Listening to those self-assured early female blues singers, I’m always impressed by the strength of character, confidence and self-assuredness at a time and place when society seemed determined to crush the female spirit, particularly the black female spirit. Their liberated attitudes to social and sexual matters were as bold as they were unexpected.
When Lil Johnson delivered “I’m The Hottest Girl In Town” or “You Stole My Cherry” there was no doubt that here was a girl who knew her worth who wouldn’t take no messing around.
The place and date of birth of Lil Johnson are unknown, as are those of her death. She was musically active during the 20s and 30s, known for her dirty blues and hokum repertoire.
She first recorded in Chicago in 1929 with pianists Montana Taylor and Charles Avery and did not return to the recording studio until 1935 where among several risqué songs she recorded “Keep-A-Knocking”, a song later to become a hit for Little Richard. In 1936 and 1937 Lil recorded over 40 songs, mostly for Vocalion Records using sidemen including Black Bob on piano, Big Bill Broonzy on guitar and trumpet player Lee Collins.
After 1937 her recording career was over and nothing more is known of Lil Johnson, The Hottest Girl In Town.
Along with Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, Lucille Bogan was considered to be one of The Big Three of The Blues. Born Lucille Anderson in Amory, Mississippi, raised in Birmingham, Alabama, she married railroad man Nazareth Lee Bogan and gave birth to a son, Nazareth Junior, in 1915 or 1916. Lucille later divorced Bogan, but kept the name and married James Spencer who was 22 years younger than she.
Lucille first recorded for Okeh Records in New York in 1923, singing vaudeville songs before a milestone recording session later that year in Atlanta, Georgia, the first time that a black blues singer had been recorded outside of New York or Chicago. In 1927 she recorded her first hit record, “Sweet Petunia”, for Paramount Records, a song later recorded by Blind Blake.
Come the 1930s, and Lucille’s repertoire seemed to be concerned with drinking and sex, for instance “Sloppy Drunk”, later recorded by Leroy Carr and “Tricks Ain’t Walking No More”, a song later to be recorded by Memphis Minnie among many others.
She returned to New York in 1933 and for some reason began recording as Bessie Jackson, cutting over 100 songs by 1935 including some of her most successful sides. Her last recording was with Josh White on March 5th 1935.
She subsequently managed her son’s jazz group, Bogan’s Birmingham Busters, before moving to Los Angeles where she died in August 1948, aged just 51.
In the company of Tampa Red on guitar and pianist Cow Cow Davenport, Lucille Bogan: “Pot Hound Blues”.
Named The Texas Nightingale during her early career playing tent shows, Sippie Wallace went on to record more than 40 sides for Okeh Records between 1923 and 1927. Born Beulah Belle Thomas in 1888 in Plum Bayou, Jefferson County, Arkansas, she went on to enjoy a most varied and impressive career of some 68 years.
At various times her accompanying musicians included Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dodds, Joe King Oliver and Clarence Williams.
One of three children, her family moved to Houston, Texas, where as a youth she sang and played piano in Shiloh Baptist Church where her father served as a deacon. In the evenings, however, she and her siblings sneaked out to tent shows and by her mid-teens she was playing there.
In 1915 she and her brother Hersal moved to New Orleans, where, two years later, she married Matt Wallace. Sippie followed her brothers to Chicago in 1923 and quickly became a part of that city’s bustling jazz scene, recording “Shorty George”, written with her brother George, which made her something of a star.
She continued to record regularly, including “Special Delivery Blues” with Louis Armstrong. Her brother Hersal died of food poisoning and Sippie moved to Detroit in 1929 where both her husband and brother George died in 1936.
For some 30 years Sippie was singer and organist at The Leland Baptist Church and did little in the Blues until recording the album “Women Be Wise” with Roosevelt Sykes and Little Brother Montgomery. This album inspired Bonnie Raitt to take up with the Blues and she recorded the song on her debut album, going on to tour and recording with Sippie in the 70s and 80s.
Sippie continued to enjoy success in concert, on film and record until March 1986 when she suffered a severe stroke after a concert at Burghausen Jazz Festival in Germany. She died at Sinai Hospital in Detroit on her 88th birthday.
Willie Mae Thornton, better known as Big Mama Thornton, was the first to record Leiber and Stoller’s “Hound Dog” which stayed 7 weeks on The Billboard R&B charts in 1953, selling half a million copies, and was viewed at the time as an anthem of black female power. It has since been recorded more than 250 times, most famously by Elvis Presley.
Alabama-born Willie Mae started singing in a Baptist church where her father was the minister. She left school young to work in a local tavern, washing up and cleaning, and left home at 14 to join Diamond Teeth Mary in Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Revue, billed as The New Bessie Smith. Along with Memphis Minnie, Bessie was her main influence.
Big Mama moved to Houston when she was 22, signed to Peacock Records and in 1952 recorded “Hound Dog”, the first Leiber and Stoller production which many believe to be the dawn of rock and roll. She went on to enjoy a hugely successful career, recording, touring and performing with B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and many of the Blues Greats before dying prematurely at the age of 57. She died of heart and liver disorders brought on by her longstanding alcohol abuse.
There’s a strange footnote to her story. On Christmas Day in 1954, in a theatre in Houston, Texas, she was present when Johnny Ace, her stablemate on Duke and Peacock records, famously shot and killed himself accidentally while fooling around with a .22 pistol.
We’ve compiled all the songs listed here into a handy playlist on Spotify for you to listen to at your leisure: