(June 3, 1897 – August 6, 1973)
The lady born Elizabeth ‘Kid’ Douglas, chewed tobacco while she sang. Perched in her chiffon ballgown, she spat without missin’ a beat. With her dark red nails she picked out radical melodies, rhythms, counter-rhythms on her guitar. ‘Kid’ Douglas—known to the rest of us by the stage name that changed the game—Memphis Minnie.
By the time Memphis Minnie hit the scene, the heyday of women blues singers was all but finished. But that didn’t matter. See, Minnie was one of the greatest blues guitarists of all time. Shattering gender stereotypes with every thump of her high-heel. Minnie wasn’t just “good for a girl.” Minnie was better than any man. In the words of frequent collaborator Willie Moore: “She was a guitar king.”
A child prodigy—she picked up the banjo at 7 and had a guitar by 11. Soon enough she’d run away to join the Ringling Brothers circus. Left the circus, and gigged around Memphis before moving to Chicago, where she schooled the boys in guitar contests. Even Big Bill Broonzy had to bow before Queen Minnie. She wrote hundreds of songs. Here’s one of em. From her first recording session, Memphis Minnie and “Bumble Bee Blues.”
Memphis Minnie is a singer, songwriter and bad-ass guitarist. Born Lizzie Douglas on June 3, 1897 in Algiers, Louisiana, she got her first guitar at eight years old, and by thirteen she’d run away to live on Beale Street in Memphis. She played with the Ringling Brothers Circus for a time before falling head over heels onto the blues circuit. While traveling and performing with her second husband Joe McCoy, she was discovered by Columbia Records, and sent to New York. It was there she changed her name to Memphis Minnie and recorded some of her most popular songs, including her favorite, 1930’s “Bumble Bee.” She’d go on to have a prolific career throughout the Second World War, retiring in the 1950’s due to poor health. Memphis Minnie died on August 6, 1973, in her beloved Memphis, TN.
Memphis Minnie was a tough lady who was highly respected for holding her own in a world of whiskey and wild men. She’s known for chewing tobacco, wielding a pocket knife, and killing on the guitar—all while wearing a chiffon ball gown. Her six-string skills surpassed many of her male contemporaries. As such, she stands as one of the best, and most influential, blues guitarists of all time.
You can also hear my story of Memphis Minnie’s Guitar Shootout with Big Bill Broonzy: