Pat Blythe: Women and the Blues…The Saga Continues
It’s Tuesday night and I have just been diagnosed with a severe case of bronchitis. Shit!!!! Not what I need right now. Tired and hacking up a lung or two the doc has just put me on some mighty powerful antibiotics. I take them for five days but they remain in my system for two weeks. I’m in London staying at my mom’s and seeing to a customer and their installation so I have no time to whinge. (….and Dr. T., if you’re reading this I was forced to go to a walk-in clinic by my sister which is why this is the first you’re hearing about this.) So, now that diatribe is over, on to the column….short and sweet.
I had mentioned a few “lesser known” female blues singers and thought I would enlighten you with a few tidbits about these ‘bluesy’ ladies. I’ve looked at Memphis Minnie, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Maggie Bell and Big Mama Thornton…and there are more where they came from. However, something more than a nod needs to go to the female blues artists who gave just as much as “the names”, some even more so, but for whatever reason, didn’t quite “make it”. First up….
Referred to as the “Uncrowned Queen of Blues” by Paramount during her recording years with the label, Ida Prather was born to sharecropper parents, February 26, 1896….Toccoa, Habersham County, Georgia to be precise. Like many performers during that time, Cox began singing in her local church choir before leaving home at the age of 14 to tour with White and Clark’s Black & Tan Minstrels, often performing blackface. Cox, like many of her contemporaries, spent time touring with the various minstrel shows throughout the south. When not singing, Cox also earned money performing “as a sharp-witted comedienne in vaudeville variety shows, gaining valuable stage experience…” In 1916 she married trumpeter Alder Cox, retaining his last name throughout her life and subsequent marriages — the second to Eugene Williams and the third to blues pianist Jessie “Tiny” Crump.
Cox toured with the likes of Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver and in 1923 signed a recording contact with the Paramount label. She stayed with Paramount for six years and recorded a total of 78 songs for them. Cox also recorded for a variety of other labels during this period using different pseudonyms including Kate Lewis, Velma Bradley, Julia Powers and Jane Smith. She wrote much of her own material and had several of her own touring companies such as Raisin’ Cain (formed with then husband Jessie Crump) and Darktown Scandals. Raisin’ Cain was so popular it became the first TOBA show to open at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, NYC. The 1930’s were challenging for most artists but Cox persevered, continuing to perform and by the late thirties was a regular at the Cafe Society night club in New York City. Cox suffered stroke and collapsed while performing at a nightclub in Buffalo, New York, forcing her into an early retirement. During the 1950’s she began performing sporadically and recorded for the last time in 1961 for the Riverside label. Cox died of cancer in 1967.
Ida Cox Sings The Blues
“Wild Women Don’t Have The Blues”, one of Cox’s most famous and enduring songs is noted as one of the earliest feminist anthems. It became the signature song for Francine Reed who has toured with Lyle Lovett. I had the opportunity to watch Reed perform with Lovett’s Large Band at the Vancouver MusicFest this year on Vancouver Island.
Francine Reed performing at the Vancouver MusicFest 2015 with Lyle Lovett and his Large Band (photo by The Picture Taker)
“I’ve got a disposition and a way of my own,
When my man starts to kicking I let him find a new home,
I get full of good liquor, walk the street all night
Go home and put my man out if he don’t act right
Wild women don’t worry,
Wild women don’t have the blues”
Wild Women Don’t Have The Blues – Francine Reed
Spivey worked with Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Clarence Williams, Luis Russell and Bob Dylan. Born in 1906 in Houston, Texas, her father was a part-time musician while her sister and brother were singers and musicians in their own right, both recording for several major record labels. Spivey began her career singing with the family string band and at the age of seven and after her father died, began performing on her own a local parties. She was eventually hired to accompany films at the Lincoln Theater in Dallas, later working in nightclubs and buffet flats, mostly as a solo artist. In 1926 Spivey signed with Okeh, recording “Black Snake Blues” for the label. In 1929 she switch to RCA Victor and between 1931 and 1937 recorded for the Vocalion and Decca labels. During the Depression she worked with director King Vidor who cast her as Missy Rose in his first sound film Hallelujah! In 1951 she retired from show business to play the pipe organ but was lured back by former singing partner Lonnie Johnson. He asked her to appear on his upcoming album Prestige Bluesville album.
Bob Dylan and Victoria Spivey at Newport Festival 1963
In 1962 Spivey launched her own label, Spivey Records, with partner jazz historian Len Kunstadt. It was a low-budget label (originally called Queen Vee Records) dedicated to blues and related music. A sampling of their recording artists include Willie Dixon Roosevelt Sykes, Big Joe Turner, Buddy Tate and Sippie Wallace. Even Bob Dylan recorded for Spivey Records, contributing harmonica and back-up vocals, accompanying Spivey and Big Joe Williams on one of their recordings. Spivey continued to perform right up until her death in 1976. She was in demand on the folk-blues festival circuit and performed often in the nightclubs in around New York City. She had greatly influenced many musicians including Dylan and Bonnie Raitt.
A very young Bob Dylan and Victoria Spivey
Spivey’s companion Len Kunstadt was both the editor and publisher of Record Research. He was also Spivey’s agent manager and long time partner. In an interview with Norbert Hess, Kunstadt is quoted as saying, “Victoria knew the musicians and scouted for new talent. This went on for 16 years. In my opinion, from 1961 to her death in 1976, she was more creative than ever before. Her fantastic way of winning over Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters for our company , and her concern for Bob Dylan….”
Otis Spann, Victoria Spivey and Muddy Waters, 1964. Spann holds Spivey’s album Chicago Blues.
Spivey lived well into the 70’s and witnessed so many changes to the way the blues was being presented. Many bands on both sides of the ocean had their own interpretations, creating their own versions of the blues but keeping the heart. “Victoria Spivey was one of the more influential blues women simply because she was around long enough to influence legions of younger women and men who rediscovered blues music during the mid-60s U.S. blues revival, which had been brought about by British blues bands as well as their American counterparts like Paul Butterfield and Elvin Bishop. Spivey could do it all: she wrote songs, sang them well, and accompanied herself on piano and organ, and occasionally ukulele.”
Black Snake Blues – Victoria Spivey
Sources – YouTube, Wikipedia, AllMusic, African American Registry, Georgia Encyclopedia, About Entertainment, Sunday Blues
Pat’s column appears every Wednesday.
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In “real” life Pat Blythe has spent the past 32 years as a consultant and design specialist in the telecommunications industry. After an extended absence Pat is now heading back to the GTA clubs, immersing herself in the local music scene, tasting what’s on offer, talking to people and writing once again — sharing her passions and her deep love of music. Together for 34 years, Pat also worked alongside her late husbandChristopher Blythe, The PictureTaker©, who shot much of the local talent (think Goddo, Frank Soda and the Imps, Plateau, Buzzsaw, Hellfield….) as well as national and international acts, Currently making her way through 40 years of Chris’s archives, Pat is currently compiling a photographic history of the local GTA music scene from 1975 to 1985. It continues to be a work in progress. Oh…..and she LOVES to dance!