The lonesome legacy of Lottie Beaman, Kansas City’s forgotten Queen of the Blues

Lottie Beaman with record promoter Winston Holmes in a photo originally published in The Kansas City American, 1929 (The Kansas City American)

A career of brief eminence and a big, woeful, bluesy sound

You know how these things go. You open a box of stuff that bubbles up from the basement and you find a letter from a friend that you failed to respond to, oh, maybe 30-odd years ago. And soon enough you track down said friend and you’re corresponding by email as if all that time had never happened.

Or you uncover yet another stash of LPs you hadn’t looked at or listened to for decades, and then you put one on the turntable and start reading the liner notes (remember those?) and you make a discovery that had never registered before. So there you are, after all these years, getting acquainted with a long forgotten blues singer from Kansas City who surely deserves more recognition.

Her name was Lottie Beaman, also known by her maiden name, Lottie Kimbrough, and perhaps a few recording pseudonyms. In the mid- to late 1920s she made some records — in Kansas City, Chicago and maybe elsewhere — and earned a reputation with a big, woeful, bluesy sound that put some listeners in mind of Gertrude “Ma” Rainey. Ma Rainey already had been designated the “mother of the blues,” but her recording career began not long before Lottie Kimbrough Beaman cut at least a dozen tracks of relative distinction.

Beaman and Rainey very likely crossed paths in a Chicago recording studio. They even shared a couple of Kansas City guitarists, the twins Miles and Milas Pruett (sometimes spelled Pruitt), who appear on recordings by both singers as well as other prominent blues performers of the day. One account indicates that all the musicians gathered after a recording session at Rainey’s Chicago apartment.

How do you recover history that is so difficult to find? How do you tell the story of someone who left little more than a brief aural footprint? How much of Kansas City’s musical and social history is lost in the mist and the buried minutiae of the distant past? Such questions always come to mind when I return to the matter of Lottie Beaman, which I did a while back as part of a public talk about Kansas City history.

Two of Beaman’s songs appeared on that record I found in my collection, an LP called “Going Away Blues, 1926-1935” (a Yazoo release, circa 1969). Her lyrical turf stretches through heartbreak, disaffection, survival and woe. On both tracks her guitar accompanist is listed as Miles Pruett. In the LP’s title song, the woman has left the man who done her wrong and confesses, “I’ve got Cadillac ways, Hudson Super ideas, I can’t see what brought me here/ I can’t see what brought me here/ It must have been this new Kansas City beer.”

I have mixed feelings about a book I picked up a few years ago called “The Blues Line,” a collection of song lyrics that spans the 20th century as a kind of poetic record of the African American experience. The book’s compiler, Eric Sackheim, had the wisdom to include two of Lottie Kimbrough Beaman’s songs, but in that line I just quoted, he overlooked the word “Hudson” — the Hudson Super was a car model of the 1920s — and, more egregiously, he missed “Kansas City” entirely. Instead, he rendered the phrase “canned city beer.” Now, Beaman does slide a bit past the second syllable of “Kansas,” but I would chalk up this omission as yet more evidence that flyover country, of which Kansas City often serves as the capital, is a state of mind. So Kansas City’s musical history in this case takes another hit.

The other Beaman song on that Yazoo record, “Rolling Log Blues,” found a life decades beyond her. In the song, a woman is cast adrift, like a log jammed on a riverbank. Her man’s in jail and the judge won’t let her post bail. The deep sadness of the blues pervades. But you know she will carry on. The Canadian singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie recorded “Rolling Log Blues” in the 1960s. Maria Muldaur and blues guitarist Rory Block are among those who have kept Beaman’s song alive.

The rest of Kimbrough Beaman’s recorded output can be found on an anthology disc called “Kansas City Blues 1924-1929,” which was put out by a Scottish label, Document, in the early 1990s. As I poked around the web a few years ago, I bought what the label rep told me was its last copy in stock. But I also discovered that the complete album was available for streaming on Spotify, so that’s a plus for anyone who wants to hear what I’m talking about. Songs like “Honey Blues,” “Sugar Daddy Blues” (“You left me, Daddy, down on Sixth and Grand”), and “Low Down Painful Blues” resonate in their quaint and distant authenticity with the often intertwined and complicated histories of pop music and Black culture. You can find in them, if you listen, the exposed “hidden republic” of democracy that the critic Greil Marcus once ascribed to an important collection of American folk and blues.

Yet. Yet. Very little is known definitively about Lottie Beaman. Her story is muddied by the appearance of a singer on a couple of the pertinent songs identified as Lena Kimbrough. It’s possible that Lena was another pseudonym for Lottie. On those sides she appears as a duo with Sylvester Kimbrough, who was, in fact, Lottie’s brother — though some historians, including Chuck Haddix at UMKC’s Marr Sound Archives, are of the mind that Lottie and Lena were not one and the same. (Haddix graciously shared his files, which helped me plug a few gaps. “I’m still confused by all this,” he told me.) On one song (“City of the Dead”) Lena’s voice does appear to be somewhat different than Lottie’s, a bit higher and more vibrato, but on “Cabbage Head Blues,” well, she sure sounds a lot like the contralto Lottie.

Making Her Mark

It’s most likely that Lottie Kimbrough was born in 1894 in Arkansas (some accounts have her coming from Kansas City’s rough-and-tumble West Bottoms). She was briefly married to a man named Mitchell. She then married William Beaman, a laborer in a meat-packing plant, with whom she appears in U.S. Census records for Kansas City, Kansas, as late as 1940. According to a news item in the Kansas City Call in the early 1920s, she had undertaken formal voice studies in Europe. But by 1924, her name appears in a newspaper ad for Paramount’s “race” records. It listed Beaman’s “Red River Blues” and “Honey Blues” alongside discs by Rainey, the great Ethel Waters and others.

Another ad, for a Pittsburgh record store, later the same year includes Beaman’s “Regular Man Blues” and “Mama Can’t Lose” (for 75 cents) among a dozen or so new releases.

The paper trail is a little more expansive for Winston Holmes, who promoted and recorded Beaman and served as her manager in the late 1920s. Holmes had a varied career. A onetime prizefighter and vaudevillian, he once ran for a seat as a Kansas City alderman, in 1917, so he had a certain level of prominence in the community. Later he established a music business in the 18th and Vine commercial district, the lively blocks sometimes referred to as Kansas City’s “black downtown.” Holmes was a piano tuner and apparently repaired phonographs. He and his wife ran a music store, selling records, piano rolls, sheet music and equipment, at 1704 E. 18th St. Holmes also outfitted a recording studio there and issued records of local musicians and a preacher’s sermons under the Meritt label, until the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression took its toll on consumer spending.

As Beaman’s manager, Holmes was likely responsible for some of the pseudonyms attached to her on recordings for various labels. Aside from her blues records, Holmes and Lottie Kimbrough appear on gospel recordings made with the congregation of a local minister named the Rev. B.L. Wrightman. But by the 1930s, Beaman’s run as a notable blues artist had apparently come to an end. She remained deep in the shadows cast by the rise of Bessie Smith, for one, by the more popular and danceable sounds of jazz emanating from Kansas City, and by the economic, technological and cultural upheavals of the era.

Lottie Beaman anthology disc, “Kansas City Blues 1924-1929” (document records)

One published photograph and a line sketch appearing on the cover of “Kansas City Blues” indicate that Lottie was a large woman. Some accounts suggest Holmes used pictures of Lottie’s better-looking sister, Estella — not named Lena, alas — to promote her. And it remains unfortunate, if true or not, that Holmes burdened her with a stage persona as the Kansas City Butterball, apparently borrowing a similar nickname given to the rotund Ma Rainey (the “Louisville Butterball”).

If Lottie Beaman or Winston Holmes or any of their blues-playing colleagues frequented nightspots and “cellar dives” near 18th and Vine or elsewhere in Prohibition-era Kansas City, detailed evidence remains to be found. Haddix uncovered mention of her appearances in shows at various Kansas City theaters as well as in the recording studios of WDAF, the radio station then housed in the Kansas City Star building, less than a mile west of 18th and Vine.

Sadly — and when is it ever otherwise in stories like this? — one place connected to the Kimbrough family in the mid-1920s, on 24th Street just east of Highland, is now an overgrown vacant lot piled with trash. The building where Holmes operated his music business has long been scraped and replaced, though across the street, the site of the Boone Theater and other erstwhile musical operations remains, if in a somewhat delicate, boarded-up state. The building’s facade got a movie turn on the set of Robert Altman’s mid-1990s “Kansas City.” And it still sports a piece of neon art by Los Angeles artist Nikita Gale in honor of local jazz history, commissioned as part of the city’s Open Spaces extravaganza in 2018. “I adore your every move,” it reads in lighted yellow script, signed “Bird.”

Charlie “Bird” Parker had to leave Kansas City to earn his lasting jazz fame and musical adoration. Lottie Beaman’s fate is much more tenuous. Luckily, we have at least a dozen tracks of her sorrowing music to guide us on our journeys into the past, as if they were lonely, buried letters waiting to be found.

Steve Paul

Steve Paul is the author of “Hemingway at Eighteen” and a biography of Evan S. Connell. He has been a writer and editor in Kansas City for more than 45 years.

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