2020 Black History -Ma Rainey “Mother of the Blues”

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Ma Rainey billed as the “Mother of the Blues” was one of the earliest African-American professional blues singers and one of the first generation of blues singers to record.

Ma Rainey was born Gertrude Pridget in April of 1882 or 1886. She began performing as a teenager and became known as Ma Rainey after her marriage to Will Rainey, in 1904. They toured with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels (owned by Pat Chappelle). Later she Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues.

In 1923, Rainey was discovered by Paramount Records producer J. Mayo Williams, a pioneer in the recording business. She signed a recording contract with Paramount and, over the next five years, would record over 100 recordings.

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.”

An Accomplished woman

In the winter of 1914, Ma wintered in New Orleans, where she met numerous musicians, including Joe “King” Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Bessie Smith, and Pops Foster. As the popularity of blues music increased, she became well known. She would later record with Louis Armstrong.

Rainey worked with some of the most excellent musicians of her time. In 1924 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 and would continue off and on until 1928.

Per Thomas Dorsey; She was in the spotlight,” he added. “She possessed listeners; they swayed, they rocked, they moaned and groaned as they felt the blues with her.”

In 1924 Rainey recorded “See, See Rider” with Louis Armstrong on cornet, Charlie Green on trombone, Buster Bailey on clarinet, Fletcher Henderson on piano, and Charlie Dixon on banjo accompanied the blues songstress as Her Georgia Jazz Band and transformed the song into a blues masterpiece.

Rainey 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.

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 2004 Ma Rainey was inducted into the Rock& Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. But if there really was such a thing as a classic blues singer, it was Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, an artist to whom even Smith owed a considerable debt.

Ma Rainey retired in 1935. She 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.


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