Maria Muldaur and Friends
…First Came Memphis Minnie
BluesWax Rating: 8 out of 10
A Tribute To On of the Greats
By general acclaim, Lizzie Douglas, who performed under the stage name Memphis Minnie, was one of the finest blues musicians – not just female blues musicians – of the twentieth century. Born in Louisiana in 1897, she began recording in the late 1920s and throughout the next three decades was a wildly popular and highly acclaimed artist. A powerful and evocative singer and prolific songwriter, she was also an outstanding guitarist who famously (maybe apocryphally, we’ll never know) bested Big Bill Broonzy in a guitar “cutting” contest before a delighted crowd in her second adopted home, Chicago. (How did you guess? Yes, Memphis was her first adopted home.)
In addition to her musical proficiency, Minnie was a feisty innovator who was married sequentially to three excellent guitarists, all who usually played rhythm guitar behind her lead, because she sat in the backseat for nobody. She also moved by the late 1940s from acoustic to electric guitar and represents one of the bridging artists between classic country and urban Chicago blues. Even today her songs are frequently covered and she is cited as a major influence by many contemporary blues performers.
Innumerable tribute albums exist in honor of seminal bluesmen and -women — good ones honoring Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, and Fred McDowell come to mind — and they are of varying quality. The best are those in which homage is paid, without slavish imitation: great artists inspire creativity in others, not mimicry. This compilation meets that standard, part of the reason being that, in my opinion, Minnie’s voice is hard to duplicate anyway. She had a strong set of pipes and was able to modulate well, but stands out for the earthiness and unpretentiousness of her singing.
The thirteen songs on this album include eight penned by Minnie, one by Lucille Bogan, and the rest by Minnie’s third husband, Ernest Lawler. Maria Muldaur sings eight of them, abetted by one each by Rory Block, Bonnie Raitt, Ruthie Foster, Phoebe Snow, and Koko Taylor. That awesome list of female vocalists is supported by a correspondingly stellar lineup of backing musicians, featuring guitarist Del Rey, multi-instrumentalist Steve James, guitarist Steve Freund, guitarist-singer Alvin Youngblood Hart, and slide maven Bob Margolin, among others.
The two songs which may be familiar to most listeners are the first of the album, “Me and My Chauffeur” and “Nothin’ in Ramblin’.” Muldaur does a fine job on the former and Bonnie Raitt conquers the latter while playing a splendid guitar duet with Freund. Del Rey and Steve James similarly impress with their guitar interplay on “I’m Sailin’,” as does Hart in his vocal interplay with Muldaur on two cuts. In fact, there isn’t a bad outing on this CD, although variety is lacking since most of the songs share similar beats and country blues flavor. The exception is the last cut, “Black Rat Swing,” representing Minnie’s metamorphosis into electric blues as interpreted by one of her sterling heirs, Koko Taylor.
There are a few quibbles with the otherwise very informative liner notes: each song’s year of recording is omitted (e.g., Koko Taylor and Phoebe Snow are sadly no longer with us and their contributions are culled from the past), and the name of Ernest Lawler, Minnie’s third husband and collaborator, is spelled at least three different ways.
Kudos to Maria Muldaur and her friends for their salute to Memphis Minnie. Don’t hesitate to go back to the source to understand their reverence for Lizzie Douglas.
Steve Daniels is a contributing writer at BluesWax.
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