Ma Rainey a singer who was recognized as one of the first great blues vocalist. Born Gertrude Pridgett, she was born in Russell County, Alabama or Columbus, Georgia, in either 1886 or 1882, one of three children of Thomas and Ella Pridgett. Rainey began singing and performing at an early age but her singing career took off during her early teens. Like many African Americans, she honed her musical skills by singing in church. By the time she was 14, Gertrude herself was on the stage in a locally produced revue, "A Bunch of Blackberries," at the Columbus' Springer Opera House. Two years later, in 1902, Gertrude joined a tent show and began traveling on the road; and by 1904, she had met William "Pa" Rainey, who was a song-and-dance man with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. The two were married in February of 1904 and she became official known as Ma Rainey traveling throughout the South performing with Pa Rainey with the Rabbit Foot show.
Minstrels shows were shows by black performers for black audiences but were ironically, copies of an entertainment form created by whites for white audiences. The original minstrel shows were performed by whites in blackface and claimed to accurately represent the songs and dances of African-American slaves in the South. After the Civil War, black-originated minstrel shows began touring the South, playing to poor sharecroppers under tents set up in the fields; by Gertrude's time, these "tent shows" had become a standard entertainment form for increasingly mobile black audiences and the shows adapted their proformances for the stages of urban, Northern theaters.
"The Foots" was one of the most famous minstrel shows at the time, having been organized by an entrepreneur F.S. Wolcott. The show toured throughout the South, traveling by railroad and performing under an large tent and the acts included comedians, jugglers, novelty acts, and "jungle scenes." In the beginning Ma and Pa Rainey were part of After Show, after the main acts; But later, they were moved onto the main stage. They performed with a band sometimes Ma would perform a solo act, singing and dancing with a jug band by the name "Madame Gertrude Rainey".
Ma Rainey claimed that she had "discovered" the blues in 1902 when a young girl came to her with a song about a lover who had disappeared. Ma said she learned the song and began using it as the encore to her act, and later she claimed to spontaneously come up with the term "blues" when someone asked her what type of song it was. Ma Rainey was certainly one of the earliest black performers to present the blues for large audiences but she simpily popularizing a musical form that had been developing for more than half a century. Originally Blues was recited as improvised chants based on the work songs and ballads of plantation-bound slaves, it was combined with African-American spirituals with African musical customs and the lyrics often discussed heartache or some sort of struggle. The term "blues" is thought to derive from the word "blue devils," a term which African-Americans would use to express depression or great sadness. By the time Rainey's visitor sang about her lost lover, the blues would have been already becoming well established, and even Ma Rainey herself would later admitted that she heard similar songs in other places on at the time.
As the blues exploded so did Ma Rainey's popularly, her voice seemed perfect blues. Ma Rainey voice was deep and was sometimes described as almost harsh, but it was ideally suited to the direct lyrics of the blues, and was a great instrument with to convey the depth of her songs of everyday life, pain and emotion. By 1914, when Ma and Pa Rainey joined Tolliver's Circus and Musical Extravaganza, they billed themselves as "Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues." Their shows included chorus lines, acrobats, and comedy acts. When Rainey sang at the end of the program, she took the stage every bit the diva, turning up in showy jewelry, like diamond headpieces and necklaces made of cash and gold teeth that complemented the gold gowns she wore.
Rainey's comedic patter between songs was often vulgar and sexually frank, to the great delight of her audiences, especially since even Ma would readily admit that she was not an attractive woman. Musician Jack Dupree, once stated in simple terms, "she was a really ugly woman. But when she opened her mouth—that was it. You forgot everything. She knew how to sing those blues, and she got right into your heart." During these early years of Ma's career, she and Pa Rainey adopted a son, Danny, who joined their act as "the world's greatest juvenile stepper." But Ma Rainey was the show, In 1916, Ma Rainey began performing without her Pa Rainey because the two had separated and by 1920, Pa Rainey had passed.
Around World War I, Ma Rainey met, and shared a stage with, the woman on whom she would have the most influence on, Bessie Smith . The two very likely first encountered one another when both were traveling with the Moses Stokes show in 1912, There were rumors that Ma Rainey and younger Bessie Smith were lovers and there is some evidence that Ma was also romantically inclined toward women and Rainey was arrested for throwing a women-only "indecent party" in 1925, when the officers arrived up the women were getting affectionate with one another and the party host. Ma and Bessie were very different temperamentally. Unlike Bessie Smith, known for her hard drinking and sharp, sometimes violent tempered woman, Rainey mostly got on with everyone. Trumpet player Clyde Bernhardt in an interview "I never heard cursin' or nothin' like that," "Ma Rainey acted more like a religious person, that's the way she appear to you when you'd be talkin' to her. She had a lovely disposition, you know, and personality." Nonetheless,
As World War I came to an end, the blues was taking over the country, especially after the release of the first known blues recording, by a black artist named Mamie Smith. The record sold thousands of copies and companies sprang up practically overnight to exploit the new phenomenon of "race records." But while other blues singers quickly signed to recording contracts, Ma Rainey had to wait until 1923 before for a talent scout called Paramount Records signed her. Part of the reason for Ma's late entry into the recording business was that her older more Southern style of "Classic Blues" was already being eclipsed by a more sophisticated form developed in Northern urban centers like Chicago and New York. Another reason was that Ma Rainey, who continued to tour rural areas of the Deep South well into the 1920s, never had a Northern white promoter, and never developed the wealthier, more urban following that launched the careers of other music acts. Lastly, Paramount was chronically on the verge of bankruptcy throughout the 1920s and was unable to take advantage of technical advances in studio recording. Rainey was singing into an old-fashioned horn and recording on a wax cylinder long after everyone else was using microphones and metal master discs, making her records sound noticeably inferior to those of her peers.
Nevertheless, Ma Rainey's first release for Paramount Records was hit "Moonshine Blues," she then followed it up the hits "Bad Luck Blues," "Bo-Weavil Blues," and "Those All Night Long Blues." Rainey may not have been the first blues recording artist, but she was one of the most prolific. She went on to record about 100 blues tracks over the next five years, expanded her audience beyond the Southern minstrel circuit to larger cities and more opulent settings. Paramount launched an aggressive advertising campaign for her first record, under the headline "Discovered at Last! Ma Rainey, Mother of the Blues!".
Between 1923 and 1928, Rainey rarely performed before white audiences but did performed before packed houses of black audiences in Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and New York, with the Fletcher Henderson's band, but she never turned her back on the audience that created her in the rural south. By the mid-1920s, Rainey was a leading star of the "Toby tours," playing black theaters throughout the South run by the Theatre Owners' Booking Association. By now, she was touring with her own bus and her own band, who went by many names, The Harmony Boys, The Jazz Hounds, or the Jazz Wildcats, and would open her show by emerging from a giant record player, moaning and shimmying her way into hit "Moonshine Blues."
The year 1928 was Ma Rainey's most successful, with 20 titles recorded for Paramount, a lengthy tour of the Midwest and the South with her dancers the Paramount Flappers, and the release of a wildly popular song in February called "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," a song based on a decade-old dance of that name. The dance became so famous that even white artists performed it, although in a much sanitized version; and playwright August Wilson used the phenomenon as the basis for his play with the same name.
Despite these successes in 1928, the music business was always rapidy changing. Just as the old minstrel shows had given way to vaudeville after the World War 1, vaudeville was now losing its audience to radio and film by the late 1920s. The Theatre Owners' Booking Association's had its worst box-office year was 1927; theaters that once played to full houses were now closing, and black audiences were flocking to dance halls to hear jazz and the newest popular music called "swing." Even though 1928 was Ma Rainey's best year in terms of popularity, seven members of her show left because they had not been paid, and during the part of her spring tour, Ma was forced to disband the company and join someone else's tour in order to keep working. Also In 1928, Paramount choose not to renew her contract, despite the of hits she’d performed for the record label. The Depression was the final blow, The Theatre Owners' Booking Association circuit expired in the early 1930s; Paramount Records, which released 100 "race records" in 1930, issued less than a dozen in 1931, none at all the following year, and went bankrupt not long after.
One of the last tracks she recorded, "Prove It On Me Blues," openly discussed her sexual orientation. Rainey sang “Went out last night with a crowd of my friends,” “They must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men." It’s true I wear a collar and tie. Makes the wind blow all the while.” In the promotional image for the song, Rainey is drawn wearing a suit and a hat, speaking with a few women as a policeman eyes her. The song and the image alluded to a women-only party Rainey threw 1925. While the singer did not openly identify as a lesbian during this time, she is regarded as a gay icon today.
Ma Rainey recorded her last number for Paramount, "Big Feelin' Blues," in December 1928, and by 1930 had to earn her living by appearing with traveling carnivals and what was left of the old tent-show circuit. Gone was the bus in which she once used for touring, it was replaced with a car chassis that some friends made into a house trailer. She cooked her own meals on a small camp stove and improvised her costumes from bits and pieces of the dresses she had worn in her glory days. While other contemporaries who had made the transition to swing, bebop, radio, and films remained in the limelight, Ma Rainey faded into obscurity.
In 1935, after the deaths of both Rainey's mother and sister, Rainey retired from show business and settled in her hometown of Columbus, Georgia, joining the congregation at Friendship Baptist Church, where her brother was a deacon. More of an entrepreneur than she is generally given credit for, Rainey had saved enough money from her stage days to buy two theaters in nearby Rome, Georgia "the Lyric and the Airdrome" which she managed until her death from heart disease on December 22, 1939. Ma Rainey's death certificate lists her occupation as "housekeeper."
Most of Rainey's Paramount recordings remained on a shelf for the next 25 years, impossible to remaster because of their poor quality. But starting in the 1950s, when technology had become sufficiently advanced, many of her old recordings began to revived interest in the blues. She may have been a singer, but Rainey has been a major influence on black literature and drama. Poets Langston Hughes and Sterling Allen Brown both alluded to her in their works. The August Wilson play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” directly referenced the singer as well. And Alice Walker based blues singer Shug Avery, a character in her novel “The Color Purple,” on Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.
"If anybody asks you who wrote this lonesome song," the lyrics went, "tell 'em you don't know the writer, but Ma Rainey put it on."
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