Born: April 26, 1886 in Columbus GA
Died: December 22, 1939 in Columbus GA
Called the "Mother of the Blues" by her record label, it can be argued that Ma Rainey was the most influential of all the female blues singers. A raw, emotional vocalist with a sound firmly rooted in the country blues tradition, onstage Rainey dressed as a blues diva in sequined gowns and loads of jewelry. Her songwriting skills were brilliant in their simplicity and she was a populist lyricist whose work resounded with poor Southern African-Americans. Rainey directly influenced younger contemporaries like Bessie Smith and Ida Cox, as well as contemporary blues women like Marcia Ball and Bonnie Raitt.
Carrying On The Minstrel Tradition
Rainey was born Gertrude Pridgett in Columbus, Georgia to a musical family. Both her parents were minstrel singers, and it is believed that Rainey first performed onstage at the age of fourteen, and soon she was a veteran of the minstrel and medicine show circuit.
Marrying minstrel song and dance man William "Pa" Rainey in 1904, Gertrude became known as "Ma Rainey" to her audience. The pair traveled across the Southeast, billing themselves as "Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues," first touring with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. It was here that Rainey befriended and taught a young Bessie Smith the blues. The Raineys later toured with Tolliver's Circus and Musical Extravaganza, and other traveling tent shows.
Rainey's Recording Career
Rainey was a popular performer with Southeast audiences, and became a featured performer on the Theater Owner's Booking Association circuit during the early 1920s. Her popularity brought Rainey to the attention of Paramount Records, which signed her to a deal in 1923. Billing her as the "Mother of the Blues" - and, indeed, the 38-year-old Rainey had better than 20 years hard experience at this point - Paramount scored hits with Rainey's versions of standards like "See See Rider," "Bo Weevil Blues," and "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."
Rainey's recording career was short-lived, lasting only six years, but during that time she recorded a whopping 100+ sides, often backed by such top-notch jazz players as Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, Fletcher Henderson, and Coleman Hawkins, as well as her regular band members. Rainey possessed a wide repertoire of songs, and also recorded with jug bands as well as with guitarists like Tampa Red and Blind Blake.
Mother of the Blues
Although Rainey found commercial success with her records during the late-1920s, her career dropped off during the early-30s as female blues singers fell out of favor with the public and were largely supplanted by their male counterparts.
Rainey retired from the road in 1933 and, having squirreled away enough savings to live comfortably, returned to Columbus. Rainey would die of a heart attack in 1939, but so influential was her music that she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1983, and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.
Recommended Albums: The budget-priced Shout! Factory compilation Heroes of the Blues: The Very Best of Ma Rainey is a true cross-licensed package that represents every era of Rainey's career among its 16 songs. Each song was transcribed directly from Paramount's 78s, restored and re-mastered for the digital era.