Memphis Minnie Vol. 2: Complete Recorded Works (1935-1936)
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December 1935 found Memphis Minnie back in the Chicago studios of what was then the American Recording Company and she would record for no one else for fourteen years. After the experimentation of 1935, the emphasis in her recording career now shifted decisively to the band sound characteristic of Chicago in the later thirties. The changes reflect a demand for overtly danceable rhythms and can be seen as an early portent of the process by which blues merged with small-band swing to become rhythm and blues.
It is likely that this shift to band backings was reflected outside the recording studios. Minnie is known to have played an engagement at the Tramor Hotel, Chicago, with Black Bob on piano during 1936. It is Black Bob who is the dominant instrumental voice on several of these sessions. The true “identity” of this brilliant pianist has probably generated more heat and less light than any comparable controversy in jazz and blues history. His presence on those 1936 sessions where a pianist is heard is hard to doubt aurally. On If You See My Rooster, Minnie three times addresses the pianist as “Bob”.
The February session has a more limited accompaniment and Minnie gives her best. Hoodoo Lady is particularly interesting, encapsulating the worldwide attitude of the folk community to the “wise woman”. Her help is needed, but “Boys, I’m scared of her”. She must be propitiated by assertions that, “I’m your friend” and a repeated refrain of “Don’t put that thing on me”. The next session is characterized by an unidentified woodblocks player, whose rhythmic thumping generates an unusual ambience to say the least. From Minnie it produced an avalanche of double entendres. “Everybody wants to buy my kitty; I wouldn’t sell that cat to save your soul”; “I ain’t found no eggs in my basket, since my rooster been gone”.
The presence of a trumpeter on the November 12th session serves as a reminder that the process of turning small band swing into rhythm and blues is also continuous with the barrelhouse jazz of Chicago in the twenties. It is no accident that several bandsmen from New Orleans got involved with these Chicago blues bands of the thirties. The results here range from a jazz performance of Dragging My Heart Around (reminiscent not only of the Harlem Hamfats and country jazz bands like Kitty Gray’s Wampus Cats, but also of the Washboard Rhythm Kings) to I Don’t Want You No More, where the trumpet answers the voice in the manner of the best vaudeville blues. The prevailing atmosphere is jaunty and determined. Even on the sombre Out In The Cold, Minnie’s “boo-hoos” seem to defy despair.
In the long run Minnie seems to have decided that band accompaniments didn’t altogether suit her. Nonetheless, the results of this flirtation are deserving of close study.