Memphis Minnie was a Blues guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter from the early 1930s to the 1950s. She was born in Algiers, Louisiana in 1897 as Lizzie Douglas. She had many songs, some of the most famous being "Bumble Bee", "Hoodoo Lady", and "I Want Something For You". Her performances and songwriting made her well known in a genre dominated mostly by men. She died on August 6, 1973 and is buried in Memphis, Tennessee.
Read more about Memphis Minnie, free from the Memphis Music Hall of Fame. Lizzie Douglas (a.k.a. Memphis Minnie) was born on June 3, 1897 in Algiers, Louisiana. She was the eldest from her 13 other siblings. Her parents Abe and Gertrude Douglas nicknamed her the Kid during her early childhood. At the age of 7 she and her family moved to Walls, Mississippi, which was just south of Memphis. The following year after she moved, she received her first guitar for Christmas. She began to practice and learn how to play both the banjo and the guitar and it was seen that she had a great talent as a musician. When she first began performing she did not use her first name Lizzie, but played under the name Kid Douglas.
When she was 13 years old she ran away from her home to live on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee. She would play on street corners for most of her teenage years and would eventually go home when she ran out of money. She began to get noticed singing and playing guitar on the street corners. This brought an opportunity for her to tour, travel, and play with the Ringling Brothers Circus.
Eventually she came back to Beale Street and got consumed in the blues scene. At the time, women, whiskey, and cocaine were high in demand with the people and places she would be around. She made her money by playing guitar, singing, and prostitution, which was not uncommon at the time. Most of the female performers were prostitutes because of financial desperation. It was said “She received $12 for her services-an outrageous fee for the time.” (Memphis Minnie Biography,1).
She was known as a woman that was very strong and that could take care of herself.
She had been married three times in her life; first with Will Weldon sometime in the 1920s, then Joe McCoy (1929–1934), and finally to Earnest Lawlars (a.k.a. Little Son Joe), in 1939. She and McCoy would perform together during their marriage. During this time, a talent scout from Columbia Records discovered her. When she and McCoy went to record in New York, she decided to change her name to Memphis Minnie. During the next few years she and McCoy released many singles and duets.
She released the song “Bumble Bee” in 1930, which ended up being one of her favorite songs, and led her to a recording contract with the label Vocalion. Under this label, they continued to produce recording for two years, one of them being “I’m Talking About You”, which was one of her more popular songs. They soon decided to leave Vocalion and move to Chicago. She and McCoy introduced country blues to the urban environment and became very well known.
Memphis Minnie continued to have success throughout the years recording under many different labels like Decca Records and Chess Records. Some believe her fame was the reason for her divorce with McCoy due to jealousy and resentment towards her. She remarried after to Earnest Lawlars (a.k.a. Little Son Joe) and began recording material with him. She became very well known in the blues industry and ended up being one of the most famous blues performers of all time, competing with both men and women.
She continued to record throughout the 50’s, but her health began to become a problem for her. She retired from her musical career and ended up going back to Memphis. “Periodically, she would appear on Memphis radio stations to encourage young blues musicians. As the Garons wrote in Women With Guitar, 'She never laid her guitar down, until she could literally no longer pick it up.'” She suffered a stroke in 1960, which caused her to be bound by wheelchair. The following year her husband, Earnest “Little Son Joe” Lawlars died. She had another stroke a short while after and eventually ended up in the Jell Nursing Home.
She could no longer survive on her social security income so magazines wrote about her and readers sent her money for assistance. On August 6, 1973 she died of a stroke. She was buried in an unmarked grave at the New Hope Cemetery in Memphis. A headstone paid for by Bonnie Raitt was erected by the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund on 13 October 1996 with 35 family members in attendance including her sister, numerous nieces (including Laverne Baker) and nephews. After her death some of her old work began to surface and some of her songs were featured on blues compilations. She was one of the first 20 blues artists that were inducted in the Blues Hall of Fame.
A famous anecdote from this period recounts a guitar contest between Minnie and Big Bill Broonzy. In 1933, when Big Bill Broonzy was very popular in Chicago, a blues contest between him and Memphis Minnie took place in a nightclub. As Broonzy tells the story in his autobiography Big Bill Blues, a jury of fellow musicians awarded Minnie the prize of a bottle of whiskey and a bottle of gin for her performance of "Chauffeur Blues" and "Looking the World Over".
Before renewing her contract with Vocalion in 1934 she recorded twenty sides for Decca and eight for Bluebird, her last session for Bluebird accompanied by Casey Bill Weldon. Minnie and Joe recorded recorded for the last time together in September 1934. According to several reports, McCoy’s increasing jealousy of Minnie’s fame and success caused the breakup. Minnie toured a great deal in the '30s, mostly in the south. It was during this period that Bob Wills and some of his Texas Playboys saw her playing in Texas; they would later make her "What's The Matter With The Mill?" a part of their repertoires.
By 1935 Minnie had settled in under the supervision of Lester Melrose and was able to easily handle the transition from rural-downhome blues to a more sophisticated sound. Back on her own, Minnie began to experiment with different styles and sounds. She recorded four sides for the Bluebird label in 1935 in August of that year, she returned to the Vocation label. Minnie had teamed up with manager Lester Melrose, the single most powerful and influential executive in the blues industry during the 1930s and 1940s. By the end of the 1930s, Minnie had recorded nearly 20 sides for Decca Records and eight sides for the Bluebird Records.
In 1939, Minnie returned to the Vocation label. Her recordings with Son Joe are in duet style, with piano, bass or drums added on some sessions. Minnie and Little Son Joe also began to release material on Okeh Records in the 1940s. The couple continued to record together throughout the decade. In May 1941 Minnie recorded her biggest hit, "Me And My Chauffeur Blues." A follow-up date yielded two more blues standards, "Looking The World Over" and Son's "Black 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, Sunnyland Slim, or Snooky Pryor. They also played at dozens of the other better known Chicago nightclubs.
The forties treated Minnie and Son Joe well and they performed both together and separately depending on finances, (they could make more money playing separate gigs). Minnie, presided over Blue Monday parties at Ruby Lee Gatewood's Tavern playing an electrified National arch top in front of a band that included bass and drums. The poet Langston Hughes saw her perform New Year's Eve 1942, at the 230 Club, and was thoroughly overwhelmed by her "scientific" (i.e. loud) sound. He described the sound of her electric guitar as "a musical version of electric welders plus a rolling mill". Clearly she had by that time embraced the next phase of the blues.
Later in the 1940s Minnie lived in Indianapolis, Indiana and Detroit, Michigan, returning to Chicago in the early 1950s. From the 1950s on, however, public interest in her music declined, and in 1957 she and Lawlers returned to Memphis. Lawlers died in 1961.
Her family called her "Kid" throughout her childhood because she never liked the name "Lizzie." Her younger sister Daisy is the only surviving sibling of the Douglas family. Daisy and Kid atttended elementary school together in Brunswick, Tennessee at a school called Morning Grove School. At the age of seven, her family moved to Walls Mississippi, a town not too far from Memphis, Tennessee. In 1910, at the age of 13, she ran away from home to live on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee although she would periodically return to her family's farm whenever she ran out of money. The majority of the time, she played her guitar and sang on the street corners.
Her sidewalk performances eventually led to a four-year tour of the South with the Ringling Brothers Circus from 1916 to 1920. She was known for being an independent woman who knew how to take care of herself and when a man ever tried to pester her or do her wrong she would go after them with a pocket knife, her guitar, or anything she can get her hands on.
She chewed tobacco all the time including whenever she sang or played her guitar. She always had a mug at hand in case she ever wanted to spit. Most of the music she made was autobiographical;
Minnie expressed a lot of her personal life in through her music. In the 1930s when she would finish traveling and performing in several different states, Minnie would go back to her friends' homes with nowhere else to go. Minnie's mother died in 1922 when Minnie was 25 years old. Her father decided to move back to Walls Mississippi where he died thirteen years later in 1935.
Minnie was married three times. Although there is no evidence of their marriage certificate, her first husband was Will Weldon who she married in the early 1920s. Her second husband was guitarist and mandolin player Joe McCoy (aka Kansas Joe McCoy) whom she married in 1929. That same year, she and Kansas Joe McCoy began to perform together. They were discovered by a talent scout of Columbia Records in front of a barber shop where they were playing for dimes. Together, they went to New York to record their music and this is when she decided to change her name to Memphis Minnie. They filed for divorce in 1934 because McCoy became increasingly jealous of Minnie's rise to fame and success.
In 1939, she met guitarist Earnest Lawlers (aka Little Son Joe). He became her new musical partner and they married shortly thereafter. Son Joe attributed songs to her including "Key to The World" in which he addresses her as "the woman I got now" and calls her "the key to the world." By the late 1940s, clubs began hiring younger and cheaper artists to play shows at their venues so Columbia began dropping Blues artists including Memphis Minnie.
Minnie was not religious and seldom went to church, in fact the only time she would ever go to church was to see Gospel groups perform (Garon 36). She had a stroke in 1960 which made her bound to a wheelchair for the rest of her life which ended on August 6 of 1973. The home she once lived in still exists today at 1355 Adelaide Street in Memphis, Tennessee.
After her health began to fail in the mid-1950s, Minnie returned to Memphis and retired from performing and recording. She spent her twilight years in a nursing home in Memphis where she died of a stroke in 1973. She is buried at the New Hope Baptist Church Cemetery in Walls, DeSoto County, Mississippi. A headstone paid for by Bonnie Raitt was erected by the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund on 13 October 1996 with 35 family members in attendance including her sister, numerous nieces (including Laverne Baker) and nephews. The ceremony was taped for broadcast by the BBC.
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."