Ma Rainey was one of the most significant female blues singers to have emerged from the south during the 1920s. Often referred to as "The Black Nightingale" and the "Songbird of the South," she mostly came to be known as the "Mother of the Blues." Music historians often identify Rainey as a classic blues singer but her roots laid solidly in the raw style of southern country blues that evolved out of the traveling minstrel and vaudeville shows popular in the south at the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century. Some music historians also consider Ma Rainey as the link between the male-dominated country blues that originated in the south and the female-dominated urban blues that developed in the north. Her style of blues can be heard in later blues and gospel singers such as Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday, and Mahalia Jackson. Her best known songs include "See See Rider" (CC Rider), "Jelly Bean Blues," and "Boll Weevil Blues."
Born on April 26, 1886 in Columbus, Georgia, Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridgett was the second of five children born to Thomas and Ella (Allen) Pridgett, who were minstrel and vaudeville performers. Gertrude was used to the traveling and performing life and made her first solo performance in 1900 at a talent show in her hometown, at the Springer Opera House. A couple of years later, in 1902, when the family was in St. Louis, Gertrude heard for the first time, a woman sing the blues. Touched by the emotional content, attracted to the largely melancholic, improvisational elements of the "blues," as well as to the unique structure of the music, from then on Gertrude herself began singing the blues, and has been credited as the first woman to have incorporated this style of singing into the vaudeville tradition.
In 1904 Gertrude married William "Pa" Rainey, a minstrel song and dance man. She adopted the name Ma Rainey, and together they toured the south. The pair were billed as Rainey & Rainey or Ma & Pa Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues, and performed with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels where they befriended a young Bessie Smith. Ma & Pa Rainey also were part of Tolliver's Circus and Musical Extravaganza and various other tent shows and black variety shows. Essentially, Ma Rainey adopted the blues as her own, and was instrumental in popularizing the blues style. Her blues described woeful tales, a wide variety of love tales, humorous situations, and tales of endurance. When Rainey came to town, the people went wild and lined up to see her. After Ma and Pa's marriage broke up, Ma continued on her own, further developing her characteristic style. Her voice was a deep contralto, at times raspy, and she sang with a jug band--kazoos, jugs, banjos, and perhaps a musical saw.
In the early 1920s Rainey was a featured performer with the TOBA (Theater Owners Booking Association), an organization that was instrumental in promoting black artists. In 1923, at the age of 37, she signed a recording contract with Paramount. By this time Rainey had been performing for about 25 years and had already earned, on her own, the billing that Paramount gave her: "Discovered At Last, 'Mother of the Blues.'" Although Rainey was extremely popular in the south, until she began recording with Paramount, she was virtually unknown in the north. As the public acquired phonographs and radios, more people heard Rainey. She traveled north, performing in large theaters in Detroit, Chicago, and Pittsburgh, and for a time, billed herself as Madame Rainey. She was also billed as the "Paramount Wildcat" and after becoming famous, Rainey displayed her wealth in the form of a necklace made of gold coins and was sometimes referred to as "Gold Necklace Woman of the Blues."
Rainey's recording career ended early in 1928. During the six years that she was under contract to Paramount she recorded about 100 songs. In addition, due to Rainey's success, Paramount evolved from a small recording business that was a subsidiary of a furniture company to a major recording label. While recording for Paramount, Rainey worked with a more sophisticated jazz band and collaborated with several well-known blues artists, such as Coleman Hawkins, Fletcher Henderson, and Louis Armstrong. She also collaborated with the Rev. Thomas Dorsey, the godfather of gospel music, who at one time was known as Georgia Tom.
During the 1920s Rainey's only serious rival was Bessie Smith, although Ida Cox and Sippie Wallace were also considered to be close contenders. Although each of these female blues artists was unique, they were constantly compared with each other because of their similar background and down-home, gutsy, and raw singing style. Aside from her driving blues style, Rainey's brand of distinction lay with the fact that she was very outspoken on women's issues and served as a role model for other African-American female performers, urging them to become economically independent. It is also interesting to note that both Rainey and Smith arranged their own music, composed, and managed their own bands. At the height of Rainey's career, she was making around $2,000 a week, which was a considerable sum of money at that time.
Not regarded as a particularly physically attractive woman, Rainey compensated with her wardrobe and her seductive demeanor, wearing bright, flashy sequined gowns and feathered headdresses. Even more provocative was the fact that she openly admitted to being bisexual. Once, in 1925, Rainey was arrested and spent a night in jail in Chicago for throwing an "indecent party." The party was so noisy that neighbors called the police, who arrived to a room full of naked women engaged in "intimate" situations. For the promotion of the song, "Prove It On Me," recorded in 1928, Ma was featured flirting with two women and was wearing a man's suit. The lyrics reflect her openly bisexual feelings: "Went out last night with a crowd of my friends/They must have been women, 'cause I don't like no men."
Rainey's career was greatly affected during the Depression. In 1935 she retired from the business and returned to Columbus, Georgia, where she lived with her brother, Thomas Pridgett, a deacon at the Friendship Baptist Church. With money that she had earned during her career, Rainey built and operated two theaters in Georgia: the Lyric Theater in Rome, and the Airdome Theater in Columbus. During her life, Rainey was a foster mother to seven children. The Mother of the Blues died of a heart attack on December 22, 1939. She was buried in a family plot in the Porterdale Cemetery in Columbus, Georgia. Rainey was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame in 1983 and into the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. In 1994, the United States also featured Rainey on a postage stamp. Those who want to experience a slice of Rainey's life can see August Wilson's play, Ma Rainey's Blackbottom, which made it to Broadway in the 1980s.
Born Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridgett on April 26, 1886, in Columbus, Georgia; daughter of Thomas Pridgett and Ella Allen; married William "Pa" Rainey (comedy performer), February 2, 1904; died on December 22, 1939, in Rome, Georgia.
Performed in local stage show, 1900; toured South with husband William "Pa" Rainey, 1904; member of Fat Chappelle's Rabbit Foot Minstrels; performed at various tent shows and variety shows including Tolliver's Circus and Silas Green from New Orleans minstrel show; made recording debut for Paramount label, 1923; recorded with various sideman for Paramount, until 1928; worked with revue show, Bandanna Babies, 1930; retired from music, 1935; became theater owner and manager.
Blues Foundation Hall of Fame, inducted, 1983; Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, inducted, 1990.
- Mother of the Blues, Dutch Fontana, 1965.
- The Immortal Ma Rainey, Milestone, 1967.
- Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Riverside, 1975.
- Black Bottom, Yazoo, 1990.
- Complete Recorded Works: 1928 Sessions, Document, 1994.
Davis, Angela Y. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude 'Ma' Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, Pantheon, 1988.
Harrison, Daphne Duval. Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s. Rutgers University Press, 1988.
Lieb, Sandra R. Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey. University of Massachusetts Press, 1981.
Stewart-Baxter, Derrick. Ma Rainey and the Classic Blues Singers. Stein and Day, 1970.