Dukes, Laura Ella
Dukes, Laura Ella
- Fred J. Hay
was born in Memphis, Tennessee, to Alex Dukes, a musician. Her mother’s name is not known, but according to a 1940 census, a Laura Dukes, aged thirty-two, was living in a Memphis household headed by a Josie Dukes, which also included Laura’s son, John Henry Day, aged sixteen. Laura was raised in predominantly African American North Memphis. Dukes was small: she stood four feet seven inches tall and weighed only eighty-five pounds in adulthood. From childhood she was known as “Little Laura” and “Little Bit.”
Alex Dukes, Little Laura’s father was a drummer in W. C. Handy’s band as well other groups. The elder Dukes had Laura appearing on stage by the time she was five years old. Dukes began her career as a singer and dancer working in traveling shows based out of Memphis. While working in East St. Louis she met Robert McCollum, an outstanding and influential blues musician better known as Robert Nighthawk, the name that he used on his recordings. Nighthawk taught Dukes to play four strings on the guitar and soon she switched to the banjo ukulele. Later in life she switched instruments again and adopted the standard ukulele to accompany her singing.
Dukes performed in the Grace Sutton Carnival and Dad Hildred Carnival, among other traveling shows, and worked with and was influenced by blues singer Effie Moore. Following her association with Robert Nighthawk, Little Laura worked with Will Batts’ South Memphis Jug Band and Will Shade’s Memphis Jug Band.
Other than the jug bands, Dukes usually performed with Dixieland-like jazz bands, playing for predominantly White audiences. By the early 1970s Dukes was performing with Son Smith’s band. After Smith’s death the band was led by Smith’s piano player Charlie Banks and was known as the Beale Street Originals.
Little Laura’s repertoire was varied including early blues, popular dance band music, and Dixieland. Especially popular with Memphis audiences was her rendition of W. C. Handy’s composition, “Memphis Blues” (“Mr. Crump Don’t Allow No Easy Riders Here …”). According to Dixon, Goodrich, and Rye’s Blues & Gospel Records, 1890–1943 (pp. 614-615), Dukes played both ukulele and mandolin on a few South Memphis Jug Band recordings in 1934. The South Memphis Jug Band traveled north to record in 1954. These songs were eventually released on Flyright LP 113 South Memphis Jug Band in 1976. An unissued session recorded by Swedish radio in Memphis in 1964 remains unissued. Nine songs by Dukes accompanied by jug band musicians Will Shade and Gus Cannon at a private party in 1961 were released on Wolf LP 120.920, Memphis Sessions 1956–1961. Field recording of four songs of Dukes singing and playing solo from 1972 are available on Albatross 8240 Tennessee Blues, Vol. 1 and a version of Dukes performing “Mr. Crump Don’t ’Low” (Memphis Blues) was issued on the LP, Tennessee: The Folk Heritage, Vol. 1: The Delta released by the Tennessee Folklore Society in 1978. Dukes appears in the 1976 BBC television documentary The Devil’s Music: A History of the Blues. A live recording of Dukes accompanied by a band was released as “Alive and Well” at Blues Alley—Memphis, TN on Blues Alley BAAS-483 in 1983. Dukes died in her native Memphis on 10 October 1992.
- Information about Dukes’ parents and family details can be found in census data and other public records available through genealogy websites. See. https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QKWR-QXT2.
- Dixon, Robert M. W., John Goodrich, and Howard W. Rye. Blues & Gospel Records, 1890–1943. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
- Hay, Fred J. Goin’ Back to Sweet Memphis: Conversations With The Blues. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001.
- Springer, Robert. “‘I Never Did Like to Imitate Nobody’.” Blues Unlimited 125 (1977): 19–21.
- Obituary: Memphis Commercial Appeal, 16 October 1992.