If Geeshie Wiley (see ABON 0149) was the most talented female Early Blues singer/guitarist then Memphis Minnie was the most popular.
Just like Geeshie, Minnie played guitar brilliantly, sang with a voice as strong and as loud as many of her male peers and, at least in the early years, was accompanied by a second guitarist. But while Geeshie recorded just six tracks in 1930 and 1931 and then disappeared, Minnie was a major commercial success, recording over one hundred 78s between 1929 and the mid 1950s.
When discovered playing in a barbershop in Memphis in 1929, she was 32 years old and had already been a street singer and guitarist since 1912 when she had run away from home, aged 15. Her first recording session in 1929, accompanied by husband, Joe McCoy on second guitar, produced a big hit – ‘Bumble Bee’ - and she never really looked back.
Given her life before she was discovered it’s not surprising that she was anything but a shy and retiring wallflower. As soon as she became successful - and had real money for the first time in her life – she started to buy expensive and showy jewellery such as bracelets made out of silver dollars, to drive expensive cars and to wear glamorous dresses, whilst of course maintaining the hard drinking and tobacco chewing and spitting lifestyle she’d got used to as an itinerant Blues busker.
Although we don’t know much about Geeshie’s life, if the lyrics to the songs she wrote are at all accurate then she was quite a character too. They suggest that she drank hard, had few qualms about being paid for sex and might even consider violence if there was money to be had as a result.
So when the love lives of Geeshie and Minnie collided at some point around 1929 it must have been quite an event.
It seems that, in the late 1920s, Geeshie was romantically attached to guitarist Charlie McCoy. But by 1930, when she started recording, she had left Charlie and was partnered to another excellent guitarist, Casey Bill Weldon. Now Casey Bill had been Minnie’s husband (and second guitarist) until 1929, which raises the possibility that Geeshie enticed Minnie’s first husband away.
We don’t know how Minnie felt about the break-up of her first marriage or how she felt about Geeshie before or afterwards, but we do know that she didn’t waste much time in finding a replacement husband and guitarist. She married Charlie’s elder brother, Joe, in 1929. Of course Joe was also a brilliant guitarist.
‘I Never Told A Lie’ is an astonishingly frank confession of a song recorded at one of her earliest recording sessions, with new husband Joe McCoy playing second guitar. It contains the lyrics
“I love my baby, I mean to do what’s right
I never told him, I don’t like my life
I know I done done something
When I stole him from his wife”.
Which kind of suggests that money couldn’t buy happiness for Minnie and that if Geeshie had stolen Casey Bill from Minnie then she had been working on her plan B all along.
Available on the 5 CD set, ‘All The Published Sides 1929 – 1937: Amazon