April 26, 1886|
Russell County, Alabama or Columbus, Georgia, U.S.
|Died|| (aged 53)
Rome, Georgia, U.S.
"Ma" Rainey (born Gertrude Pridgett, September 1882 or April 26, 1886 - December 22, 1939) was one of the earliest African-American professional blues singers and one of the first generation of blues singers to record. She was billed as the "Mother of the Blues".
She began performing as a young teenager and became known as Ma Rainey after her marriage to Will Rainey, in 1904. They toured with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels and later formed their own group, Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues. Her first recording was made in 1923. In the next five years, she made over 100 recordings, including "Bo-Weevil Blues" (1923), "Moonshine Blues" (1923), "See See Rider Blues" (1924), "Black Bottom" (1927), and "Soon This Morning" (1927).
Rainey was known for her powerful vocal abilities, energetic disposition, majestic phrasing, and a "moaning" style of singing. Her powerful voice was never adequately captured on her records, because she recorded exclusively for Paramount, which was known for its below-average recording techniques and poor shellac quality. However, her other qualities are present and most evident in her early recordings "Bo-Weevil Blues" and "Moonshine Blues".
Pridgett claimed to have been born on April 26, 1886 (beginning with the 1910 census, taken April 25, 1910), in Columbus, Georgia. However, the 1900 census indicates she was born in September 1882 in Alabama, and researchers Bob Eagle and Eric LeBlanc suggest that her birthplace was in Russell County, Alabama. 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, Malissa, with whom Gertrude was later confused by some writers.
She began her career as a performer at a talent show in Columbus, Georgia, when she was about 12 to 14 years old. A member of the First African Baptist Church, she began performing in black minstrel shows. She later claimed that she was first exposed to blues music around 1902. She formed the Alabama Fun Makers Company with her husband, Will Rainey, but in 1906 they both joined Pat Chappelle's much larger and more popular Rabbit's Foot Company, in which they were billed together as "Black Face Song and Dance Comedians, Jubilee Singers [and] Cake Walkers". In 1910, she was described as "Mrs. Gertrude Rainey, our coon shouter". She continued with the Rabbit's Foot Company after it was taken over by a new owner, F. S. Wolcott, in 1912.
Beginning in 1914, the Raineys were billed as Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues. Wintering in New Orleans, she met numerous musicians, including Joe "King" Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and Pops Foster. As the popularity of blues music increased, she became well known. Around this time, she met Bessie Smith, a young blues singer who was also making a name for herself.[A] A story later developed that Rainey kidnapped Smith, forced her to join the Rabbit's Foot Minstrels, and taught her to sing the blues; the story 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 be recorded. 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, including "Bad Luck Blues", "Bo-Weevil Blues" and "Moonshine Blues". She made more than 100 other recordings 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 the same year she embarked on a tour of the Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA) in the South and Midwest of the United States, singing for black and white audiences. She was accompanied by the bandleader and pianist Thomas Dorsey and the band he assembled, the Wildcats Jazz Band. 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 because of ill health and was replaced as pianist by Lillian Hardaway Henderson, the wife of Rainey's cornetist Fuller Henderson, who became the band's leader.
Although most of Rainey's songs that mention sexuality refer to love affairs with men, some of her lyrics contain references to lesbianism or bisexuality, such as the 1928 song "Prove It on Me":
They said I do it, ain't nobody caught me.
Sure got to prove it on me.
Went out last night with a crowd of my friends.
They must've been women, 'cause I don't like no men.
According to the website queerculturalcenter.org, the lyrics refer to an incident in 1925 in which Rainey was "arrested for taking part in an orgy at [her] home involving women in her chorus." "Prove It on Me" further alludes to presumed lesbian behavior: "It's true I wear a collar and a tie ... Talk to the gals just like any old man." The political activist and scholar Angela Y. Davis noted that "'Prove It on Me' is a cultural precursor to the lesbian cultural movement of the 1970s, which began to crystallize around the performance and recording of lesbian-affirming songs."
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 for Paramount and earned enough money from touring to buy a bus with her name on it. In 1928, she worked with Dorsey again and recorded 20 songs, before Paramount terminated 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 three theatres, the Lyric, the Airdrome, and the Liberty Theatre until her death. She died of a heart attack in 1939, at the age of 53 (or 57, according to the research of Bob Eagle), in Rome, Georgia.
Bob Dylan referred to Rainey in the song "Tombstone Blues" on his 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited, pairing her with Beethoven, perhaps as symbols of great art, a compliment to Rainey's stature as an artist ("where Ma Rainey and Beethoven once unwrapped their bedroll").
In 1981 Sandra Lieb wrote the first full-length book about Rainey, Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey.
Sterling A. Brown wrote a poem, "Ma Rainey", in 1932, about how "When Ma Rainey / comes to town" people everywhere would hear her sing.
In 1994, the U.S. Post Office issued a 29-cent commemorative postage stamp honoring her.
In 2004, "See See Rider Blues" (performed in 1924) was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and was added to the National Recording Registry by the National Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress.
This sortable table presents all 94 titles recorded by Rainey.
|01||1596||1923/12||Bad Luck Blues||Lovie Austin
|02||1597||1923/12||Bo-Weavil Blues||Lovie Austin
|12080||Mixture of blues and popular song forms||A||5581||Another take on JSP & DOCD|
|03||1598||1923/12||Barrel House Blues||Lovie Austin
|04||1599||1923/12||Those All Night Long Blues||Lovie Austin
|12081||Non-blues||A||5581||Another take on JSP & DOCD|
|05||1608||1923/12||Moonshine Blues||Lovie Austin
|12083||Mixture of blues and popular song forms||A||5581|
|06||1609||1923/12||Last Minute Blues||Lovie Austin
|07||1612||1923/12||Southern Blues||Lovie Austin
|08||1613||1923/12||Walking Blues||Lovie Austin
|09||1698||1924/03||Lost Wandering Blues||Pruit Twins||12098||Twelve-bar blues||A||5581|
|10||1699||1924/03||Dream Blues||Pruit Twins||12098||Twelve-bar blues||A||5581|
|11||1701||1924/03||Honey Where You Been So Long?||Lovie Austin
|12||1702||1924/03||Ya-Da-Do||Her Georgia Jazz Band||12257||Non-blues||A||5581||Another take on JSP & DOCD|
|13||1703||1924/03||Those Dogs of Mine
(Famous Cornfield Blues)
|14||1704||1924/03||Lucky Rock Blues||Lovie Austin
|12215||Mixture of blues and popular song forms||A||5581|
|15||1741||1924/04||South Bound Blues||Her Georgia Jazz Band||12227||Non-blues||A||5581|
|16||1758||1924/05||Lawd Send Me a Man Blues||Her Georgia Jazz Band||12227||Non-blues||A||5581|
|17||1759||1924/05||Ma Rainey's Mystery Record||Lovie Austin
|18||1824||1924/08||Shave 'Em Dry Blues||Two unknown guitars||12222||Eight-bar blues||B||5581|
|19||1825||1924/08||Farewell Daddy Blues||Unknown guitar||12222||Twelve-bar blues||B||5581|
|20||1922||1924/10||Booze and Blues||Her Georgia Jazz Band||12242||Twelve-bar blues||B||5582|
|21||1923||1924/10||Toad Frog Blues||Her Georgia Jazz Band||12242||Twelve-bar blues||B||5582|
|22||1924||1924/10||Jealous Hearted Blues||Her Georgia Jazz Band||12252||Twelve-bar blues||B||5582|
|23||1925||1924/10||See See Rider Blues||Her Georgia Jazz Band||12252||Mixture of blues and popular song forms||B||5582||With Louis Armstrong; another take on JSP & DOCD|
|24||1926||1924/10||Jelly Bean Blues||Her Georgia Jazz Band||12238||Mixture of blues and popular song forms||B||5582||With Louis Armstrong|
|25||1927||1924/10||Countin' the Blues||Her Georgia Jazz Band||12238||Twelve-bar blues||B||5582||With Louis Armstrong; another take on JSP & DOCD|
|26||10001||1924/11||Cell Bound Blues||Her Georgia Jazz Band||12257||Mixture of blues and popular song forms||B||5582|
|27||2136||1925/05||Army Camp Harmony Blues||Her Georgia Jazz Band||12284||Twelve-bar blues||B||5582||Another take on JSP & DOCD|
|28||2137||1925/05||Explaining the Blues||Her Georgia Jazz Band||12284||Twelve-bar blues||B||5582||Another take on JSP & DOCD|
|29||2138||1925/05||Louisiana Hoo Doo Blues||Her Georgia Jazz Band||12290||Twelve-bar blues||B||5582|
|30||2138||1925/05||Goodbye Daddy Blues||Her Georgia Jazz Band||12290||Mixture of blues and popular song forms||B||5582|
|31||2209||1925/05||Stormy Seas Blues||Her Georgia Band||12295||Twelve-bar blues||B||5582||Another take on DOCD5625|
|32||2210||1925/08||Rough and Tumble Blues||Her Georgia Band||12311||Twelve-bar blues||B||5582|
|33||2211||1925/08||Night Time Blues||Her Georgia Band||12303||Twelve-bar blues||B||5582||Another take on JSP & DOCD|
|34||2212||1925/08||Levee Camp Moan||Her Georgia Band||12295||Non-blues||B||5582|
|35||2213||1925/08||Four Day Honorary Scat||Her Georgia Band||12303||Non-blues||B||5582||Misprint for "'Fore Day"; another take on JSP & DOCD|
|36||2214||1925/08||Memphis Bound Blues||Her Georgia Band||12311||Twelve-bar blues||B||5582|
|37||2369||1925/12||Slave to the Blues||Her Georgia Band||12332||Twelve-bar blues||C||5583|
|38||2370||1925/12||Yonder Come the Blues||Her Georgia Band||12357||Non-blues||C||5583|
|39||2371||1925/12||Titanic Man Blues||Her Georgia Band||12374||Mixture of blues and popular song forms||C||5583||Another take on JSP & DOCD|
|40||2372||1925/12||Chain Gang Blues||Her Georgia Band||12338||Twelve-bar blues||C||5583|
|41||2373||1925/12||Bessemer Bound Blues||Her Georgia Jazz Band||12374||Twelve-bar blues||C||5583||Another take on JSP & DOCD|
|42||2374||1925/12||Oh My Babe Blues||Her Georgia Band||12332||Non-blues||C||5583|
|43||2375||1925/12||Wringing and Twisting Blues||Her Georgia Band||12338||Non-blues||C||5583|
|44||2369||1925/12||Stack O'Lee Blues||Her Georgia Band||12357||Ballad||C||5583|
|45||2448||1926/03||Broken Hearted Blues||Her Georgia Band||12364||Twelve-bar blues||C||5583||Another take on DOCD5625|
|46||2451||1926/03||Jealousy Blues||Her Georgia Band||12364||Non-blues||C||5583||Another take on DOCD5660|
|47||2452||1926/03||Seeking Blues||Her Georgia Band||12352||Mixture of blues and popular song forms||C||5583||Another take on JSP & DOCD|
|48||2466||1926/03||Mountain Jack Blues||Jimmy Blythe (piano)||12352||Twelve-bar blues||C||5583||Another take on JSP & DOCD|
|49||2627||1926/06||Down in the Basement||Her Georgia Band||12395||Non-blues||C||5583|
|50||2628||1926/06||Sissy Blues||Her Georgia Band||12384||Twelve-bar blues||C||5583|
|51||2629||1926/06||Broken Soul Blues||Her Georgia Band||12384||Non-blues||C||5583|
|52||2631||1926/06||Trust No Man||Lillian Henderson (piano)||12395||Non-blues||C||5583|
|53||405||1926/11||Morning Hour Blues||Jimmy Blythe (piano)
Blind Blake (guitar)
|54||407||1926/11||Weepin' Woman Blues||Her Georgia Boys||12455||Twelve-bar blues||D||5584|
|55||408||1926/11||Soon This Morning||Her Georgia Band||12438||Twelve-bar blues||D||5584|
|56||4019||1926/12||Little Low Mamma Blues||Blind Blake (guitar)
possibly Leroy Picket (violin)
|57||4020||1926/12||Grievin Hearted Blues||Blind Blake (guitar)
possibly Leroy Picket (violin)
|12419||Mixture of blues and popular song forms||D||5584|
|58||4021||1926/12||Don't Fish in My Sea||Jimmy Blythe (piano)||12438||Twelve-bar blues||D||5584|
|59||4082||1927/08||Big Boy Blues||Her Georgia Band||12548||Twelve-bar blues||D||5584|
|60||4083||1927/08||Blues Oh Blues||Her Georgia Band||12566||Non-blues||D||5584|
|61||4090||1927/08||Damper Down Blues||Her Georgia Band||12548||Twelve-bar blues||D||5584|
|62||4091||1927/08||Gone Daddy Blues||Her Georgia Band||12526||Mixture of blues and popular song forms||D||5584|
|63||4092||1927/08||Oh Papa Blues||Her Georgia Band||12566||Non-blues||D||5584|
|64||4707||1927/08||Misery Blues||Her Georgia Band||12508||Non-blues||D||5584|
|65||4708||1927/08||Dead Drunk Blues||Her Georgia Band||12508||Twelve-bar blues||D||5584|
|66||4709||1927/08||Slow Driving Moan||Her Georgia Band||12526||Mixture of blues and popular song forms||D||5584|
|67||20228||1927/12||Blues the World Forgot--Part 1||Her Georgia Band||12647||Comedy||D||5584|
|68||20229||1927/12||Ma Rainey's Black Bottom||Her Georgia Band||12590||Non-blues||D||5584|
|69||20230||1927/12||Blues the World Forgot--Part 2||Her Georgia Band||12647||Comedy||D||5584|
|70||20231||1927/12||Hellish Rag||Her Georgia Band||12612||Non-blues||D||5584|
|71||20232||1927/12||Georgia Cake Walk||Her Georgia Band||12590||Comedy||D||5584|
|72||20233||1927/12||New Bo-Weavil Blues||Her Georgia Band||12603||Mixture of blues and popular song forms||D||5584|
|73||20232||1927/12||Moonshine Blues||Her Georgia Band||12603||Mixture of blues and popular song forms||D||5584|
|74||20233||1927/12||Ice Bag Papa||Her Georgia Band||12612||Non-blues||D||5584|
|75||20661||1928/06||Black Cat Hoot Owl Blues||Her Tub Jug Washboard Band||12687||Twelve-bar blues||E||5156||Band led by Georgia Tom|
|76||20662||1928/06||Log Camp Blues||Her Tub Jug Washboard Band||12804||Twelve-bar blues||E||5156||Band led by Georgia Tom|
|77||20663||1928/06||Hear Me Talking to You||Her Tub Jug Washboard Band||12668||Twelve-bar blues||E||5156||Band led by Georgia Tom|
|78||20664||1928/06||Hustlin' Blues||Her Tub Jug Washboard Band||12804||Twelve-bar blues||E||5156||Band led by Georgia Tom|
|79||20665||1928/06||Prove It on Me Blues||Her Tub Jug Washboard Band||12668||Non-blues||E||5156||Band led by Georgia Tom|
|80||20666||1928/06||Victim of the Blues||Her Tub Jug Washboard Band||12687||Twelve-bar blues||E||5156||Band led by Georgia Tom|
|81||20667||1928/06||Traveling Blues||Her Tub Jug Washboard Band||12707||Twelve-bar blues||E||5156||Band led by Georgia Tom; another take on JSP and DOCD5216|
|82||20668||1928/06||Deep Moaning Blues Blues||Her Tub Jug Washboard Band||12707||Twelve-bar blues||E||5156||Band led by Georgia Tom
another take on JSP & DOCD
|83||20878||1928/09||Daddy Goodbye Blues||Georgia Tom Dorsey (piano)
Tampa Red (guitar)
|84||20879||1928/09||Sleep Talking Blues||Georgia Tom Dorsey (piano)
Tampa Red (guitar)
|12760||Twelve-bar blues||E||5156||Another take on JSP & DOCD|
|85||20880||1928/09||Tough Luck Blues||Georgia Tom Dorsey (piano)
Tampa Red (guitar)
|86||20881||1928/09||Blame It on the Blues||Georgia Tom Dorsey (piano)
Tampa Red (guitar)
|87||20882||1928/09||Sweet Rough Man||Georgia Tom Dorsey (piano)
Tampa Red (guitar)
|88||20883||1928/09||Runaway Blues||Georgia Tom Dorsey (piano)
Tampa Red (guitar)
|89||20885||1928/09||Screech Owl Blues||Eddie Miller (piano)||12735||Twelve-bar blues||E||5156|
|90||20886||1928/09||Black Dust Blues||Eddie Miller (piano)||12926||Twelve-bar blues||E||5156|
|91||20897||1928/09||Leaving This Morning||Georgia Tom Dorsey (piano)
Tampa Red (guitar)
|92||20898||1928/09||Black Eye Blues||Georgia Tom Dorsey (piano)
Tampa Red (guitar)
|12963||Twelve-bar blues||E||5156||Another take on JSP & DOCD|
|93||20921||1928/10||Ma and Pa Poorhouse Blues||Papa Charlie Jackson (duet & banjo)||12718||Twelve-bar blues||E||5156|
|94||20144||1928/10||Big Feeling Blues||Papa Charlie Jackson (duet & banjo)||12718||Twelve-bar blues||E||5156|