Ma Rainey

The "Mother of the Blues," an icon of the genre, a flamboyant figure whose name is not bygone.

Gertrude M. Pridgett, b. April 26, 1886 in Columbus, GA, d. December 22, 1939 in Rome, GA. After working as a saloon and tent show singer around the turn of the century, Rainey began singing blues. She later claimed that this occurred as early as 1902 and however much reliance is placed upon this date she was certainly among the earliest singers to bring blues songs to a wider audience. By the time of her first recordings, 1923, she was one of the most famous blues singers in the deep south and was known as the ‘Mother of the Blues’. Although many other singers recorded blues songs before her, she eschewed the refining process some of them had begun, preferring instead to retain the earthy directness with which she had made her name. Her recordings, sadly of generally inferior technical quality, show her to have been a singer of great power, while her delivery has a quality of brooding majesty few others ever matched. A hard-living, rumbustious woman, Rainey influenced just about every other singer of the blues, notably Bessie Smith whom she encouraged during her formative years. Although Rainey continued working into the early 30s her career at this time was overshadowed by changes in public taste. She retired in 1935 and died in 1939. In the late 80s a musical show, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, was a success on Broadway and in London.

Ma Rainey by Jim O'Neal

Ma Rainey wasn't the first blues singer to make records, but by all rights she probably should have been. In an era when women were the marquee names in blues, Rainey was once the most celebrated of all; the "Mother of the Blues" had been singing the music for more than 20 years before she made her recording debut (Paramount, 1923). With the advent of blues records, she became even more influential, immortalizing such songs as "See See Rider," "Bo-Weavil Blues," and "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." Like the other classic blues divas, she had a repertoire of pop and minstrel songs as well as blues, but she maintained a heavier, tougher vocal delivery than the cabaret blues singers who followed. Rainey's records featured her with jug bands, guitar duos, and bluesmen such as Tampa Red and Blind Blake, in addition to the more customary horns-and-piano jazz-band accompaniment (occasionally including such luminaries as Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, and Fletcher Henderson).

Born and raised in Columbus, Georgia, Ma Rainey (born Gertrude Pridgett) began singing professionally when she was a teenager, performing with a number of minstrel and medicine shows. In 1904, she married William "Pa" Rainey and she changed her name to "Ma" Rainey. The couple performed as "Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues" and toured throughout the south, performing with several minstrel shows, circuses, and tent shows. According to legend, she gave a young Bessie Smith vocal lessons during this time. By the early '20s, Rainey had become a featured performer on the Theater Owners' Booking Association circuit.

In 1923, Rainey signed a contract with Paramount Records. Although her recording career lasted only a mere six years -- her final sessions were in 1928 -- she recorded over 100 songs and many of them, including "C.C. Rider" and "Bo Weavil Blues," became genuine blues classics. During these sessions, she was supported by some of the most talented blues and jazz musicians of her era, including Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Coleman Hawkins, Buster Bailey, and Lovie Austin.

Rainey's recordings and performances were extremely popular among black audiences, particularly in the south. After reaching the height of her popularity in the late '20s, Rainey's career faded away by the early '30s as female blues singing became less popular with the blues audience. She retired from performing in 1933, settling down in her hometown of Columbus. In 1939, Rainey died of a heart attack. She left behind an immense recorded legacy, which continued to move and influence successive generations of blues, country, and rock & roll musicians. In 1983, Rainey was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame; seven years later, she was inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.