|Ma Rainey Gertrude "Ma" Rainey is often considered the "Mother
of the Blues". She and Bessie Smith are regarded as the best of the classical
blues singers of the 1920's. Ma Rainey incorporated this classic blues style into
the minstrel and vaudeville stage shows that were so popular at that time. She had
a profound influence on the development of blues music even though before her recording
debut she rarely traveled outside the South. Ma Rainey's style was deeply rooted
in the earthy, country blues.
Ma Rainey was born Gertrude Pridgett on April 26, 1886 in Columbus, Georgia. Thomas and Ella Pridgett were entertainers performing in vaudeville shows and this inspired young Gertrude to do the same. Gertrude first performed with a song and dance troupe when she was 14 years old. In 1902, she heard her first blues song and decided the blues was what she wanted to sing. In 1904, she married William "Pa" Rainey and took on the name Ma Rainey. Pa was a minstrel song and dance man. Together they formed Rainey and Rainey: The Assassinators of Blues. They traveled through the South with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels (where Ma allegedly coached a young Bessie Smith) and then with Tolliver's Circus and Musical Extravaganza. Soon, Ma Rainey had become a featured singer in the Theater Owner's Booking Association circuit.
In 1923, she began her recording contract with Paramount Records. She was billed as the newly discovered "Mother of the Blues". Rainey was already 38 years old when she began recording although she had 25 years of performing under her belt. Ma's recording career lasted a short while, only until 1928. During this time she recorded almost a hundred songs such as classics "C.C. Rider", "Jelly Bean Blues", "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Blues", "Bo Weavil Blues", and "Prove It On Me".
Ma Rainey was not a conventionaly beautiful woman and she was affectionately dubbed by her peers as "the ugliest woman in show business". What she didn't possess physically, she made up for in lavish costumes (she was also called the Gold Necklace Woman of Blues) and presence. She was known to be wild and sexually promiscuous and did not shy away from promoting this in her songs.
In the 1930's the Depression hit and popular taste changed from female blues singers to male blues singers and a more urbanized sound. Ma Rainey was a shrewd business woman and had saved her money. She retired to her hometown of Columbus, Georgia. There she purchased and ran two theaters and became very active in the "Congregation of Friendship" Baptist church. Ma Rainey passed away on December 22, 1939 due to heart disease. She was inducted into the Blues Foundations Hall of Fame in 1983 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an "early influence" in 1990. She was also honored as the "Mother of Blues" on a U.S. postage stamp in 1994.