There have been countless female blues singers through the years, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one who could match the abilities of the legendary Memphis Minnie, who first rose to fame in the 1930s. In addition to writing most of her own songs, she was as good a vocalist as any of her contemporaries and also a fine guitarist, which she demonstrated in many of her performances.
Of course, her real name wasn’t Minnie — it was Lizzie Douglas — and she wasn’t born in Memphis, but she did spend much of her life there. She was actually born in the New Orleans area and was still a young girl when her large family moved to a small town in Mississippi, right across the river from Memphis. It was there that she received her first guitar as a Christmas present, and learned to play it so well that while still a preteen she was able to entertain in area night spots, billing herself as Kid Douglas.
She grew up fast, and was only 13 when she ran away from home and began to support herself by performing on Beale Street in Memphis. During her teens she occasionally returned home when times were really bad, and even spent some time touring with a circus band, but for the most part she grew to adulthood as part of the Memphis blues scene. By the 1920s she was making a good living with her music, but also turning the occasional trick — not that uncommon in those circles — for what was said to be a premium price.
In the 1930s Memphis Minnie began to become nationally recognized as a blues star. She’d started making records by then, and was also beginning to match up musically with some outstanding male blues guitarists. In fact, she ended up working her way through marriages with three of them — Casey Bill Weldon, Joe McCoy, and Ernest Lawlars. Her career flourished and she sold a ton of records, remaining popular through the 1950s before finally slowing down. She was 76 when she died in 1973.