The First American Idol

1237
2019 Beth Hart wide

Courtesy of our good friends at the Delta Blues Blog, enjoy the story behind the original music competitions — born on the mean streets of the blues!

Long before singing competitions hit the airwaves, blues artists had what they called “Cutting Contests.”

Before singing competitions of the modern era, blues stars used to engage in what they called, “Cutting Contests.”  Now most blues fans have heard of choppin’ heads, which is a different thing altogether.  Choppin’ heads is usually used in reference to playing on the street, with a blues musician standing at alternate corners.  The goal of choppin’ heads is to take the crowd, or the majority of it, and hold for the longest amount of time.  The reward? The amount you make in tips.  back in the day, even the crowd knew what was going on – and they participated.

No, a cutting contest is not choppin’ heads.  Cutting contests are organized, and it is all together different.  These contests were held in jukes, town halls, and clubs.  There were official judges present.  The reward was usually alcohol, and of course bragging rights.  These contests were not to see who could pull a crowd — this was much more serious.  These were to see who was the best musician.  The crowd took it seriously, and the artists took it seriously.

The term “Cutting Contest” was adopted by blues players.  The term was coined sometime in the early 20’s, and it used to represent piano players competing against each other in a pre-arranged contest.  The term actually referred to “cutting” someone – meaning outplaying them so well you took their job.  These serious types of piano contests came to an end (mostly) in the late 20’s, as piano players gained more stable gigs.  There was no reason to outplay each other for work.  Now it was done to brag.  The blues players of the 30’s borrowed this idea, with the same goal in mind — outplay the other musician.

One of the more famous (although sometimes unknown) Cutting Contests took place on June 26, 1933 (John Farley wrote a great article about it).  Big Bill Broonzy was not only celebrating his 40th birthday that day, he was also to engage in a cutting contest with Memphis Minnie in a Chicago club.  At the time, Broonzy and Memphis Minnie were blues stars.  In fact, they both admired each other tremendously.  Their paths had crossed before, as they played in some of the same clubs, jukes, and parties.  They even knew the same people.  Broonzy even once commented “…[Memphis Minnie] can pick a guitar and sing as good as any man I ever heard.”  The night of the contest, Broonzy was a little worried.

The prize for the contest was a bottle of gin… and a bottle of whiskey.   The club was packed, standing room only, anticipating the contest.  The booze was flowing freely and everyone was excited.  The crowd buzzed.  Judges picked for the contest were Sleepy John Estes, Richard Jones, and of course, the man in the middle of Chicago blues during that time, Tampa Red.  The musicians who were hired to play the club wrapped up their sets around 1:30AM.  it was time.  Broonzy was set to take the stage first.

Tampa Red called Broonzy to the stage.  As soon as he walked up there, it is rumored the crowd cheered for 10 minutes before he even started a song.  He played two songs: “Just a Dream”, one of his personal best, and followed it with “Make my Getaway.”  The crowd roared.  He had done all he could.  Memphis Minnie was up next.  Tampa Red called her to the stage.  Instead of cheers, she was greeted by an eager crowd, who whispered and hushed each other into silence.  She also played two numbers: “Me and My Chauffeur Blues” and “Looking the World Over.”  However, as she finished her first song, the crowd cheered for over 20 minutes.  She didn’t even really have to play her second song – it was clear who the winner was.

Memphis Minnie had won, just as Broonzy feared.  Estes and Jones approached Minnie, and lifted her onto their shoulders, carrying her around the club.  Big Bill got the last laugh, though.  While the crowd – and Minnie – were busy celebrating the victory, he snatched the bottle of whiskey and drank the whole thing.

A lot of blues scholars accuse Big Bill of embellishing stories, and making up tales.  Turns out though, in this case, he was likely accurate.  James Watt, a member of the Blues Rockers, recalls Minnie going to toe to toe with Muddy Waters in cutting contests on several occasions.  He went on to say, “…Memphis Minnie would tell Muddy, ‘I’m getting that fifth of whiskey.’  She’d get it every time, though.  She’d get it every time… I saw her beat ten different artists one night.”  She was not only a queen of blues; she was the best at cutting contests.

Memphis Minnie was a pioneer as well.  She always helped the blues to move in new directions.  She even played with an electric guitar later in her career.   She died, as so many blues artists did, in obscurity, poor, and in bad health August 6th 1973.  No doubt, that night in June of 1933 was one of her fondest memories.