Mean Mistreater Blues

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.

Is That All There Is?

Peggy Lee, Capitol, 1969, #11 Pop and #1 Adult Contemporary

A song I put in the “Inventorying Life from the Perspective of The Golden Years” category (a growing category in my collection, alas) is the rich and strange late-career hit for Miss Peggy Lee, “Is That All There Is?” This song of disillusionment gave me chills whenever I heard it on the radio in the late ‘60s.

A happily-accidental confluence of disparate characters, topped off by Miss Peggy, led to the strangest hit of 1969.

I was unfamiliar with Peggy Lee, except as the voice of the dog Darling, singing “He’s a Tramp” in Disney’s The Lady and the Tramp. When I saw her on a television variety show, looking so jaded in her platinum-blonde flip-up wig and her blue-tinted glasses as she sang “If that’s all there is, my friend, then let’s keep dancing,” I was mesmerized. I don’t think I ever watched The Lady and the Tramp again.

Back then, I hadn’t parsed the song’s elements; I just responded to its cumulative effect. It was only years later that I discovered and appreciated the creative contributors who’d helped Miss Peggy Lee make such a powerful record. The songwriters were Leiber and Stoller, the class clowns who wrote so many Coasters comedy classics, like “Charlie Brown” and “Poison Ivy.” (On the 45’s label, Leiber’s name is spelled the way I, a German student in high school, always want to spell it—Lieber, but he spelled it with the e-i.) They took quite a diversion from their usual fare for this one. An as-yet-little-known Randy Newman, doing journeyman work for Warner Brothers, crafted the eerie string arrangement, a sound for which he would later be lauded on albums like Sail Away and soundtracks like Ragtime. Randy Newman’s arrangement owes more than a little to Kurt Weill’s German theater period. A happily-accidental confluence of disparate characters, topped off by Miss Peggy, led to the strangest hit of 1969.

The record did lose its charm for me for a few years in the nineties. While processing books and records in the backroom of the Half Price Books main store, employees got to play music on an ancient stereo. A co-worker and I came across a 45 of the song and put it on. We were so captivated by it that we played it again and again, until our fellow employees ganged up on us and banned “Is That All There Is?” from backroom play forever. Now, years later, I can play it in my home whenever I want to, which is about twice a year, on Saturday evenings as the sun goes down.

Gordon Jenkins and Frank Sinatra (and songwriter Ervin Drake) were responsible for a similar fine sixties song about growing old, the unlikely pop hit “It Was a Very Good Year.” It appeared on the September of My Years album. Sinatra was fifty years old at the time. (Fifty is September? I think that’s still July, or maybe even June).

When, as a kid, I heard “It Was a Very Good Year” on the radio, it was haunting. Even though the lyrics are more wistful than melancholy, the Jenkins string arrangement, which got him a Grammy, joined Sinatra’s stark delivery to set a very somber tone. (That tone was pastiched to great effect in the 1971 TV special Diana! by a pre-teen Michael Jackson, who sashayed out, coat slung over his shoulder, fedora at a tilt, and sang, “When I was six years old / It was a very good year.” He also managed to throw in a “ring-a-ding-ding.”)

Michael only made it to fifty. The September of his years. Kurt Weill, who wrote the music for Maxwell Anderson’s “September Song” lyric “But the days grow short, when we reach September,” died at the age of fifty.

Miss Peggy Lee made it to the age of 81 and performed, though in poor health and sometimes confined to a wheelchair, into her seventies. You can find a video clip of her at age 64, being interviewed by Merv Griffin on his show in 1984. She wears all black, including a bolero hat and a veil, and she doesn’t get up from the couch when she performs “Is That All There Is?” The camera pulls back at one point to show her seated alone at the end of the big couch. Merv sits at his desk and leans toward Miss Peggy, chin on knuckles, mesmerized by the performance, truly a rarity on variety/talk show TV.