Updated: Aug 24, 2021
Gertrude "Ma" Rainey
(April 26, 1886 – December 22, 1939) was an influential American blues singer and early blues recording artist. Dubbed the "Mother of the Blues", she bridged earlier vaudeville and the authentic expression of southern blues, influencing a generation of blues singers.
Gertrude Pridgett began performing as a teenager and became known as "Ma" Rainey after her marriage to Will "Pa" Rainey in 1904. They toured with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels and later formed their own group, Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues. Her first recording was made in 1923. In the following five years, she made over 100 recordings, including "Bo-Weevil Blues" (1923), "Moonshine Blues" (1923), "See See Rider Blues" (1924), "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" (1927), and "Soon This Morning" (1927).
Rainey was known for her powerful vocal abilities, energetic disposition, majestic phrasing, and a "moaning" style of singing. Her qualities are present and most evident in her early recordings "Bo-Weevil Blues" and "Moonshine Blues".
Rainey recorded with Thomas Dorsey and Louis Armstrong, and she toured and recorded with the Georgia Jazz Band. She toured until 1935, when she largely retired from performing and continued as a theater impresario in her hometown of Columbus, Georgia, until her death four years later.
Gertrude “Ma” Rainey was, without any exaggeration, an icon. This is the true story of her life: how she became the “Mother of the Blues”, to the new Netflix film about her, starring Oscar-winner Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. Chicago, 1927. A recording session. Tensions rise between Ma Rainey, her ambitious horn player and the white management determined to control the uncontrollable "Mother of the Blues". The film is based on Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson's play, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.
Who REALLY Was Ma Rainey?
Ma Rainey was the first popular stage entertainer to incorporate authentic blues into her song repertoire. She performed during the first three decades of the 20th century and enjoyed mass popularity during the blues craze of the 1920s. Rainey's music has served as inspiration for such poets as Langston Hughes. Described by African American poet Sterling Brown in Black Culture and Black Consciousness as "a person of the folk," Rainey recorded in various musical settings and exhibited the influence of genuine rural blues. She is widely recognized as the first great female blues vocalist.
Rainey was born Gertrude Pridgett on April 26, 1886, in Columbus, Georgia, to minstrel troupers Thomas Pridgett, Sr. and Ella Allen-Pridgett. Rainey worked at the Springer Opera House in 1900, performing as a singer and dancer in the local talent show, "A Bunch of Blackberries." On February 2, 1904, Pridgett married comedy songster William "Pa" Rainey. Billed as "Ma" and "Pa" Rainey the couple toured Southern tent shows and cabarets. Though she did not hear blues in Columbus, Rainey's extensive travels had, by 1905, brought her into contact with authentic country blues, which she worked into her song repertoire. "Her ability to capture the mood and essence of Black rural southern life of the 1920s," noted Daphane Harrison in Black Pearls: Blues Queens "quickly endeared her to throngs of followers throughout the South."
While performing with the Moses Stokes troupe in 1912, the Raineys were introduced to the show's newly recruited dancer, Bessie Smith. Eight years Smith's senior, Rainey quickly befriended the young performer. Despite earlier historical accounts crediting Rainey as Smith's vocal coach, it has been generally agreed by modern scholars that Rainey played less of a role in the shaping of Smith's singing style. "Ma Rainey probably did pass some of her singing experience on to Bessie," explained Chris Albertson in the liner notes to Giants of Jazz, "but the instruction must have been rudimentary. Though they shared an extraordinary command of the idiom, the two women delivered their messages in styles and voices that were dissimilar and manifestly personal."
Around 1915, the Raineys toured with Fat Chappelle's Rabbit Foot Minstrels. Afterward, they were billed as the "Assassinators of the Blues" with Tolliver's Circus and Musical Extravaganza. Separated from her husband in 1916, Rainey subsequently toured with her own band, Madam Gertrude Ma Rainey and Her Georgia Smart Sets, featuring a chorus line and a Cotton Blossoms Show, and Donald McGregor's Carnival Show.
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