Victoria Spivey was born into a family chock full of musical talent. Her father, employed as a railroad flagman, was also a part-time musician. Her mother was a nurse (I promise a longer post some day about African American women nurses around the turn of the last century -- it's a fascinating story!). And all three of her sisters were musicians.
Together, they formed a family string band, and performed around Houston, Texas. Sadly, her father died when she was only 7 years old, leaving her to find her way in the music business without him. As it turns out, she did quite well. Even as a child, she continued to perform at local parties, and at the age of 12 was hired to accompany films at the Lincoln Theater in Dallas.
All through her teen years, she worked in local bars, nightclubs, and buffet flats, learning and growing musically. She usually performed solo, but occasionally with other, more experienced singers and guitarists.
At the age of 19, she moved to St. Louis. It was there where she began her recording career. Her first song, "Black Snake Blues" was a success, followed by other songs that were equally well received. Because of her experience working in some of the shadier parts of town and hanging out with prostitutes and drug addicts, many of these characters and themes found their way into her music.
In the early '20s, she played in gambling parlors, gay hangouts, and brothels in Galveston and Houston with Blind Lemon Jefferson. Among Spivey's many influences was Ida Cox, herself a sassy blues woman, and taking her cue from Cox, Spivey wrote and recorded tunes like "TB Blues," "Dope Head Blues," and "Organ Grinder Blues." Spivey's other influences included Bobby "Blue" Bland, Sara Martin, and Bessie Smith. Like so many other women blues singers who had their heyday in the '20s and '30s, Spivey wasn't afraid to sing sexually suggestive lyrics, and this turned out to be a blessing nearly 40 years later given the sexual revolution of the '60s and early '70s.By 1929, she was well known in the blues community, and was given the role of Missy Rose in the all black musical film Hallelujah directed by King Vidor. Even during the Great Depression, she was busy performing, touring and recording with many famous musicians of the era, including Louis Armstrong, as well as appearing in other films and musical reviews.
For a brief period in the 1950s, she was considered semi-retired. Even then her incredible musical talent was still a big part of her life, and she spent these years as choir director and pipe organist in her church. But when the folk music revival started in the early 1960s, she felt called back to secular music. This time, she was not only performing, but leading the charge to find and support new musicians as well as bring attention to other, lesser-known musicians from the past.
After taking a semi-retirement in the 1950s, Spivey returned to performing in the United States and internationally in Europe and in 1962 began her own record company, Spivey Records. She used this company as a vehicle to resurrect older blues artists as well as introduce new artists, including Luther Johnson, Lucille Span, Olive Brown, and the first recording of folk artist Bob Dylan. She also recorded some of her own music during this period and occasionally performed on television. By the time of her death in 1976 she had attained copyrights on the lyrics of at least seventy-five songs.Her immense talent and staying-power is truly remarkable.
(source: Emory University)
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.This is certainly one kickass blues lady who deserves plenty more attention!
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For more information:
The Blues Trail - Victoria Spivey
The Blindman's Blues Forum
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