Maria Muldaur remembers precisely the moment that New Orleans native Lizzie “Kid” Douglas — better known by her stage name, Memphis Minnie — became a guiding light for both her personal and professional life. As she recalls in the liner notes to her latest release, …First Came Memphis Minnie, a star-studded affair with guest appearances by Bonnie Raitt, Ruthie Foster, Rory Block, Alvin “Youngblood” Hart and, posthumously, Phoebe Snow and Koko Taylor:
Way back in the day, in 1963, I had the amazing good fortune and privilege of meeting one of the original “classic’”blues queens, Victoria Spivey, when she was in her late seventies, living in New York City and running her own record label, Spivey Records. Taking me under her wing, she endeavored to mentor me and “teach me the ropes.”She took me to her apartment and played old 78s, looking for songs that would be suitable for my young voice.
Of all the amazing tunes she played for me, the one that made the deepest impression on me was an old scratchy 78 of a haunting, soulful tune called “Tricks Ain’t Walkin’” by Memphis Minnie. From that moment to this, Memphis Minnie and the example she set has remained a profound influence on my life and my music.
And no wonder. In her prime, Memphis Minnie, blues singer, songwriter, entrepreneur and guitar player par excellence, was a colorful, larger-than-life figure — and purposefully so. Modeling herself after “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey, Douglas traveled to shows in luxury cars; wore bracelets made of silver dollars and a ring that featured a pair of rolling dice; sang and played guitar standing up when the convention was to play seated; formed her own touring vaudeville company; and was the first blues musician to record with an electric guitar. In a career spanning two-and-a-half decades, she released more than 200 songs, many of which she wrote and several of which endure today as classics, including “In My Girlish Days,” “What’s the Matter with the Mill?,” “Me and My Chauffeur Blues” and “When the Levee Breaks.”
The Seattle-based guitarist Del Ray, also a great admirer and a key conspirator in the tribute CD project, once wrote of her, “She shaped a life very different from the limited possibilities offered to the women of her time. She lived a long life, was at her best in middle age, and would spit tobacco wearing a chiffon gown.”
Her contemporaries generally agree that her live performances rivaled in sheer force and energy those of any blues musician. The great Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes wrote of a New Year’s Eve performance in 1942, during the early days of electrical amplification:
The electric guitar is very loud, science having magnified all its softness away. Memphis Minnie sings through a microphone and her voice — hard and strong anyhow for a little woman’s — is made harder and stronger by [this] scientific sound. The singing, the electric guitar, and the drums are so hard and loud… that sometimes the voice, the words and the melody get lost under sheer noise, leaving only the rhythm to come through clear.
From the beginning of the Great Depression through the end of World War II, through an endless stream of innovative recordings and consistently compelling live performances, she dominated the primarily male realm of the Chicago blues scene.
MULDAUR ON MINNIE
Muldaur and her penchant for paying tribute to the female progenitors of the 20th century blues tradition and, by extension, today’s blues scene, are by now well known. In 2003, she produced a half-dozen tracks that became the seed for Shout, Sister, Shout! A Tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a must-have disc featuring guest appearances from Joan Osborne, Michelle Shocked, Bonnie Raitt, Marcia Ball, Angela Strehli, Sweet Honey in the Rock and others. The album also became the basis for a Muldaur-produced live show at Jazz Fest in 2004 that many considered that year’s most memorable performance.
During the previous decade on the Stony Plain label, Muldaur also produced three highly lauded tributes to the rich and varied musical inheritance of an entire generation of classic blueswomen: ’01’s Richland Woman Blues, ’05’s Sweet Lovin’ Ol’ Soul and ’07’s Naughty, Bawdy and Blue.
But …First Came Memphis Minnie is easily her best tribute work to date, a perfectly paced collection of intimate, mostly acoustic performances that brings to life the respect with which New Orleans’ own Lizzie “Kid” Douglas is viewed by contemporary blueswomen.