27 December 2015


Tell me honestly: were you much aware of Lucille Bogan, Mamie Smith, Merline Johnson, Memphis Minnie, Clara Smith and Hattie Hart before Tuba Skinny and other young bands in New Orleans today revived some of their songs? I certainly wasn't. Yes, I knew about Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, and I was aware of Victoria Spivey and Clara Smith, though I couldn't have told you much about them.

So I must thank Tuba Skinny and others for making me seek out those great lady performers (who were often composers too) from the 1920s and 1930s. Fortunately, quite of a lot of their work is available on YouTube.

Lucille Bogan (in her later years performing as Bessie Jackson) lived from 1897 until 1948, first in Mississippi and later in Alabama. She was twice married.
Lucille made a lot of recordings, songs often composed by herself; and some of them are notable for their sexual innuendoes or even explicitness. She was the originator of Tricks Ain't Walking No More. Memphis Minnie recorded it too. This Century, it has become a favourite in Tuba Skinny's repertoire. Lucille's recording probably also influenced their choice of Eddie Miller's composition I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water.

Merline Johnson was probably born in 1912, in Mississippi or Missouri.
Merline made recordings from 1937 until 1947, usually in the company of some of the most famous blues musicians of that era. If you are a fan, you may be interested to know that it was from Merline Johnson that Tuba Skinny learned Got a Man in the 'Bama Mine, Sold It To The Devil, and Running Down My Man. What a legacy from someone about whom little is known!

Hattie Hart worked both with and apart from The Memphis Jug Band. Among the songs she recorded that Tuba Skinny have taken up were Won't You Be Kind To Me? (her 1928 composition), Ambulance Man, and Papa's Got Your Bath Water On.
Not much is known about Hattie, who was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in about 1900.

I must briefly mention Clara Smith, who was born around 1894 in Carolina and worked in both New Orleans and New York. In the 1920s, she recorded well over a hundred songs, often with some of the 'big names'. Though she did not compose it, Clara made Freight Train Blues famous; and this is another song Tuba Skinny have developed dramatically (train noises and all) in their repertoire.

Among Clara's other interesting recordings are Jelly Bean Blues and Percolatin' Blues. Clara died in 1935.

And what about Mamie Smith (1883 - 1946 - no relation to the other Smiths)? She was the singer who made famous the song composed in 1920 by the 27-year-old Perry Bradford, Crazy Blues. He was the Musical Director of Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds. Mamie recorded it in the same year with huge success. This is now considered by jazz and blues scholars to have been an important milestone in the history of our music, because Mamie was the first black blues singer to be recorded.
Mamie could be said to have started the era of classic female blues. In 2014, Tuba Skinny introduced into their repertoire a super version of Crazy Blues - quite a tour de force by their singer Erika Lewis.
Memphis Minnie has become a favourite of mine. It was she who recorded Me and My Chauffeur, Bumblebee, Blood Thirsty BluesFrisco Town, I'm Goin' Back HomeWhat's The Matter With The Mill? as well as many other good old songs. Erika Lewis and Tuba Skinny have found her work to be a rich source.
Memphis Minnie
'Memphis Minnie' was of course a stage name. She was born in Algiers (the 'across the river' suburb of New Orleans) in 1897 and her real name was Lizzie Douglas. As a teenager, she became a busker in Memphis and it was there that her musical career was to take off, especially when she was invited to make recordings, together with her second husband (of three): they were billed as 'Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie'. They wrote quite a lot of their own material. Over the years, Minnie performed in many different cities and recorded for various labels. She had a hard life but seems to have been a tough, resilient, cheerful woman and a good singer and guitarist. Possibly she was the most popular country blues singer of all time. She died in 1973. Fortunately, it is still possible to buy many of her recordings and to find some on YouTube. CLICK HERE  for an example of Minnie's work.
As for Victoria Spivey from Houston (who is, I believe, a favourite of Erika's), this lady had a long career. Coming from a musical family, she lived from 1906 until 1976 and was a prolific entertainer.

She was a pianist as well as a singer and composer. (Among her compositions were TB BluesHow Do They Do It That Way?, Black Snake Blues, Detroit Moan, Moaning the Blues, Long Gone, and Spider Web Blues.) She made her first recording in 1926 and her last as late as 1964, having worked at times with several of the big names of jazz. At the age of 56, she launched a record label of her own. She even found time to marry four husbands. CLICK HERE to appreciate Victoria Spivey singing Any Kind A Man Would Be Better Than You; and you will understand at once how much she has influenced today's singers, such as Erika Lewis.

Georgia White was another blues singer who influenced Tuba Skinny. For example, Erika picked up Late Hour Blues from Georgia's 1939 recording of this song by Richard M. Jones. Georgia and Richard worked together and jointly composed I'm Blue and Lonesome; Nobody Cares For Me and Biscuit Roller - both of them songs Erika has adopted - to the delight of her fans. Georgia White is believed to have been born in 1903 and was working in Chicago by the 1920s.
Georgia White
She made a very large number of recordings. She was still performing as late as the 1960s and is believed to have died in about 1980.

While 'researching' these ladies, I discovered there were DOZENS more like them making good blues recordings at the same time. For example, check out Leonia Williams. There are several of her recordings from 1922 and 1923 on YouTube - some of them remarkably clear and impressive. She is accompanied by her 'Dixie Band', though I gather they were actually The Original Memphis Five.

I simply could not study the work of all these ladies. But believe me, they are there all right.