WUMB October Program Guide

Victoria Spivey: “Blues is My Business”

Victoria Spivey is one of those names in American music that should be better known. In fact, her name, even when acknowledged, is often mis-pronounced. I wouldn’t have known myself how to correctly pronounce it had I not stumbled across a song of hers on an American Folk Blues Festival LP from 1963 featuring a song of hers about her father. In it she pronounces his name “Grant Spee-vey”. It’s a gut-wrencher of a song.

Victoria began singing professionally as a child in her father’s Houston Texas-based string band. When he died suddenly in 1918, she continued performing as an accompanist for silent films and alongside other Texas musicians like Blind Lemon Jefferson. During the 20s she began recording for the OKeh and Vocalion labels with the likes of Louis Armstrong and King Oliver backing her up. This period also saw the beginning of a working friendship with Lonnie Johnson, one of the developers of modern guitar-playing, that the pair returned to decades later.

Unlike some of her contemporaries, including Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, the Great Depression and shifting tastes of the record-buying public did not put an end to Victoria’s career in the music business. Instead, she morphed with the times and shifted her focus to film and theater work. In 1938 she became a part of the cast of Hellzapoppin, the longest-running Broadway show of its time. This work continued until she retired in the early 1950s and focused her attention on playing pipe organ and leading a church choir.

Show business came calling again during the early 60’s folk revival. Victoria discovered that there was a whole new, young generation of fans who were interested in her classic style of blues singing. She performed as part of the American Folk Blues Festival in Europe in 1963 and recorded sides with her 1920s guitar-playing partner Lonnie Johnson for the Prestige record label. Perhaps most impressive was the formation of Victoria’s own label, Spivey Records, founded to record fellow blue and jazz musicians. In 1962 her label was the first to record Bob Dylan, who was hired him to play accompanying harmonica on a Big Joe Williams session.

Throughout the rest of the 60s and into 70s French and British audiences were most-often treated to Victoria’s radio, television, and club performances. Til her death in 1976 she was celebrated for her style of singing that kept alive the brassy early days of women blue singers, and although her contributions to American culture spanned several formats and media, she had a simple way of introducing herself to new and potential associates; a card that simply read “Victoria Spivey: Blues Is My Business”.

The Morning Show will celebrate Victoria Spivey on the anniversary of her birth on Thursday, October 15th.

~ Brendan

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