Ma Rainey

Jun 15th, 2011 | By | Category: Arts & Entertainment
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Ma Rainey1886-1939  Ma Rainey was the first known minstrel and variety performer to incorporate the “country blues” style in her singing, fueling an explosion in the genre’s popularity. She built a successful recording career on her live shows’ success, and finally devoted herself to charity and church work when the early blues era had passed.

Ma & Pa Rainey

Rainey was born Gertrude Pridgett on April 26, 1886 in Columbus, Georgia. Her parents were both minstrel troupe performers, one of the few professional opportunities available at that time for African American entertainers. Rainey, one of three children, began singing at a very early age; she was 14 when she appeared in the local talent show. This led to her own work with a traveling minstrel group beginning in 1900. It is said that in 1902, she heard a girl sing the blues in St. Louis, Missouri. Rainey then became the first to incorporate the sound, feeling, and style into minstrel and vaudeville performing.

In 1904, a comedy minstrel singer named Pa Rainey heard Rainey perform; they were married on February 2nd of that year. Rainey took the name “Ma,” and Ma and Pa Rainey began touring together with a variety of troupes as “Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues.” They worked throughout the south and midwest as far as Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas for over a decade as Rainey developed her act and her sound. The so-called “country blues” or “down home blues” was the raw expression of the black experience in the post-Reconstruction rural south. Moans often replaced lyrics, and the feeling was the essence of the music. Rainey’s deep, gravelly contralto voice captured it perfectly, and her entirely black audiences responded enthusiastically. Other singers also adopted the style. When a young Bessie Smith joined the Rabbit Foot Minstrels as a dancer, the older Rainey took her under her wing and, it is said, offered help with her singing.

Rainey separated from her husband in 1916, and continued touring and performing with her own group for the next eight years, steadily gaining in popularity. Her audiences were segregated and limited to the south; in each city, she would appear in the black theater, and in the country, in tent shows. By this time, she was billed as the “Mother of the Blues,” and Rainey herself claimed to have invented the name “blues” to describe what was until then just a rural emotive style. She became a leading attraction on the Theater Owners Booking Association circuit. She was largely responsible for the explosive surge in popularity for the emerging blues and jazz genres at the beginning of the 20th century, which would gain even more momentum with the advent of recordings and radio.

A Late Recording Star

After some 25 years of hugely successful live performances, Rainey recorded for the first time in 1923 for the young Paramount label. The first known blues recording had been made only three years earlier by Mamie Smith. Rainey’s first side was the traditional “Bo Weevil Blues.” In that same year, she also recorded “Moonshine Blues” and “Yonder Comes the Blues,” followed by the first recorded version of one of the all-time blues classics, “See See Rider.” As had been the case with her live performances, she would continue to sing with simple jug bands and washboard accompaniment, in addition to more sophisticated groups.

During her brief five-year recording career at Paramount, it became a leading record company, driven by sales of her sides. In that time, she recorded approximately 100 songs including numerous classics, and with such luminous sidemen as Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Kid Ory, and Coleman Hawkins. Her sides included “Jelly Bean Blues,” “Walking Blues,” “Black Cat, Hoot Owl Blues,” Runaway Blues,” “Sleep Talking Blues,” “Black Eye Blues,” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” In 1924, she formed a back-up band with famed arranger Thomas A. Dorsey who served as director of her subsequent tour. This brought her to major cities like Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Chicago’s Grand Theater, representing the first time a country blues artist had performed in that venue. With her large heavy form bedecked in jewels and flowing gowns, the gold fillings in her teeth catching the spotlights, Rainey would engage her audience at a visceral level, often inciting them to sway and moan with her. She continued performing live with her Wild Jazz Cats until 1926.

She distinguished herself as a competent businesswoman who was also known for a lustful appetite that earned her the nickname Madame Rainey, and served as the subject of many of her songs. Rainey was a self-possessed, dynamic, and generous woman who served as a model for many who followed. She became a foster mother to seven children. But with the Great Depression, the market for jazz and blues went into severe decline in the early 1930s and Rainey was dropped by Paramount. She continued performing on the vaudeville circuits for a few years, but when her mother and sister died in 1935, she retired to Columbus. There, she dedicated herself to managing two theaters she had purchased, and doing charity work and inspirational performances for the Friendship Baptist Church. She died of heart disease in 1939 at the age of 53.

Rainey was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1983, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990 as an “early influence.” Her impact extends to the full cohort of blues, country, gospel, and rock musicians. She also inspired such African American poets as Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown, and author Alice Walker. Her name reentered the public sphere with August Wilson’s play in 1988, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.


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