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Nine O'clock Blues: Memphis Minnie

Thomas R Machnitzki
Public Domain

Memphis Minnie was a truly significant figure of the early Blues. Though not as well-known as Bessie Smith, she deserves to be well remembered.

Minnie was born Lizzie Douglas in Algiers, Louisiana, in 1897, the eldest of 13 children of Abe and Gertrude Douglas. When Minnie was 7 the family moved to Walls, Mississippi, just south of Memphis. It was for Christmas one year later that Memphis Minnie received a guitar as a present.

Minnie worked hard on both guitar and banjo. She proved a real talent at both and so fell in love with performing that at age 13 she ran off to live and play on Beale Street in Memphis, returning home from time to time when she would run out of money.

Her work as a street musician got her noticed and she began to tour with Ringling Brothers Circus. The circus gave her a chance to travel and learn how to look out for herself, gaining skills that served her very well when she returned to Beale Street and became immersed in the Blues.


Being a female Blues musician was a very hard life and it must be said that many female Blues artists found it necessary to supplement their meager music income with less respectable work. Financial desperation drove Memphis Minnie into the world’s oldest profession, prostitution.

Minnie was able to rise above life on the streets and went on to a quite successful recording and performing career. She also successively married and worked with Blues musicians Casey Bill Weldon, Kansas Joe McCoy, and Earnest “Little Son Joe” Lawlars.

It was during her second marriage (to McCoy if you are keeping score) that she took the name Memphis Minnie and was subsequently discovered by Columbia Records. Columbia had the idea that men played Blues guitar while women were only to be singers so Minnie often listed her husband or others as main guitarist on her recordings, despite the fact that she was the true lead.


With her powerful singing, mastery of guitar, and skill as a songwriter Memphis Minnie pioneered Blues as a career for the many female singer/songwriter/instrumentalists who have followed and greatly enriched the landscape of the Blues.  

Also on this week’s show we’ll hear from Dr. Duke Tumatoe & the Power Trio.

Dr. Duke Tumatoe was born Bill Fiorio in Chicago in 1947. He was a founding member of the band that became REO Speedwagon, though Duke left to form Duke Tumatoe & the All-Star Frogs before REO Speedwagon became a success. The Frogs toured the mid-west with a solid following for 13 years before Tumatoe tired of the road and settled in Avon, Indiana, becoming a guitar teacher at a local music store.


While Duke Tumatoe has kept his day job, he has also felt the itch most musicians do to hit the road from time to time. He formed Dr. Duke Tumatoe & the Power Trio in 1983 and they have toured intermittently ever since. Both the All-Star Frogs and Duke’s current band have had successful recordings with Blind Pig and Duke’s own label, Sweetfinger Music.

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