Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Memphis Minnie, the Chicago Years


Release date Oct 15, 1930
After she moved to Chicago, Minnie became a major star in the stable of Lester Melrose, who produced most of the blues recordings made in the United States between 1934 and 1951, usually with the same core group of musicians. 

In addition to Minnie, the Melrose group included Big Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red, Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, Lonnie Johnson, Roosevelt Sykes, and many others. By 1939, Minnie had changed partners, professionally and romantically, teaming up with Ernest "Little Son Joe" Lawlars. They were together for the rest of her career. 

During the 1930s, Minnie's guitar style evolved. She developed, along with Tampa Red and Lonnie Johnson, a single-string picking style that characterized what came to be called the "urban blues." Their innovations inspired T-Bone Walker and B. B. King and can be heard today in the playing of virtually every guitarist born since 1950. 

Minnie was one of the first to play in this new style on an electric guitar. She had already helped change the fundamental sound of blues guitar once before, when she was among the first to use a National steel. Later, in the 1950s, she was one of the first blues guitarists to play standing up, a seemingly minor change in performing style but one that was universally adopted thereafter. 

Memphis Minnie enjoyed her greatest commercial success during the 1940s. She and Lawlars recorded a string of hits, including "Me and My Chauffeur Blues," her biggest. Like her earlier hit, "Bumble Bee Blues," it was sexual advertisement at its most explicit, as frankly erotic as any blues recorded by a male singer of the period. In no uncertain terms, Minnie told her listeners what she wanted and why: "Wants to see my chauffeur, wants to see my chauffeur, I wants him to drive me, I wants him to drive me downtown." (A little guitar riff.) "Says he drives so easy, I can't turn him down." 

Minnie still sang with a full country twang after more than twenty years off the farm, which added to her earthy appeal. 

Throughout the 1940s and well into the 1950s, Minnie and Lawlars were in demand at all the top Chicago clubs, including The Gate, a popular West Side tavern operated by Ruby Lee Gatewood. The Gate was the site of Memphis Minnie's famous weekly "Blue Monday" parties, but her main club base was the 708 on the South Side. 

In her mid-forties, Minnie Lawlars continued to enhance her lifelong reputation for hard living. Her fellow musicians, all men, remember her as drinking, cursing, gambling, fighting, chewing tobacco, and playing guitar "just like a man." Her fans, both male and female, regularly awarded her the prize in "cutting" contests against other guitarists. 

Minnie's career declined in the 1950s, and by the time Big Bill Broonzy died in 1958 the party was just about over for Minnie and Joe as well. Their lifestyle had taken its toll. Joe had a serious heart condition that prevented him from performing, so he and Minnie moved back to Memphis.  

For Minnie, the party lasted more than forty years. When she began to have circulatory problems of her own they moved in with her youngest sister. Joe died in 1961 and Minnie continued her slow decline for the next twelve years. She had no money and received no royalties for the many songs she wrote and recorded. Donations from fans paid for a few comforts near the end. She died in 1973. 

Memphis Minnie's career was full of singular accomplishments, the greatest of which was the sum of them all. She was literally the only woman of her time to accomplish what she did, and she overcame enormous obstacles to do it. Memphis Minnie's greatest legacy is that she did exactly as she pleased, got away with it, and created some great art along the way.

This is Part 4 of a 4-part series. Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here, Part 3 is here.


Brian (AKA The Dean) said...

Love the Memphis Minnie series, Chuck. She really was a major contributor to the Blues.

Chuck Cowdery said...

This series of posts about Memphis Minnie is from a book I wrote almost 30 years ago called *Blues Legends*. It is long out of print but usually can be found through used book services, on Amazon or elsewhere. It is a book of 20 blues biographies, with photographs by Raeburn Flerlage.