Irene Scruggs (December 7, 1901 – probably
July 20, 1981) was an American Piedmont blues and country blues singer, who
was also billed as Chocolate Brown and Dixie Nolan.
She recorded songs such as "My Back to the Wall" and "Good Grindin", and
variously worked alongside Clarence Williams, Joe "King" Oliver,
Little Brother Montgomery,
Albert Nicholas, and Kid Ory. Scruggs achieved some success but today
remains largely forgotten.
Scruggs originated in rural Mississippi, but it is believed that she was
raised in St. Louis, Missouri. Mary Lou Williams recalled Scruggs being a
singer of some standing when Williams travelled to St. Louis in vaudeville.
Scruggs was hired by the revue company, and her career there sometimes
outshone her work as a recording artist and nightclub singer. Nevertheless,
Scruggs got to sing with a number of Joe "King" Oliver's bands that played
in St. Louis in the mid 1920s. Scruggs was later accompanied by Blind Blake.
In her live shows her song, "Itching Heel", provided the platform for
interplay between the Scruggs' singing and Blake's guitar work. "He don't do
nothing but play on his old guitar," Scruggs sangs, "While I'm busting suds
out in the white folks' yard."
She first recorded in 1924, utilising Clarence Williams as her pianist on
Okeh Records. In 1926 she reignited her working association with Oliver. Two
of the songs that Scruggs wrote, "Home Town Blues" and "Sorrow Valley
Blues", were both recorded by Oliver. She recorded again for Okeh in 1927,
this time with Lonnie Johnson. Scruggs formed her own band in the late
1920s, and appeared regularly performing around the St. Louis area.
Using the pseudonym, Chocolate Brown, she recorded further tracks with Blind
Blake, and to avoid contractual problems also appeared billed as Dixie
Nolan. By the early 1930s, Little Brother Montgomery took over as her
accompanist on both recordings and touring work.
Scruggs also sang and recorded more sexually explicit material. "Good
Grindin'" and "Must Get Mine in Front" (1930) were the better known examples
of her dirty blues, and some of her work appeared in The Nasty Blues,
published by the Hal Leonard Corporation. Scruggs only recorded a small
batch of songs, and her recording career finished around 1935. In the 1940s,
Scruggs left the United States for Europe, first settling in Paris, and
later relocating to Germany. In the 1950s, Scruggs undertook a number of BBC
It is thought that she died in Germany, although no definitive information
has been unearthed.