Born: April 26, 1886 | Died: December 22, 1939 Primary Instrument: Vocal
“Mother of the Blues”
The first popular stage entertainer to incorporate authentic blues in her song repertoire, Ma Rainey performed during the first three decades of the twentieth century, enjoying widespread popularity during the blues craze of the 1920s. Her consistency over her five year recording career and the high quality of her accompanist’s portray her talents as far more worthwhile than those of many blues singers.
Gertrude Pridgett was born on April 26, 1886, in Columbus, Georgia. Her parents were minstrel show performers, and she went right into the entertainment business since a young age. She worked at the Springer Opera House in 1900, performing as a singer and dancer in the local talent show, A Bunch of Blackberries. Around 1902 she heard a ‘strange and poignant lament’ while traveling through Missouri, and afterwards started bringing blues into her act. Pridgett married traveling singer William Pa Rainey in 1904 and billed as “Ma and Pa Rainey” the couple toured Southern tent shows and cabarets. By 1915, the Raineys were touring with Fat Chappelle's Rabbit Foot Minstrels. 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.
Already a popular singer in the Southern theater circuit; Rainey entered the recording industry as an experienced and stylistically mature talent. She had a deep contralto voice and sang with great power and feeling, in broad impressive sweeps of sound. Her songs were boisterous, yet melancholic and her low down meaning blues were without rival. She gave the public a distinctly Southern folk based music, singing about life’s joys and sorrows in a poetic but simple direct language. All the years on the road performing in tent shows at a close personal level with her audience carried over to her recordings, giving them credibility.
Ma Rainey first recorded for the Paramount label in 1923. Her first session, cut with Lovie Austin and Her Blue Serenaders, featured the traditional number Bo-Weevil Blues. That was followed by the release of Moonshine Blues, again with Austin, and Yonder Comes the Blues with Louis Armstrong. That same year, Rainey recorded See See Rider, which has since become a blues standard. Ma Rainey’s was the first recording of that song, giving her a hold on the copyright, and one of the best of the more than 100 versions.
Ma Rainey earned a reputation as a professional on stage and as a tough business woman. She was never cheated and made sure she received her contracted payments and proper royalties. During Rainey's five-year recording career at Paramount she cut nearly ninety sides, most of which dealt with the subjects of love and sexuality, bawdy themes that often earned her the billing of Madam Rainey. Her songs were also diverse, yet deeply rooted in experiences of black people from the South.
In 1924, pianist and arranger Thomas A. Dorsey recruited members for The Wild Cats Jazz Band, backing her on a Paramount promotional tour. Serving as both director and manager, Dorsey assembled able musicians who could read arrangements as well as play in a “down home blues” style. Rainey's tour debut at Chicago's Grand Theater on State Street marked the first appearance of a blues artist at the famous Southside venue. Draped in long gowns and covered in diamonds and a necklace of gold pieces, Rainey had a powerful command over her audiences. She often opened her stage show singing Moonshine Blues inside the cabinet of an over-sized victrola, from which she emerged to greet a near-frantic audience. As Dorsey recalled, When she started singing, the gold in her teeth would sparkle. She was in the spotlight. She possessed listeners; they swayed, they rocked, they moaned and groaned, as they felt the blues with her.
Until 1926, Rainey performed with her Wild Jazz Cats on the Theater Owner's Booking Association circuit (TOBA). That year, after Dorsey left the band, she recorded with various musicians on the Paramount label--often under the name of Ma Rainey and her Georgia Jazz Band which, on various occasions, included musicians such as pianists Fletcher Henderson, Claude Hopkins, and Willie the Lion Smith, reed players Don Redman, Buster Bailey and Coleman Hawkins, and trumpeters Louis Armstrong and Tommy Ladnier. In 1927, Rainey cut sides such as Black Cat, Hoot Owl Blues with the Tub Jug Washboard Band. During her last sessions, held in 1928, she sang in the company of her former pianist Dorsey and guitarist Tampa Red, producing such numbers as Black Eye Blues, Runaway Blues and Sleep Talking Blues.
Though the TOBA and vaudeville circuits had gone into decline by the early 1930s, Rainey still performed, often resorting to playing tent shows. But through her good business sense and foresight, she had managed to hold on to some of her earnings.Rainey retired from the music business in 1935 and settled in Columbus, Georgia. For the next several years, she devoted her time to the ownership of two entertainment theaters. Ma Rainey died in Georgia on December 22, 1939.
Source: James Nadal