One afternoon back in 1973, I took an unexpected telephone call. It was Victoria Spivey.
Considering that we had only previously been in contact by letter, and that had mostly been about business, she was remarkably chatty, friendly and most entertaining. She was telling me about the guys she had worked with – remarkably she had recorded with Louis Armstrong who she toured with in the 1930s, King Oliver, Luis Russell, Clarence Williams as well as so many great bluesmen.
The conversation must have gone on for nearly an hour, so long that I beginning to worry about the telephone bill she was running up. Suddenly she said that she had better ring off now, she was using “the phone of the guy who runs the drug store on the corner”. Despite the best of intentions, we never did manage to get that tour together, it would have been a real high-spot for Big Bear.
Victoria Regina Spivey was one of God’s more interesting characters. Equally at home in jazz and blues settings, she sang, played piano, was a prolific and witty songwriter, an inveterate tourer who worked right up until the end, a shrewd businesswoman, one-time club owner and ran her own Spivey Records label.
Born in 1906 in Houston, Texas where her father, Grant, played in the family string band, she was one of eight children, at least three of which were singers. She showed an early interest in piano and by the age of seven was entertaining at local parties and in bars.
By the time she was twelve she was playing piano at The Lincoln Theatre in Dallas and it wasn’t long before she was appearing in Vaudeville and barrelhouses, often teamed with her two sisters, Elton Island Spivey, known as The Za Zu Girl and Addie Spivey, known as Sweet Peas.
Still in her teens, Victoria was appearing in Galveston and Houston’s saloons, gambling clubs and houses of ill-repute with Blind Lemon Jefferson, she reached St. Louis, Missouri in 1920 and recorded for Okeh Records. She stayed in the city as staff writer for the St Louis Publishing Company.
Back on the road, sometimes calling herself Queen Victoria, no doubt in reference to her middle name, appearing revues, in the Minsky Burlesque, at Smalls Paradise and The Apollo and recording in 1929 in New York for Victor Records. Somewhere along the way, in 1936, she recorded for Decca in Chicago using the name Jane Lucas – there must be a story there.
She appeared as Missy Rose in the all black musical movie “Hallelujah” and was featured in musicals including “Hellzapoppin”. In 1950 Victoria retired to sing, play pipe organ and lead the choir in church, but by the end of the decade was back playing countless one-nighters, many of them with her then husband [she had a total of four] the dancer Billy Adams.
In 1962 she launched Spivey Records and recorded, amongst others, Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, Sippie Wallis, Roosevelt Sykes and a young Bob Dylan singing backing vocals and playing harmonica with Spivey herself and Big Joe Williams. The following year she toured Europe with The American Folk Blues Festival and appeared on French and UK TV.
Spivey wrote dozens of songs. The first recorded was “Black Snake Blues” for Okeh in 1926. Her “TB Blues” drew attention to the 1920s prevalence of the disease, maybe her “Dope Head Blues” was the first to warn against cocaine use while her “Organ Grinder Blues was a comment on the erotic. Victoria Spivey died in New York in 1976, nowhere near as well-known as her talent warranted.
OK, I know that Wanda Jackson is generally considered to be a rock and roll/rockabilly pioneer, but anyone who tells her rival in love to “take your cotton-picking fingers outta his curly hair” [“Hard Headed Woman” – 1960] with such conviction is in my opinion, worthy of attention. Anyway, who cares about labels?
Born in Maud, Oklahoma in 1937, Wanda Lavonne Jackson, now 83, was musically active until 2019 when she announced that she was retiring – but still working on her next album!
She played guitar from childhood, but got her sense of musical direction when her father took her to a show featuring Spade Cooley, The Western Swing bandleader, actor, TV personality and convicted murderer.
Wanda was discovered while still at high school by Hank Thompson who invited her to sing with his band and in 1954 went on the road sharing the bill – and having an affair with – Elvis Presley. That alone should have guaranteed a degree of fame.
She toured extensively, recorded prolifically including the “Rock and Roll Your Blues Away” for Rounder Records. The 1980s Rockabilly Revival boosted her career, she featured in the London Rock and Roll Festival with Jerry Lee Louis and recorded the album “The Party Ain’t Over” with White Stripe’s Jack White.
That made it to #58 on the Billboard chart. In 2009 she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Personally, I’m rather tickled by her recording “Fujiyama Mama” which made #1 in Japan, a fiery tale of violence threatening death, or at least assault, for cheating in a relationship. “You can talk about me, say that I am mean, I’ll blow your head off baby with nitroglycerine.”
Merline Johnson, born somewhere in Mississippi in 1912 was known as The Yas Yas Girl. “Yas Yas” was apparently a euphemism in hokum blues language for buttocks.
She was the aunt of Lavern Baker, was active in the 30s and 40s, and recorded the first of her 90 or so songs, “Send It To The Devil”, in 1937. Unsurprisingly, she specialised in sometimes bawdy but tough juke joint blues, often accompanied by Big Bill Broonzy, Lonnie Johnson, Blind John Davis on such titles as “I’d Rather Be Drunk”, “Don’t You Make Me High”, “I Just Keep On Drinking” and “Drinking My Blues Away”. There seems to be a theme here. Her last recordings were made in 1947. There seems to be no record of her dying, which would make her 109 today. Who said that drinking was bad?
Lizzie Douglas, better known as Memphis Minnie, was born in Algiers, Louisiana in 1897, the oldest of 13 children. When she was eight, her parents bought her a guitar for Christmas and a year later relocated to Wall, Tennessee.
At thirteen she ran away from home to Memphis, playing guitar and singing for dimes on Beale Street. She joined The Ringling Brothers Circus where she stayed from 1916 to 1920 touring mainly in the south before returning to the thriving Beale Street.
She was performing in front of a barbershop with Kansas Joe McCoy when they were heard by a Columbia Records talent scout who took them to New York to record. It was Columbia who gave them the names Memphis and Kansas.
Minnie was to record over 200 sides for Columbia, Okeh, Vocalion and Decca, many with Joe McCoy. Some of her songs have been subsequently recorded by such folk as Jefferson Airplane, Led Zeppelin – even Donovan.
Although she liked to appear feminine and ladylike to her audience, it was said that she would never shy away from a fight. Johnny Shines said “any man fool with Minnie, she’d go for them right away. Guitar, pocket knife, pistol, anything she got her hand on, she’d use it”.
Homesick James remembered that she chewed tobacco all the time even when singing and always had a cup at hand in case she wanted to spit.
Memphis Minnie, maybe the most popular country blues singer of all time, spent her final years in the Jell Nursing home in Memphis where she died penniless in 1973, age 76. In 1996, a headstone, paid for by Bonnie Raitt, was erected by The Mount Zion Memorial Fund, with 34 of her family members present at a Ceremony that was recorded by the BBC.
We’ve compiled the soundtrack from this feature into a handy Youtube and Spotify playlist for your listening pleasure.