Gertrude Pridgett “Ma” Rainey is considered by many to be the Mother of the Blues. The Georgia-based African American singer became well known for her soulful, moaning vocals on many blues records in the 1920s, and she paved the way for other artists such as Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday.
Born somewhere between 1882 and 1886, one of several children born to an extremely poor family in Columbus, Georgia, “Ma” Rainey was groomed from a very early age to sing and perform for her dinner. Just like her Mother and Grandmother before her, Rainey was an experienced performer by the time she was a pre-teen. At just 12 years old, she had already started singing at minstrel shows and appearing in Vaudeville acts, which were popular at the time. Her hometown of Columbus, Georgia, was a well known river port that often had many musical acts, and the Pridgett family were one of the families that earned a living performing in the area. Her first performance was in a local talent show, “A Bunch of Blackberries,” where she wowed the crowd with her larger than life, wise-beyond-her-years voice. Inspired by “tent singers” of the era, Rainey decided that she wanted to sing the blues as a travelling performer.
Shortly after beginning her career, she met the man who would become her husband. At the age of eighteen, she married William “Pa” Rainey, who went on to become her manager and mentor. Together, as “Ma and Pa Rainey,” the couple travelled around Georgia, performing and making a name for their act. The couple were hard-working, charming, and popular, managing to make a career out of Gertrude’s soulful and often funny singing style for more than thirty years.
Rainey’s on-stage persona, “Ma,” was a larger than life, flamboyant, and vivacious character that attracted much attention and cat-calling. She milked her on-stage image, appearing in fancy costume dress and bellowing out vocals and encouraging crowds to dance. “Ma Rainey” was a crowd favorite, exuding confidence and self-deprecating humor. She appeared a larger-than-life caricature on stage, with her long, shining hair straightened and styled to stick out; her exuberant smile capped in gold, and often sporting large hats with colorful plumes and strings of gaudy, bright necklaces. She taught audiences how to dance the infamous “Black Bottom” dance, dripping with sexual innuendo and humor. While Rainey’s voice would not be considered anything special by today’s standards, she had a booming, confident sexuality and grace that captivated audiences wherever she went.
Rainey went on to tour briefly with a young Bessie Smith, imparting her own brand of wisdom and musical stylings into the young singer, who later went on to experience great success and fame. Rumors at the time suggested that Rainey and Smith had an “inappropriate relationship,” with some saying that they were lovers and others saying that Rainey forced Smith to tour with her against her will. Most likely both rumors are false, but it just adds to the mystique surrounding Rainey. Smith did not remain with the act for very long, and Rainey continued to tour by herself, going on to incoroprate elements of jazz, bluegrass and comedy into her musical routine. In 1923 she signed a contract with Paramount, becoming one of the first woman to ever sign a recording contract, as well as one of the first women to record the blues. No small feat for a poor African-American woman in 1920s Georgia. Rainey proved herself to be a hot commodity, producing over 100 recordings for Paramount, including several songs with Louis Armstrong and other important jazz and blues performers of the time.
While Rainey’s songs were largely saucy and vibrant, the artist did have a dark side. She would occasionally tackle tough issues in her songs, channeling the pain of past experiences and the poverty she’d experienced in childhood to come up with some of her best work. Her exuberant, brassy voice occasionally did gave way to sharp pain and sadness. In the song “Black-Eye Blues” (which happens to be my personal favorite), Rainey sings wistfully about an imagined revenge on a philandering, abusive spouse. While the song is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, you can hear the suffering between the notes.
Around 1928, Paramount decided to end their contract with Rainey, citing the changing musical interests of society as the reason. Rather than retreat back to Columbus a failure, Rainey decided to take the small fortune she’d amassed over her years performing and invest it into two performing arts houses, “The Lyric,” and “The Airdrome.” She lived the rest of her life acting as a mentor and coach to other performers, and using her performing arts houses to showcase great music and other acts.
Rainey died quite young, at age 53, from complications of heart disease, in 1939. After being dropped from Paramount 11 years earlier, she’d never had another big hit musically, but nevertheless, her life has been considered a great success. An inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as well as the Georgia Hall of Fame and the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame, Rainey has been influential on many modern day artists. Rainey has inspired a host of books, plays and songs and continues to delight and charm fans of the blues with her unique style and voice. While not as famous as the later singers she influenced, Rainey has a definite hold on the blues and remains a true pioneer of music. As an African-American woman in the 1920s South, Rainey had to conquer many prejudices and setbacks in order to follow her dream, but follow it she did, and with incredible success.