Blues musician Jessie Mae Hemphill dies

Country blues musician Jessie Mae Hemphill, who died Saturday 29 July 2006, was the winner of three W.C. Handy Awards.

A black-and-white picture of legendary blues musician Jessie Mae Hemphill in a cowboy hat holding a cigarette in one hand and a revolver in the other stares out at you from her Web site. To many this was the epitome of the multiple Handy award winner.

“That was her. She was a tough cookie who was also a spiritual woman who cared about her music,” said Olga Wilhelmine, founder and president of the Jessie Mae Hemphill Foundation. At the age of 72, Hemphill died Saturday at the Regional Medical Center at Memphis. Wilhelmine said the artist experienced complications of an infection that may have resulted from an ulcer.

Born in Como, Miss., she was the granddaughter of North Mississippi fife master Sid Hemphill.

She spent 20 years in Memphis, and played the clubs on Beale Street.

“She had a creative, unique sound that was what people call country blues,” said University of Memphis blues scholar and bluesman David Evans, who toured as a guitar accompanist with Hemphill.

It was Evans who produced her first three albums — She-Wolf, Feelin’ Good and Get Right Blues and encouraged Hemphill to start her professional career in the 1980s.

“The talent was always there, she just never had an opportunity to perform when she was younger,” Evans said. “She was an extraordinary lady and creative as a composer and a stylist deeply rooted in tradition going back to her aunts and grandfather and great-grandfather.”

Just as her career was taking off with gigs in Europe and Canada, she suffered a stroke in 1993 that weakened her left side and left her unable to play guitar. But her voice was not affected.

Hemphill won the W.C. Handy Award for Best Traditional Female Blues Artist in both 1987 and 1988. In 1991, she won the Handy Award for Best Acoustic Album.

She wanted to help those in the blues community because the community helped her last year when she was nearly evicted from her trailer in Senatobia, Miss.

Raising money, friends and musicians relocated her to a home in Clarksdale.

Wihelmine, a blues singer who spearheaded Hemphill’s nonprofit foundation, also produced her last album, Dare You to Do It Again, on her 219 Records label in February 2004.

“Yes, she was a pioneering blueswoman,” Wihelmine said. “And she cared so much about her community.”

In May, she made one of her last public appearances at the Memphis in May music festival with bluesman Richard Johnston.

Still weakened by her stroke, she sang a little and played her tambourine.

Associates said her music will live on in the efforts of people like Memphis filmmaker Craig Brewer, who plans to use one of her songs in his latest movie.

“She was definitely ahead of her time and will be missed by so many in the blues community,” Evans said.

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