The name Victoria Spivey has been lost to many, but not to blues lovers and devotees. However there is much more to her than just blues music, her contribution to Civil Rights cannot be underestimated.
In 1929 during the depression she starred as Missy Rose in King Vidors first sound movie Hallelujah, and a film for which famed Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein expressed appreciation. It was a unique hard hitting film with music and an all Black cast that gave Vidor a Best Director’s nomination for the Oscars.
In 2008 the film was deemed of such cultural and historical importance that it was preserved by the Library of Congress, in 2013 it was shown by Fish Factory Arts Space as part of their ‘Cornwall Black History Month’ in Falmouth in 2015 and in February 2020 (pre-Covid 19) it was shown at the ‘Berlin Film Festivals’ 70th Anniversary celebrations.
This Formidable lady was a singer, songwriter, actress and business women a ‘Tour de Force’, ‘Blues Is My Business’, would become her motto, and she started taking care of matters early on by suing her publisher for royalties in 1928.
Her influence to bring rights to Black musicians worldwide cannot be underestimated, as a major contribution to Black Civil Rights influencing the British Blues Invasion of the early 60’s.
Victoria grew up in a musical family where her father, Grant, played in a string band while sisters, Addie and Elton, sang the blues. But it was Victoria who became the star with a beginning that took her moaning style of singing into honky tonks, bordellos, men’s clubs and gin mills all over Texas.
In 1926, she left for St. Louis and acquired a recording contract with OKeh records but found her stride in New York where she continued to record but performed in all the elite nightclubs, appeared in the musical, Hellzapoppin’ Revue, took a lead role in Hallelujah, the first musical feature film with an all black cast, and sang with the big bands in the 1940s. The crossover into the big band jazz genre allowed her to join Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, and Benny Goodman on stages across the country.
As the country’s musical tastes changed in the 1950s, she became an organist and choir master in her church and then in the 1960s she enjoyed a revival of her blues career, setting up her own ‘Spivey’ record label.
The Blues Foundation referred to her as ‘A Belle of the Blues’, she was attractive, classy, tall, and well educated for singers of her day. She carried all these attributes into the show business world where she not only became a noted singer but also a competent songwriter and savvy businesswomen. During her 1960s comeback, she formed her own record company and signed such artists as Sippie Wallace (who she urged out of retirement), Hannah Sylvester, Luther Johnson, and the young Bob Dylan.
Spivey believed that, ‘The blues is life and life is the blues’. Her signature songs included ‘Black Snake Blues’, ‘Dirty Tee Bee Blues’, ‘Detroit Moan’, and ‘Dope Head Blues’. She stamped each song with her moaning sound and uniquely sexy, tantalizing delivery.
Victoria Spivey was born in 1906 and died in 1976.