Today is the birthday of the great early blues queen Victoria Spivey (1906-1976). The native Texan got her professional start as a child, singing and playing piano in movie theatres, saloons, whorehouses and black vaudeville, sometimes with her siblings Addie “Sweet Peas” Spivey and Elton Island Spivey. She began cutting records for Okeh in 1926, later switching to Vocalion and Decca, recording with the likes of King Oliver, Louie Armstrong, Lonnie Johnson and Red Allen. Hits included “Black Snake Blues”, “Dirty T.B. Blues”, and “Hoodoo Man Blues”. She was one of the stars of the seminal all-black King Vidor film Halleluiah! (1929).
By the 1950s she was retired from show business and working as a church organist, although she re-emerged during the folk and blues revival in 1962, forming her own label Spivey Records, on which she recorded herself and many of the other still-surviving blues greats. In one of these sessions, her harmonica accompaniment was provided by a young unknown named Bob Dylan, making Spivey one of the great links between the old and the new kind of show business.
Here she is with Lonnie Johnson, performing the “Dope Head Blues”:
To find out more about vaudeville past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc