Styled as the “Mother of the Blues,” Gertrude Pridgett Rainey, better known as “Ma” Rainey, was one of the most important of the early blues singers. In her thirty-five years of touring and recordings she made with Paramount, the Georgia native did much to establish the “classic” blues in American musical life.
She played a central role in connecting the less polished, male-dominated country blues and the smoother, female-centered urban blues of the 1920s. Walking on stage, she made an incredible impression before she even began singing, with her thick straightened hair sticking out all over, her huge teeth capped in gold, an ostrich plume in her hand, and a long triple necklace of shining gold coins sparkling against her sequined dress. The gravelly timbre of her contralto voice, with its range of only about an octave, enraptured audiences wherever she went. She generally sang without melodic embellishment, in a raspy, deep voice that had an emotional appeal for listeners.
Rainey was born on April 26, 1886. She grew up in a poor family in Columbus, an important river port and a stop on the minstrel circuit. Her grandmother and both her parents were singers. She showed musical talent early on, beginning her career at age fourteen in a local talent show, “Bunch of Blackberries,” at the Springer Opera House in Columbus. She soon began traveling in vaudeville and minstrel shows, where in 1904 she met and married her husband, William “Pa” Rainey, who was a minstrel show manager. She toured with him in F. S. Wolcott’s Rabbit Foot Minstrels and later with Tolliver’s Circus and Musical Extravaganza and other tent-show groups. For more than three decades the Raineys toured the South, the Midwest, and Mexico.
Ma Rainey was one of the first women to incorporate blues into minstrel and vaudeville stage shows, blending styles from country blues, early jazz, and her own personal musical idiom. By the time she began recording with Paramount Records in 1923 she had toured extensively as “Madame,” earning an enduring reputation as a key figure among the early female blues singers. In 1912 the young Bessie Smith joined her troupe in Chattanooga, Tennessee. While Rainey’s influence on Smith’s style has been exaggerated, her uniquely penetrating voice did help shape the young singer’s development, something clearly audible in Smith’s early recordings. Though they sang together for only a short time, they were two of the most important figures in the development of what later came to be called classical blues, a musical style widely popularized by Bessie Smith, who came to be known as the “Empress of the Blues.”
In December 1923 Rainey began a five-year association with Paramount, becoming one of the first women to record the blues professionally, eventually producing more than 100 recordings of her own compositions with some of the finest musicians of the day. Her early discs—Bo-weavil Blues (1923) and Moonshine Blues (1923)—soon spread her reputation outside the South. Louis Armstrong accompanied her in Jelly Bean Blues (1924), and later her Georgia Jazz Band included at different times Tommy Ladnier, Joe Smith, and Coleman Hawkins. One of the few times her flair for comedy comes through is in her widely popular Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1927). Although these recordings scarcely do her vocal style justice, they do give a sense of her raw, “moaning” style and her exquisite phrasing. Her songs and vocal style reveal her deep connection with the pain of jealousy, poverty, sexual abuse, and loneliness of sharecroppers and southern blacks.
Changing urban musical tastes began diminishing her appeal, and in 1928 Paramount dropped her, claiming that her “down-home material has gone out of fashion.” The Great Depression further eroded her audiences, and she retired in 1933 to Columbus and Rome, where she managed two theaters she had bought with her earnings. She died of heart disease in 1939, at age fifty-three, and was buried in Porterdale Cemetery in Columbus.
Rainey’s death came just as her work began gaining serious attention among collectors and critics. She was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame in 1983, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1992, and Georgia Women of Achievement in 1993. In 1994 the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in her honor.