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‘Empresses’ of the blues set prime example for future artists

The blues is one of the most familiar and venerable of all music styles. So many artists over the years have become household names in singing about personal hardships, love gone awry and the common trials and tribulations of everyday African-Americans.


A look back at the women there from the beginning

The blues is one of the most familiar and venerable of all music styles. So many artists over the years have become household names in singing about personal hardships, love gone awry and the common trials and tribulations of everyday African-Americans.

African-American women are no strangers to the blues. One such artist was Memphis Minnie. Known widely as the “Queen of the Blues,” Memphis Minnie was there at the dawn of the recording industry and her take on the blues was remarkable as the lone female voice in a male-dominated blues scene.

An outstanding singer, guitarist and songwriter, Lizzie Douglas (her given name) was born in Algiers, La. in 1887. She began playing on the Memphis streets and in surrounding towns. With a powerful voice and unique guitar skills, Minnie’s career lasted from country blues of the 1920s, to the electric blues of the 1950s.

Throughout her career, Minnie worked with notable blues performers including Kansas Joe McCoy whom she would marry in the late 1920s.Together, they were signed by Columbia Records and, in 1930, recorded one of her best known numbers “Bumble Bee.” As a duo, Minnie and McCoy became part of the Chicago blues scene and put out popular songs such as “Me and My Chauffeur Blues” (1941) in which she especially shined on the electric guitar. She would collaborate with some of the biggest names in blues including Tampa Red, Blind John Davis, Big Bill Broonzy, Sunnyland Slim and Roosevelt Sykes.

Among more than 200 songs recorded, one of her most famous tunes with Kansas Joe McCoy was “When The Levee Breaks” (1929) chronicling the devastating 1927 Mississippi River flood. More than four decades later, British rockers Led Zeppelin would have a hit with the song. Memphis Minnie remains an influential musician because of her inventive, rhythmic guitar playing and her songs that captured people across generations. Memphis Minnie died in 1973 at age 76.

Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith was one of the most famous names in the blues. Her powerful, soulful voice won her countless fans and earned her the title “Empress of the Blues.” Her early life saw her performing as a dancer in the Moses Stokes Minstrel Show, and soon thereafter the Rabbit Foot Minstrels which included her mentor Ma Rainey. Rainey took Smith under her wing and, over the next decade, Smith continued to perform at various theaters and on the vaudeville circuit.

In 1923, Smith signed with Columbia Records and soon after became one of the highest-paid Black performers with hits like “Downhearted Blues” (1923). The song sold an estimated 800,000 copies. Smith worked with many jazz performers as well, including clarinet player Sidney Bechet, pianists Fletcher Henderson and James P. Johnson, and Louis Armstrong.

Smith’s biggest hit was arguably “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” (1929). At the height of her success, Smith’s career began to flounder, due in part to the Great Depression, and a change in cultural mores. In 1933, producer John Hammond worked with Smith on a possible comeback–with an eye toward the big band Swing Era–as she continued to tour with an updated sound. Smith was again on the upswing when an automobile accident in 1937 left her badly injured. She died of her wounds at a Clarksdale, Miss. hospital at age 43.

After her death, Smith would become a primary influence for countless female vocalists, among them Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin. A 1972 biography “Bessie” would become the impetus for a 2015 film starring Queen Latifah (also executive producer) and MoNique who portrayed Ma Rainey.

Ma Rainey

Ma Rainey was the first popular stage entertainer to fully incorporate authentic blues into her song repertoire. During the first three decades of the 20th century, she enjoyed mass popularity performing the blues. She is widely recognized as the first great blues singer.

Ma Rainey’s music served as an inspiration for poets such as Langston Hughes, Claude McKay and Countee Cullen. Rainey recorded in various musical settings and genres, including being exposed early on to “country blues” in capturing the mood and essence of Black rural southern life of the 1920s. In 1923, Rainey began recording with Paramount Records, by then having established herself as an experienced and stylistically mature talent.

One of her earliest hits was the traditional number “Bo Weevil Blues” (1923) as fellow blues singer Victoria Spivey proclaimed: “Ain’t nobody in the world been able to holler ‘Hey Boweevil” like her.” Later that year she released “Moonshine Blues” with Lovie Austin as well as “Yonder Comes the Blues” with Louis Armstrong. Her rendition of “See See Rider” (1923) would become one of the most famous of all blues songs of which she held the copyright.

Rainey personified the “down home blues” image that succeeding generations would attempt to copy. August Wilson’s 1988 play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’’ (adapted into a 2020 motion picture starring Viola Davis) demonstrated her shrewd business acumen and paid great homage to her reputation of relaying simple, straightforward stories about African-Americans in the Post-Reconstruction era. Ma Rainey died in 1939 at age 53.

Victoria Spivey

The music of Victoria Spivey was instrumental in the 1960s blues revival among young American artists and their counterparts in Great Britain. An outstanding pianist, Spivey began her musical career at age 19 in Galveston and in Houston, Texas frequently performing at gambling parlors, bars, brothels and gay hangouts primarily with Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Spivey recorded her first song, “Black Snake Blues,” in 1926 for Okeh Records while working as a songwriter at a music publishing company in St. Louis. The 1930s saw her contracted with the Victor, Vocalion and Decca labels. In time, she would move to New York City and was a featured performer in several African-American musical reviews.

In the mid-1930s she hit the road with Louis Armstrong but not long after she discarded blues music in favor of gospel recordings. By the 1950s, she had left show business entirely and sang only in church. In forming her own Spivey Records label in 1962, she found new life in an old career with her first release featuring an up-and-coming guitarist/vocalist named Bob Dylan.

Spivey was an in-demand performer during the ‘60s folk-blues revival and performed frequently in nightclubs around New York City. Unlike others from her generation, Spivey continued recording until well into the 1970s and is remembered for seminal albums such as “Songs We Taught Your Mother” featuring Alberta Hunter (1962), “The Queen And Her Knights” (1965) and “The Victoria Spivey Recorded Legacy of the Blues (1970). Victoria Spivey died in 1976 at age 69.

Big Maybelle

Big Maybelle had a voice to match her physical stature. While serving as one of the premier R&B chanteuses of the 1950s, her deep gravelly voice had roots in the “down-in-the-alley” blues similar to the female stars of the 1920s and ‘30s.

Like all blues artists, Big Maybelle (born Mable Louise Smith) began her singing career in gospel music. It was an important element in her style. In 1936 she worked with Memphis bandleader Dave Clark and, a few years later, toured with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.

In 1944 she made her recording debut with pianist Christine Chatman’s combo before signing with King Records in 1947 where she released three self-composed singles backed by the Hot Lips Page Band.

With Okeh Records, she released “Gabbin’ Blues” (1952) which quickly climbed to the Top-10 on the R&B charts. Then came “Way Back Home” and “My Country Man” (both from 1953) and, in 1955, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” a full two years before Jerry Lee Lewis had a world-wide smash with the song.

Showing the ability to adapt to the changing sound of pop music, she released “96 Tears” in 1967 (originally done a year earlier by Question Mark & the Mysterians). Alleged drug addiction saw Big Maybelle fall from the working circuit and, in 1972, she slipped into a diabetic coma and died at a Cleveland hospital at age 47.

Koko Taylor

By the time she was 12 years old, Koko Taylor had learned to sing the blues by listening to such artists as Bessie Smith, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. In the early 1950s she worked as a housekeeper by day and sang at blues clubs by night. It was at one of these clubs that she caught the attention of Chess Records producer Willie Dixon who promptly signed her to the label.

Soon she was recording with such blues stars as Buddy Guy, Big Walter Horton and Robert Nighthawk. Under Dixon’s guidance, Taylor released a pair of albums and a number of singles for Chess, most notably the 1965 hit “Wang Dang Doodle.” That song thrust Taylor into the mainstream, sold more than one million copies, and reached the Top-5 on the Billboard R&B chart.

By the early 1970s, Taylor moved to Alligator Records where she recorded a string of albums over the next three decades that helped to solidify her as one of the most prominent female blues vocalists of all time. Taylor garnered eight Grammy award nominations and collected more than two dozen Blues Music Awards.

Health issues would slow her recording output by the early 2000s, but her final album “Old School” (2007) proved that her voice was as robust and as brassy as ever. Koko Taylor continued to perform and delight audiences up to a month before her death in 2009 at age 80.