Memphis Minnie was a blues icon who made an undeniable mark on American music and influenced musicians like Bonnie Raitt and Led Zeppelin.
Born in 1897 as Lizzie Douglas, she was a pioneer of electric guitars and prolific composer who wrote nearly 200 songs in her career. She was a rare talent that defied musical style and blasted gender expectations as a self-sufficient woman who was at once feminine and aggressive in her pursuits.
Douglas was born in New Orleans, Louisiana and lived in Walls, Mississippi then Brunswick in Shelby County, Tennessee. At 13 years old, she ran away from home and headed to Memphis where she began performing on the corners of Beale Street as a singer, guitarist, and banjo player.
Her performances earned her a spot with Ringling Brothers Circus. She toured the South with them from 1916-1920 before returning to Beale and reclaiming her spot as a mainstay of its thriving blues scene under the stage name "Kid Douglas."
She recorded her first hit song, “Bumble Bee," in 1930 with her second husband and fellow musician, "Kansas" Joe McCoy. On that record, she used the name “Memphis Minne.”
Memphis Minnie Heads North
Like many Black musicians at the time, Douglas and McCoy moved to Chicago and soon made a name for themselves on its vibrant blues scene.
Chicago blues players were famous for their “head cutting” contests or competitions where one blues player tried to outplay or out-sing another. Minnie often defeated the best of the best, including Bill Bronzy and Tampa Red.
She and her husband recorded some of her best-known works in the early to mid-1930s, including, “My Butcher Man,” “Good Biscuits,” “Moanin’ the Blues,” and the haunting “When the Levee Breaks.”
Their marriage ended in 1935, reportedly due to McCoy’s jealousy of her popularity.
She later married musician Earnest Lawlers, with whom she also collaborated for several years. Lawlers dedicated his song, “Key to the World” to Douglas.
Long before Muddy Watters and Jimi Hendrix plugged in, Douglas was using early electric guitars so that she could be heard above the raucous, intoxicated crowds at her gigs. Her electric work can be heard on her tune, “Me and My Chauffeur Blues.”
Douglas had a distinctive style and was fond of using nontraditional tuning settings on her guitars, which changes the sound of chords and can make it easier to play complex chords with fewer fingers.
She used an intricate finger style in her playing that was impressive to watch and hear live. The famed Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes described her guitar playing as "a musical version of electric welders plus a rolling mill."
Douglas and Lawlers returned to Memphis in 1958. They stopped recording and rarely performed. Most Black blues musicians were grossly underpaid so despite their prolific careers, the couple lived in poverty at 1355 Adelaide Street in South Memphis. The home, which sits just 1.5 miles from Aretha Franklin's birthplace, has since been demolished.
Douglas spent her last years in Jell Nursing Home, where she died from a stroke in 1973. She was laid to rest in the New Hope Baptist Church Cemetery in Walls, Mississippi.
Across her career, Memphis Minnie released over 180 songs on various labels like Columbia Records, Decca, Bluebird, Okeh, and Checker. Her songs have been covered or adapted by numerous artists including Led Zeppelin, who reworked "When The Levee Breaks."
Perhaps her tombstone, which was purchased by musician Bonnie Raitt, best sums up her influence:
“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."