Ma Rainey (April 26, 1886? – December 22, 1939) was one of the earliest known American professional blues singers and one of the first generation of such singers to record. She was billed as The Mother of the Blues.
She began performing at the age of 12 or 14, and recorded under the name Ma Rainey after she and Will Rainey were married in 1904. They toured with F.S. Wolcott’s Rabbit Foot Minstrels and later formed their own group called Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues. From the time of her first recording in 1923 to five years later, Ma Rainey made over 100 recordings. Some of them include, Bo-weevil Blues (1923), Moonshine Blues (1923), See See Rider (1924), Black Bottom (1927), and Soon This Morning (1927).
Ma Rainey was known for her very powerful vocal abilities, energetic disposition, majestic phrasing, and a ‘moaning’ style of singing similar to folk tradition. Though her powerful voice and disposition are not captured on her recordings, the other characteristics are present, and most evident on her early recordings, Bo-weevil Blues and Moonshine Blues. Ma Rainey also recorded with Louis Armstrong in addition to touring and recording with the Georgia Jazz Band. Ma Rainey continued to tour until 1935 when she retired to her hometown.
Gertrude Pridgett was born April 26, 1886 in Columbus, Georgia. (This can be questioned, however, as the 1900 Census listing for Pridgett shows her as being born in September, 1882.) She was the second of five children of Thomas and Ella (née Allen) Pridgett, from Alabama. She had at least two brothers and a sister named Malissa, with whom Gertrude was later confused in some sources. She came onto the performance scene at a talent show in Columbus, Georgia when she was 12–14 years old. A member of the First African Baptist Church, she began performing in show tents. Around 1902 she was first exposed to blues music, hearing a girl sing in a tent in Missouri, and incorporated it into her performances.
Pridgett met a singer, dancer and comedian named William “Pa” Rainey and they married February 2, 1904, when she was 18. From then, she performed as “Madame Gertrude Rainey”, and later, “Ma Rainey”. They sang and danced together in Black minstrel shows, and for several years toured with F.S. Wolcott’s Rabbit Foot Minstrels. From 1914, the Raineys were billed as Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues. Wintering in New Orleans, she met musicians including Joe “King” Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and Pops Foster. Blues music increased in popularity and Ma Rainey became well known.
Around this time, Rainey met Bessie Smith, a young blues singer who was also making a name for herself.[A] A story later developed that Rainey kidnapped Smith, making her join the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, and teaching her to sing the blues. This was disputed by Smith’s sister-in-law Maud Smith. From the late 1910s, there was an increasing demand for recordings by black musicians. In 1920, Mamie Smith was the first black woman to record a record. In 1923, Rainey was discovered by Paramount Records producer J. Mayo Williams. She signed a recording contract with Paramount, and in December she made her first eight recordings in Chicago. These included the songs “Bad Luck Blues”, “Bo-Weevil Blues” and “Moonshine Blues”. She made more than 100 more over the next five years, which brought her fame beyond the South. Paramount marketed her extensively, calling her “the Mother of the Blues”, “the Songbird of the South”, “the Gold-Neck Woman of the Blues” and “the Paramount Wildcat”. In 1924 she made some recordings with Louis Armstrong, including “Jelly Bean Blues”, “Countin’ the Blues” and “See, See Rider”.
In 1924 she embarked on a tour of the Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA) throughout the South and Midwestern United States, singing both for black and white audiences. She was accompanied by bandleader and pianist Thomas Dorsey, and the band he assembled called the Wildcats Jazz Band which included Eddie Pollack, Gabriel Washington, Albert Wynn and David Nelson. They began their tour with an appearance in Chicago in April 1924 and continued, on and off, until 1928. Dorsey left the group in 1926 due to ill health and was replaced as pianist by Lillian Hardaway Henderson, the wife of Rainey’s cornetist Fletcher Henderson, who became the band’s leader.
Towards the end of the 1920s, live vaudeville went into decline, being replaced by radio and recordings. Rainey’s career was not immediately affected. She continued recording with Paramount and earned enough money touring to buy a bus with her name on. In 1928, she worked with Dorsey again and recording 20 songs, before Paramount finished her contract. Her style of blues was no longer considered fashionable by the label.
In 1935 Rainey returned to her hometown, Columbus, Georgia, where she ran two theaters, “The Lyric” and “The Airdrome”, until her death from a heart attack in 1939. She was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 1983, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.
One year after Rainey’s death, blues singer and guitarist Memphis Minnie recorded a tribute. French singer/song writer Francis Cabrel refers to Rainey in the song “Cent Ans de Plus” on the 1998 album Hors-Saison. Cabrel cites the artist as one of a number of blues influences, including Charley Patton, Son House, Blind Lemon, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Blind Blake, Willie Dixon, and Blues Boy Willie, whose father toured with Rainey.
In 1981 Sandra Lieb wrote the first full-length book about Rainey, titled Mother of the Blues: a Study of Ma Rainey.
In 1994, the U.S. Post Office issued a Rainey 29-cent commemorative postage stamp.
In 2004, her song “See See Rider Blues” (1925) was inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame, and was included by the National Recording Preservation Board in the Library of Congress‘ National Recording Registry in 2004. The board selects voices in an annual basis that are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant