Memphis Minnie (born Lizzie Douglas in Algiers, Louisiana, June 3, 1897 – August 6, 1973) was an American blues guitarist, singer, and songwriter from the late 1920s to the 1950s, one of the most influential country blues musicians to have ever recorded.
Lizzie Douglas 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 October 13, 1996 with 35 family members in attendance including her sister, numerous nieces (including Laverne Baker) and nephews. 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."
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.
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