The great American blues singer and pianist Victoria Spivey’s long and influential career began as part of her family’s string band which was led by her father, who would die when she was just seven. After this, Victoria would perform by herself at parties and various events around Houston, and later accompanying silent movies on the organ at the Lincoln Theater in Dallas.
Although she was mostly a solo act in her early years, on occasion she would perform with accompaniment from Blind Lemon Jefferson on guitar. Spivey took her cue from “dirty” blues belter Ida Cox penning and performing bawdy songs about drugs and sex in various dives, speakeasies, houses of ill repute, gambling parlours and gay bars.
King Vidor cast Spivey as the good girl Missy in his 1929 classic Hallelujah, one of the first Hollywood films with sound. Queen Vee was a star of Broadway’s famous Hellzapoppin’ Revue in the 1930s and logged many miles of road time with Louis Armstrong as a featured singer in various incarnations of his touring groups. Spivey retired from showbiz in 1951, but when the folk craze of the early 1960s hit, she found herself in demand again.
She and her boyfriend, jazz scholar Len Kunstadt, formed the Spivey Records label in 1962. Her first release on her own label featured a young Bob Dylan as a backing vocalist and harmonica player and the label would release albums by Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, Big Joe Williams, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Lonnie Johnson, Memphis Slim, and Louis Armstrong. Victoria Spivey died in 1976 and the label was kept going until Kunstadt’s passing in 1996.
She recorded her first song, “Black Snake Blues” for the famed OKeh label in 1926. Here she is performing it in 1963 during the American Folk Blues Festival European Tour with Lonnie Johnson on guitar and Sonny Boy Williamson on harmonica.
More Victoria Spivey after the jump…