One evening in 1974 I had a totally unexpected – and most welcome – phone call. It was Victoria Spivey, who told me that she had heard from other blues musicians that I was bringing the blues into Europe, and she just couldn’t understand why I hadn’t contacted her.
I muttered my excuses, told her how much I wanted to work with her and off she went on a splendidly interesting diatribe about her recordings, performances, fellow performers, how criminal it was that she and they had been ignored and not valued in America and how she was ready to come over to Europe and introduce us all to the blues. Time just flew by. The conversation, or soliloquy, must have gone on for an hour or more until she told me that she was calling from the telephone of the guy who runs the drugstore on the corner and he was beginning to give her funny looks.
I did try to bring Victoria over, several times, because I knew that she would be a terrific success over here, but I simply couldn’t meet her financial demands, and I had to let go.
I’m sure that there aren’t too many singers who could list Louis Armstrong, Memphis Slim and Bob Dylan among the musicians that have backed them, over a 40 year recording career, but Victoria Spivey certainly can.
Victoria Spivey was born in Houston, Texas in 1906 to Grant and Addie Spivey. Grant worked as a railroad flagman and led the family string band while Addie was a nurse. Both were the children of former slaves. While it may seem a touch pretentious, as her career developed Victoria took to calling herself Queen Victoria, but this is not as grandiose as it may seem. Her full name was Victoria Regina Spivey.
To say that she was an early starter is something of an understatement. Starting to play piano as a child, by the time she was five she was playing in the family string band up until her father’s early death when she was just seven. Undaunted, she took to working mostly solo in clubs and parties and at the grand old age of twelve she landed the gig, playing piano to the silent movies in The Lincoln Theatre in Dallas. By fifteen she was singing and playing in bars, night clubs, gambling clubs and gay houses in Galveston and Houston, often with Blind Lemon Jefferson.
She signed to Okeh Records in 1926, recorded in New York and St Louis with such legendary sidemen as Louis Armstrong, Clarence Williams, Joe King Oliver, Luis Russell and Lonnie Johnson. Her first recording was “Black Snake Blues” which sold so nicely that she stayed with the label until 1929, recording more than 40 sides. In the meantime, she appeared in “Hit Bits from Africana” at The Lincoln Theatre in New York and by the time she was 24 was touring the Mid and South West as the director of Lloyd Hunter’s Serenaders, playing colleges, dances and live radio.
Spivey was a prolific songwriter, many of her songs dealing with the problems of the times, such as “Dope Head Blues” which referred to cocaine addition, “T.B. Blues” and “Dirty Tee Be Blues” bemoaning the effects of the tuberculosis scourge and there were many of her songs with not exactly subtle sexual references.
She also performed and recorded with her younger sister, the sadly short-lived Addie, who died at only 33 and was also known as Sweet Peas or Sweet Pease, as well as The Za Zu Girl, a name sometimes wrongly attached to Victoria. They toured together, playing barbecues, vaudeville and theatres, often with vaudeville dancer Billy Adams who in 1937 was to become the second of four Mister Spiveys, the first being trumpet player Ruben Floyd who she had married in 1928. Addie and the elder sister Ethon Spivey Harris recorded as The Spivey Sisters in 1937. Billed as Sweet Pease and The Za Zu Girl which did initiate some confusion as both those names are associated with Addie as well as the second sometimes wrongly given to Victoria. These four songs are the only recordings made by Ethon who was born in 1900 and died in New York in 1971.
And then there was Jane Lucas, or more probably there never was a Jane Lucas, other than the Northern Irish actress who starred in ‘The Office’. Jane Lucas certainly was a name coined by Victoria on at least those 1930 recordings with Georgia Tom Dorsey, “Where Did You Stay Last Night”, “Come On Mama” and “Terrible Operation Blues” as well as Mr. Freddie Blues” credited to the same Ms. Lucas. At this point we can’t really ignore Mozelle Anderson, a singer from Bedford, Ohio, born in 1904, also known as Kansas City Kitty, Hannah May, Thelma Holmes, Mae Belle Lee – and Jane Lucas! There was third, unidentified singer who also toured the circuit, using the Jane Lucas handle, but logic dictates that this singer of ribald blues songs didn’t ever actually exist.
But back to Victoria Spivey. By the 1940s, she was working the Minsky Burlesque, touring with Louis Armstrong, playing the classier
New York clubs such as Bill Robinson’s, Smalls Paradise as well as featuring at The Apollo and continuing her film work which began when she was cast as Missy Rose in King Vidor’s first sound film, “Hallelujah”. She appeared in several music films and stage shows including the “Hellzapoppin” smash hit which also featured her Vaudeville dancer husband Billy Adams.
1951 saw Spivey take a break from the music biz, to become a church administrator, lead the choir and play pipe organ. She made her comeback in 1961, recording with her old pal, Lonnie Johnson on his Prestige Bluesville album “Idle Hours” before recording the “Songs We Taught Your Mother” album with fellow blues veterans Alberta Hunter and Lucille Hegamin, going back to playing clubs and the same year launching Spivey Records with husband number three, blues historian Len Kunstadt.
Spivey Records recorded some fine blues names, including Otis Spann, Willie Dixon, Rooselvelt Sykes, Big Joe Turner and the young guitar star-to-be Larry Johnson.
In March 1962 Victoria recorded the album “Three Kings and The Queen” with Big Joe Williams and harmonica player and backing singer Bob Dylan, which was followed by “Kings and the Queen Volume 2” also with Dylan. There is a photograph of Spivey and Dylan on the sleeve of Dylan’s “New Morning” album.
During the 1960s and 1970s she appeared on several European TV shows, in the UK on BBC TV and Granada TV and in France.
Victoria Spivey, after an amazingly full life, died from an internal haemorrhage in Beckman Downtown Hospital in October 1976 and was buried in Greenfield Cemetery, Hempstead, New York. She was 69 years old.
In 1970 BMI awarded her the Commendation of Excellence “for long and outstanding contribution to the many worlds of music” and she is honoured in the Texas Music Hall of Fame.