Bertha Lee and Charlie Patton: A turbulent and volatile relationship which created a lot of great music

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Bertha Lee was a classic female blues singer in the 1920’ and 1930’s from the Mississippi Delta, who was Charlie Patton’s common-law wife. Their relationship was volatile and turbulent, but was musically very creative and productive. Lee sang on twelve of Patton’s recordings, including the final session months before his death in 1934.

Bertha Lee

Lee and Patton made the long train trip to New York to make their last recording session at Paramount on Jan. 31, 1934.  These recordings clearly document Lee’s talent as a singer. In the song “Mind Reader Blues,” Lee chastises Patton, with her sultry voice, as he lovingly accompanies her on the guitar. Patton had a long-established habit of being a womanizer. The lyrics are auto-biographical and in the fourth verse Lee sings:

I remember a day when I were livin’ at Lula (Mississippi) town,

I remember a day when I were livin’ at Lula town,

my man did so many wrong things ’til I had to leave the town.

Bertha Lee Pate was born in Flora, Mississippi in 1902 and moved with her family to Lula as a young girl. Lee met Patton in 1930 and the couple settled in Holly Ridge, Mississippi in 1933. We are not sure what Patton did that they had to leave Lula Town. However, we do know their relationship was volatile and turbulent.

For example, both of them were incarcerated in a Belzoni, Mississippi jailhouse after a particularly harsh fight. Delta Blues musician Son House recalls another squabble in which Lee pinned Patton to the floor and pummelled him with her fists. However, Lee showed Patton more loyalty than any of his friends or lovers. She left stable employment in Lula to travel with Patton. Lee’s talent was recognized by Patton. But, his heart trouble may have spurred Lee to develop her singing, as a way of giving his voice a rest during performances.

Another song called “Yellow Bee” was recorded at the last session in New York City. This tune is loosely based on a popular song by Memphis Minnie called “Bumble Bee”. Patton apparently taught Lee the song prior to the recording session. The song is clearly sexual in nature and employs imagery of a long stinger, making honey, and buzzing around a hive. Lee sings lovingly to Patton, who responds to her come on in his asides during the tune.

The recordings of Lee and Patton that survive today are very poor in sound quality, because the re-released versions were produced without the original metal masters. They were sold off as scrap when Paramount went out of business. The current recordings were produced using the original 78s that were made of inferior pressing material and are scratched from being heavily played.

Patton was in poor health when he made the recordings and died three months later. Despite his heart trouble, Patton was very productive in the studio. He made 29 recordings, but only 12 were commercially released. According to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Preservation Board, at least ten of Lee and Patton’s recordings from 1934 are missing. But, it is still possible they may exist somewhere, like someone’s attic. The rest of the recordings are believed to be lost.

The number of titles Patton and Lee produced in the last session suggests that if Patton had lived he would have released more records with Bertha Lee. In addition, they would have appeared together to sing these songs in live performances. This would have led to Bertha Lee’s further success as a recording artist.

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