Rainey, Gertrude "Ma"

Rainey, Gertrude "Ma," 1886–1939, African-American blues singer and songwriter, b. Columbus, Ga., as Gertrude Melissa Nix Pridgett. Rainey's place and date of birth are in dispute. Known as the “Mother of the Blues,” she was the first great professional blues singer. She began singing as a teenager, and soon performing in tent shows throughout the South, combining her rich-voiced, earthy, and powerful singing with comic routines and social commentary. Beginning in 1902 she added blues to her repertoire. In 1904 she married performer Will Rainey, and they toured together as Ma and Pa Rainey until their divorce in 1916, when she began to tour as Ma Rainey with her own tent show. She made nearly 100 records in the 1920s, often accompanied by jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, and Thomas Dorsey; some became national hits and are now classics, e.g., “See See Rider” (1924), now a part of the Library of Congress' National Historic Recording Registry. Her other songs include “Oh Papa Blues,” “Bo-weavil Blues,” and “Slow Driving Moan.” Her 1928 song “Prove It On Me,” depicting a lesbian affair, suggests that she may have been bisexual. Rainey also was said to have mentored or may have had a sexual relationship with Bessie Smith, perhaps the most popular of the Black female blues singers. In 1935, she retired to Columbus, Ga., where she operated three theaters until her death. She was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame (1983) and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1990). Her last home in Columbus, Ga., was opened as a museum in 2007. Her life story inspired August Wilson’s 1982 play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, named after the title of one of her compositions.

See biographies by D. Stewart-Baxter (1970), S. Lieb (1983); studies by A.Y. Davis (1998), L. Abbott and D. Seroff (2009, 2019); A. Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1982, Broadway; 2020, film); Bessie (2015 TV film)

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