Meet the real Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey – what you need to know about the ‘Mother Of The Blues’

You’re about to become very aware of Ma Rainey thanks to Viola Davis’s Oscar-worthy performance as her in the Netflix movie Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, but this isn’t a biopic and you’ll definitely want to know more...

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She didn’t get the name ‘Mother Of The Blues’ for nothing

Ma Rainey was a pioneering artist who took a combination of tradition blues and vaudeville to cities across America. Not only did Rainey claim to have been the first professional female singer of the blues, having first sung blues in front of live vaudeville audiences at the age of sixteen in around 1900, Rainey claimed to have invented the very term ‘blues’ after adding a heartbreak song she’d heard a woman sing in Missouri to her own repertoire.

And ‘Mother Of The Blues’ wasn’t her only sobriquet

Once Rainey started recording music for the Paramount label, the record company marketed her extensively under a wild variety of nicknames: “Mother of the Blues”, “Songbird of the South”, the “Gold-Neck Woman of the Blues” and the “Paramount Wildcat”.

She always made an entrance

Renowned for her incredibly powerful performances, Rainey was a huge presence on stage with her gold teeth, exaggerated kohl make-up, ostrich feathers, necklace of heavy gold coins, dancers and a deep, raspy voice that demanded complete attention. She worked her craft in touring ‘tent shows’ of the South – pop-up shows in Big Top-like venues – before wowing the cabaret clubs of northern US cities in the 20s.

She and her husband were assassins

…assassins of the blues, that is. Born Gertrude Pridgett, Ma Rainey married William “Pa” Rainey in 1904 when she was just 18. The two performed extensively together and formed a group with a quite brilliant name: Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues.

She was one of the first black, female recording artists

Blues singer Mamie Smith beat her to it by cutting her first recording in 1920, but Ma Rainey was still a rarity in 1923, when she began a prolific recording career for Paramount records.

She recorded some killer tracks

Like this one, ‘See See Rider Blues’.

 

You can ask the lady her age, but you might not get the right answer

Ma Rainey claimed to have been born on April 26, 1886 in Georgia; the 1900 census has her being born in September 1882 in Alabama. Possibly the result of poor record keeping and literacy at the time; possibly the first example of the time-honoured ‘stage age’.

You’ll probably have heard of some of her collaborators

Like Louis Armstrong, the celebrated trumpet player, singer and ‘What A Wonderful World’ hitmaker, with whom Rainey recorded a number of tracks in 1924. Rainey met Armstrong and a number of key figures in the jazz and blues scenes while spending winters in New Orleans.

She was kind of an outlaw

According to some accounts, Rainey managed to get protege Bessie Smith to join her band the Rabbits Foot Minstrels by kidnapping her. Whatever really happened, Smith and Rainey had a long personal and professional association. When Rainey was arrested for hosting and taking part in a same-sex orgy at her home in 1925, it was Smith who bailed her out the following morning.

She’s in the Rock ‘N Roll Hall Of Fame

Which isn’t bad for someone who died in 1939, more than a decade before the birth of rock ‘n’ roll in the mid-50s.

Ma Rainey chats with an unidentified man circa 1925. (Donaldson Collection/Getty Images)

She was a one-woman music industry

Ma Rainey was a performer, a recording artist, a bandleader, a mentor and a touring artist and, in her final years, a venue owner. She spent 1935 to 1939 running three theatres in her hometown of Columbus, Georgia: the Lyric, the Airdrome, and the Liberty Theatre.

She was fearless about her sexuality

Ma Rainey was married to the aforementioned Pa Rainey, but had numerous affairs with women, many of who were fellow female jazz and blues singers of the Harlem Renaissance. One of Rainey’s songs, ‘Prove It On Me’ is widely believed to be describing the orgy arrest: “Went out last night with a crowd of my friends/They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men/They say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me/They sure got to prove it on me.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is on Netflix now