Sonoma Music - Mike Hyland

First came Memphis Minnie

Just last week, Marin County-based Maria Muldaur released the 40th album of her career, a historical recording honoring an amazing artist by the name of Memphis Minnie who wrote and recorded starting in the 1920’s, and became a true musical innovator as a pioneer of the electrified Chicago blues band sound.  Born Lizzie Douglas on June 3, 1887 in Algiers, Louisiana (just across the river from New Orleans), Minnie died on August 6, 1973.

Titled “….First Came Memphis Minnie,” the disc is a loving tribute featuring Muldaur (who performs eight of the albums 13 songs), Rory Block, Ruthie Foster, Bonnie Raitt, Phoebe Snow and Koko Taylor, with acoustic backing from Del Rey, David Bromberg, Steve Freund, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Steve James and Roy Rogers.

“….First Came Memphis Minnie” contains several previously released tracks from two of Muldaur’s Grammy-nominated albums as well as new recordings by Block, Foster and Raitt.  Added to the mix are songs written by Minnie or her husband Ernest Lawlers, a prolific writer in his own right, that were previously recorded by Koko Taylor and Phoebe Snow .

Her 40th album is a true labor of love for Muldaur, who considers Memphis Minnie to be not only a trailblazing musical pioneer for all women, but also her personal blues hero.  “Way back in 1963, when I was ‘In My Girlish Days,’ I had the amazing good fortune and privilege of meeting one of the original classic blues queens, Victoria Spivey, when she was in her late seventies, living in New  York City, and running her own record label,” writes Muldaur in her liner notes.  “She took me to her apartment and played old 78s, looking for songs that would be suitable for my young voice.  Of all the amazing tunes she played for me, the one that made the deepest impression was an old scratchy record of a haunting, soulful tune called ‘Tricks Ain’t Walkin’’ by Memphis Minnie.  From that moment to this, Memphis Minnie, and the example she set for me, has remained a profound influence on my life and my music.  Here I joined with some of my Sisters in Music to pay tribute to the woman that inspired us and paved the way for us all.”

In her prime, Memphis Minnie was a blues singer, songwriter, entrepreneur and guitar player par-excellence; a very colorful, larger-than-life figure whose recording career spanned more than 40 years. She released more than 200 songs, many of which she wrote and several of which endure today as blues classics including “Chauffeur Blues,” “In My Girlish Days,” “What’s the Matter with the Mill?” and “When the Levee Breaks.”  From the beginning of the great depression through the end of World War II—through an endless stream of innovative recordings and consistently compelling live performances—Memphis Minnie dominated the primarily male dominion of the Chicago Blues scene.

“While many female classic blues artists in the ‘20s and ‘30s (Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Sippie Wallace, Victoria Spivey, etc) sang accompanied by the likes of Louis Armstrong and other New Orleans-style jazz musicians, with bands that featured horns and piano, Memphis Minnie accompanied herself with a raw rhythmic guitar sound that came to be known as ‘country blues,’” says Muldaur.

“At a time when women were ‘kept in their place,’ both personally and professionally, Memphis Minnie was tough, independent, outspoken, and played a mean guitar!  But, she was more than just a guitar hero of early country blues. She ably adapted to newer trends and modernized her style, which helped account for her years of popularity. Memphis Minnie was one of the few figures to make the successful transition from the rural, acoustic guitar-dominated blues of the 1920s to the urban nightclub styles of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s.  She was tough, determined, talented, and courageous enough to defy and overcome all the racial, social, and economic and gender barriers that existed in her time, forging the life she envisioned for herself on nothing but her own terms,” says Muldaur.

As stated earlier, the predominately acoustic album features Muldaur on eight tracks and she sounds like she is having a great time interpreting Minnie’s songs.  She shines on “Me and My Chauffeur Blues,” “I’m Goin’ Back Home,” accompanied on guitar and vocals by Alvin Youngblood Hart, “As Long As I Can See You Smile,” the classic “Tricks Ain’t Walkin’,” “Crazy Cryin’ Blues,” “I’m Sailin’,” “Lookin’ The World Over” and “She Put Me Outdoors.”

Bonnie Raitt sounds like, well, Bonnie Raitt, singing and playing guitar on “Ain’t Nothin’ In Ramblin’,” one of Minnie’s better-known songs.   And it was Raitt who paid for the tombstone in the Mt. Zion cemetery in DeSoto, Mississippi for Minnie that was erected in October of 1996 with some 35 family members in attendance including Minnie’s sister, and numerous nieces (including LaVerne Baker) and nephews.

One of the stand-out selections on the disc is Rory Block playing guitar and slide guitar on “When You Love Me.”  Her playing is incredibly tasty, especially her slide work, and her vocal is as true to Minnie as anyone else on this brilliant package.  And then there is Ruthie Foster who brings it all home with “Keep Your Big Mouth Closed.  Sample lyric: “Sometimes you’re right and sometimes you’re wrong, but you got to use good judgment and keep your big mouth closed.”  Excellent advice!

The late Phoebe Snow recorded “In My Girlish Days” some 35 years ago which includes David Bromberg on guitars and mandolin.  The disc closes with Koko Taylor’s rave up on “Black Rat Swing” which features Bob Margolin on slide guitar, Criss Johnson on guitar, John Kattke on piano, Jimmy Sutton on upright bass and Willie Hayes on drums.  Of course, Koko belts it out and sets everybody straight.  Both of these songs were written by Ernest Lawlers.

This was going to be a short piece about this album, but the more I listened to it, the more excited I got about it.  I’ve been listening to the disc almost non-stop for the last three weeks and it doesn’t get old, which confirms that classic songs, no matter where they come from never get old.  They just get re-told and keep getting better.

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