for me
I’m going back to my used to be

Oh mean old levee taught me to weep and moan
Yeah the mean old levee taught me to weep and moan
Told me leave my baby and my happy home

The track features both Memphis Minnie and her then husband, Kansas Joe McCoy in what is some magnificent “delta-style” blues.

It is quite possibly the best example of their playing together on this album. The track was recorded on June 18th, 1929.

When The Levee Breaks

By 1935 Minnie had divorced Joe and found herself in Chicago and was experimenting with different styles and sounds. She also continued on documenting what she saw and what was important to the people of the time through her music.

cream of the crate: album review # 163 – memphis minnie: queen of the blues
[CLICK to enlarge]

 

It was the years of the Great Depression and one of the great heroes of the people was the boxer Joe Louis. Louis had also caught the admiration of Minnie so it’s not surprising that she recorded two songs associated with him, and both are on this CD.

The first is track 5He’s In The Ring, and the second is the following track, 6 – Joe Louis Strut, which is substantially an instrumental.

Neither track was attractive to the majority of the white community because Joe was black and he was powerful was able to beat the best white society put up against him. He became more than just a winning fighter, he became a symbol for early black power – but at the same time it caused quite a back-lash upon the black community.

Minnie reinforced his positive image to the black community with lines spelling it our clearly that the man had a mean left, and a mean right and it didn’t matter which one he hit you with, the result was a charge from the dynamite.

Hey, you people going out tonight.
Let’s go to see Joe Louis fight.
And if you ain’t got no money,
Buddy (?), go tomorrow night.
‘Cause he’s in the ring doing the same old thing.

Well, he even carries a mean left.
You know he do!
And he carries a mean right.
And if he hit you with either one,
Sends the charge from a dynamite.
He’s in the ring, boys, doing the same old thing.

I’m a-tell all of you prize fighters
Don’t play Joe for no fool.
After he hits you with that left duke,
Same as a kick from a Texas mule.
He’s in the ring, boys, doing the same old thing.

Joe Louis is a two-fist fighter.
And he stands six feet tall.
And the bigger they come,
He says, the harder they fall.
He’s in the ring, oh! Doing the same old thing.

I’d chance my money with ‘im!

For if I only had ten hundred dollars
And I laid up on my shelf.
I bet everybody passed my house
In one round Joe would knock ’em out.
He’s in the ring, mmmmmmmmmmm! Doing the same old thing.

I wouldn’t even pay my house rent.
I wouldn’t buy me nothing to eat.
Joe Louis says, “Take a chance with me,
I’m gonna put (unintelligible) on your feet.”
In the ring. He’s still fightin’! Doing the same old thing!

He’s In The Ring

There is so much good blues on this album it is astounding.

I jump through to track 17Little Son Joe: Black Rat Swing.

In 1938 Minnie returned to recording for the Vocalion label, this time accompanied by Charlie McCoy, Kansas Joe’s brother, on mandolin.

It was also at his time that she married guitarist and singer Ernest Lawlers (a.k.a. Little Son Joe) and began recording material with him in 1939, with Son’s playing adding a more rhythmic backing to Minnie’s guitar.

cream of the crate: album review # 163 – memphis minnie: queen of the blues
Little Son Joe

 

Minnie and Little Son Joe also began to release material on Okeh Records in the 1940s, and the couple continued to record together throughout the decade.

By 1941 Minnie had started playing electric guitar, and in May of that year she recorded her biggest hit, “Me And My Chauffeur Blues“, which sadly has been omitted from this album.

However a follow-up date produced two more blues standards, “Looking The World Over” and Joe’s “Black Rat Swing” – also issued as by “Mr. Memphis Minnie”.

Little Son Joe (& Memphis Minnie): Black Rat Swing

Track 18 is Looking The World Over and was recorded in December of 1941.

However very interestingly the track in fact was one that Minnie sang as early as 1935, when she went up against Big Bill Broonzy in a “cutting contest” and sang this track.

She won the competition and the prize.

So although the song was part of her repertoire in 1935, it took six years for her to record it.

Looking The World Over

The final track on this album is Killer Diller Blues and was written by her now husband, Ernest Lawlers.

Although Minnie continued to record through into the 1950’s this track which was recorded in 1946 very much reflects the two at their pinnacle together. It is a strange track and search as I may I could not find the story behind the lyrics, which are quite powerful, some would say bordering on “ugly” – for example.

Well, the ugliest li’l thing you ever see before…
He didn’t be a tramp, he’s a hobo.
He’s a ugly li’l somethin on the scout.
He’s a terrible li’l creature hush yo’ mouth.
He’s a awful li’l thing, he’s a killer diller from the south.

Well, he walked into the store where I was at,
And in his face looked like a cryin cat.
Cause he’s a ugly li’l sucker on the scout,
He’s a terrible li’l creature hush yo’ mouth,
He’s a awful li’l thing, he’s a killer diller from the south.

It’s fairly obvious that she is singing about a pretty unsavory character, a male and possibly a hardened killer. Then again it might just be an example of rhyming slang, and in fact Cab Calloway makes mention of killer-diller and used it to mean a great thrill.

Whatever, it is a great example of Minnie being thoroughly entertaining with both her lyric delivery and her playing.

Killer Diller Blues

Thank goodness for this world that the “blues” music in all forms and styles lives on.

It not only tells us of the lives of the singers, but what they witnessed and what affected them in their struggles, often against immense odds. It also provides us with inspiration to keep fighting against sometimes, insurmountable odds.

Oh, and it’s just damn fine music. It’s hard to argue that she wasn’t Queen Of The Blues.

cream of the crate: album review # 163 – memphis minnie: queen of the blues

 

There are so many great and fantastic blues singers, male and female and Memphis Minnie stands tall among the best.

Minnie’s voice is rarely heard, even today: it is the voice of an independent, childless woman, an artist who never puts up with abuse, and who managed to find pleasure while living through tough times.

After she passed on a headstone was placed as a tribute to her.

Her headstone is marked:

Lizzie “Kid” Douglas Lawlers
aka Memphis Minnie

The inscription on the back of her gravestone reads:

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.
 

cream of the crate: album review # 163 – memphis minnie: queen of the blues
Her Headstone – [CLICK to enlarge]
cream of the crate: album review # 163 – memphis minnie: queen of the blues
Her memorial – [CLICK to enlarge]

 

There are many Memphis Minnie CD’s, and to try to justify why one should be bought over another, is somewhat futile if not just plain silly.

But if you are interested in this particular one – Queen Of The Blues, it can be found on ebay for around Au$28.00 including postage.

Now there have subsequent to this CD being released a couple of other CD’s with the same name. Instead of warning you to be careful – it really doesn’t matter unless you want this particular one.

There are NO bad Memphis Minnie CD’s.


VIDEOS:

Very sadly, there appears to be no known clips of Memphis Minnie singing any tracks from this album, indeed there are NO live clips at all.

What I have provided is a video of the track Me and My Chauffeur Blues, which is the one track that was seriously missing from this CD.

 

Me And My Chauffeur Blues


Previous Cream of The Crate Albums:

 

To view/listen the first 50 vinyl album reviews just click the image below –

cream of the crate cd review #2 : robert johnson – the complete recordings

 

To view/listen the first 50 Cd album reviews just click the image below –

 

To view/listen album reviews 101 – 150 just click the image below –

 

Click to open the following reviews covering #’s 151 onward.

#151.  The Shaggs – Philosophy of the World

#152.  The Animals – The Animals

#153. Omah Khorshid & His Group  – Live In Australia 1981

#154. Alan Parsons Project – Tales of Mystery and Imagination: Edgar Allan Poe

#155. Billy Thorpe – Tangier

#156. Aretha Franklin – The Best Of

#157. Big Bill Broonzy – Big Bill’s Blues

#158. The Supremes – Where Did Our Love Go 

#159. The Band – Stage Fright

#160. Ray Brown and the Whispers – Hits and More 1965 – 1968

#161. Guitar Junior – The Crawl

#162. Jimi Hendrix – Radio One