Memphis Minnie, Columbia 37295, 1944
I had my first opportunity to become a Memphis Minnie fan back in 1967, but I failed to pursue it. I was just a junior-high kid, after all, with almost no exposure to the blues of my grandparents’ generation. (My grandparents had little to no exposure to it either.) A schoolfriend’s dad worked for RCA and passed along a promo LP copy of Jefferson Airplane’s first album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, and my friend passed it along to me. I loved every song on the record, including its only cover, “Chauffeur Blues,” which was the standout vocal number for Signe Toly Anderson. Signe left the group shortly after that album’s release, to be replaced by Grace Slick.
“Chauffer Blues” is credited on the Airplane record as being written by Lester Melrose. He was one in the long line of producers who claimed writer credit in order to grab royalties. The original recording, made in 1941 as “Me and My Chauffer Blues,” is credited to Ernest “Little Son Joe” Lawlar, third husband of Lizzie Douglas, otherwise known as Memphis Minnie. Minnie is thought to have been the actual songwriter, as she was for most of her couple-hundred recorded songs. She lived another six years after the Airplane cover, without acknowledgment or royalties from them. Was she even aware they’d recorded it?
I was a dumb teenager. I had no idea what I was missing by not investigating “Chauffeur Blues,” just as I blithely failed to follow up on Robert Johnson, Reverend Robert Wilkins, Tommy Johnson, and other blues singer-songwriters covered by sixties rockers. It didn’t help that there was no YouTube then, nor did it help that I mostly listened to top 40 radio and played in a band that tried to cover The Beatles and The Byrds.
I’m catching up now, grabbing Memphis Minnie 78s as I’m able, making up for lost time by playing the hell out of ‘em. Among my favorites is “Mean Mistreater Blues,” which features the insistent rhythm guitar of Little Son, and the sharp, dancing guitar fills and rides and the powerful vocals of Minnie. It is hard to find affordable copies of 78s recorded by most of the men who created the greatest country blues music. It is a real treat that records by the only woman who regularly pops up in the country blues pantheon can be found in very nice condition for a reasonable price. Unlike most of her male peers, Memphis Minnie recorded into the fifties, maintaining the style and quality of her earliest recordings. The earliest ones may be a bit on the pricy side, but the later gems are plentiful.
Ms. Minnie’s vocal quality on “Mean Mistreater Blues” and many of her other recordings reminds me of her friend and mutual admirer Bukka White, whose records are in short supply and way out of my price range. But, you know what? I don’t feel like I’m “settling” for Memphis Minnie. She’s right up there with Bukka and the country blues men’s club.