Ma Rainey - Biography

By J Poet

Ma Rainey, the Mother of the Blues, was the premier star of the first American blues craze of the 1920s. Although she didn’t exclusively sing blues songs, her renditions of blues classics became one of the cornerstones of the music and an influence on Bessie Smith, another blues pioneer.


Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridgett Rainey was born in Columbus, Georgia, and was singing professionally by the age of 14. She joined the Rabbit Foot Minstrels in 1900. She allegedly heard another woman singer delivering a sad African American folk song about her unfaithful lover while on tour. Rainey learned the song and when she sang it on stage, crowds went crazy. She claims that she started calling this song “The Blues,” thereby naming the genre.


In 1904, she married singer William "Pa" Rainey, also touring with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels and started calling herself Ma Rainey. They moved to The Moses Stokes Review in 1910 and when Bessie Smith joined the troupe in 1912, Rainey taught her how to sing and work the stage. She was also known to be bisexual and made many recordings that could be considered lesbian themed including “Prove It On Me Blues,” which has become a Drag King anthem. In 1916, divorced and on her own, she put together Ma Rainey and Her Georgia Smart Sets and toured successfully. In 1924, with pianist and arranger Thomas A. Dorsey, later one of the founders of gospel music, she created The Wild Cats Jazz Band.


Rainey had been headlining shows for several decades before she started her recording career for Paramount Records in 1923. Between 1923 and 1928, she made 100 records including the classics “C.C. Rider,” “Ma Rainey's Black Bottom,” “Shave 'Em Dry,” and “Bo Weevil Blues.” On her sessions jazzmen like Louis Armstrong, Tommy Ladnier, Fletcher Henderson, Lovie Austin, Tampa Red, Coleman Hawkins, Willie the Lion Smith, and Buster Bailey backed her. Paramount fired her in 1928, just before the Great Depression put an end to a show business era that was particularly lucrative for African American performers.


With the blues craze over, Rainey retired, but she’d made enough money to buy a house and two theaters, The Lyric and The Airdrome. She ran them until her death in 1939. Rainey was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame in 1983, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. In 1994, the U.S. Post Office issued a Ma Rainey stamp. “C.C. Rider” was added to the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2004.


Rainey’s output is collected on Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 1 (1923-1924) (1998 Document UK), Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 2 (1924-1925) (1998 Document UK), Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 3 (1925-1926) (1998 Document UK), Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 4 (1926-1927) (1998 Document UK), Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 4 (1928) (1998 Document UK.) There are hundreds of compilations that mine her catalogue, usually concentrating on her best-known tunes, so be careful when buying.



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