Ma Rainey and the unsung women who invented rock ‘n’ roll

New movie Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – on Netflix now – gives the ‘Mother Of The Blues’, Ma Rainey, a little known figure with a huge legacy, her long-overdue moment in the spotlight. She’s not the only one whose contribution to music – and to pushing taboos – in the years before ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ has been written out of history

In Partnership with Netflix 

Ma Rainey (1886-1939)

The songwriting, performing, venue-owning one-woman music industry

Ma Rainey and her Georgia Jazz Band

The subject of landmark new movie Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, on Netflix now, Ma Rainey might be described as acting how Beyonce would if she’d been transported back in time 100 years – like a total boss.

A singer, recording artist, bandleader, promoter and, in later years, venue owner, Rainey did everything at a time when, as a big, black, queer woman, the deck was stacked against her. More-so, she hid nothing of her life or her lifestyle to make herself more palatable to audiences. Her gravelly voice was often described as a “moan”, her makeup used more heavy black kohl than your average member of The Cure, her teeth were capped in gold, her dancers dressed like showgirls and she made no secret of the relationships with women she enjoyed on the side of her long marriage to Will ‘Pa’ Rainey. Take, for example, the lyrics of her song ‘Prove It On Me’, written following her arrest for hosting an all-woman orgy: “Went out last night with a crowd of my friends/They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.”

Rainey hid nothing of her life or her lifestyle to make herself more palatable to audiences

Born in Columbus, Georgia, Rainey was instrumental in the journey of the blues from the delta to the city, where she melded it with Dixieland jazz and minstrelsy (a blackface variety show even then being confined to the cultural dumpster) and created a spectacle built for stages, not porches, that was both popular for white audiences of the time and – unlike those minstrel shows – empowering for black people.

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

One of the very first blues singers – male or female – to record their own music, Rainey signed with Paramount Records and amassed a catalogue of over 100 recordings – most of them of self-penned songs. Back in Columbus in her dotage, she took over the running of three theatre venues. So that’s songwriting, performing, recording, promoting, bandleading, mentoring and venue owning – Ma Rainey was a one-woman music industry.

Famous fan: Bob Dylan namechecks Ma Rainey in ‘Tombstone Blues’.

Hear this: The ‘Bo-Weevil Blues’ – named for a bug that attacks a cotton crop – is a Ma original that captures the raw spirit of her early performances.

 

Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973)

The guitar-battling gospel goddess. Also invented rock & roll

Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Getty)

Prepare to have your timeline bent. We all think of rock ‘n’ roll as a ‘50s invention: one borne of malt shakes, Cadillacs, quiffs, ‘Rock Around The Clock’ and Elvis scandalising a nation. The problem with that narrative is that someone was doing most of the rock ‘n’ roll bit in the late 1930s and 1940s – while posing as a nun.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe – aka Rosetta Nubin – was an electric guitar-slinging, gospel singing performer whose queer lifestyle, showgirl backing dancers and popularity among a secular audience scandalised the church. She recorded a track named ‘Rock Me’ as early as 1938 and her 1945 hit ‘Strange Things Happening Every Day’ has been described as the first ever rock ‘n’ roll song. That track saw Rosetta on vocals and guitar and Sammy Price on drums and bass, a reverse White Stripes line-up that showcases her rasping vocals and cathedral-sized swagger. A whole generation of men were influenced, among them Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis – but somehow they forgot to pay their dues until later in life. Chuck Berry eventually said that his entire career was just “one long Rosetta Tharpe impersonation”. As Sister Rosetta told the Daily Mirror in 1957: “All this new stuff they call rock and roll, why, I’ve been playing that for years now.”

Sister Rosetta Tharpe on a visit to Wales (Getty)

Born in 1915 to a cotton picking mother in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, Tharpe began performing as Little Rosetta Nubin at the age of four and was performing in a traveling evangelical troupe alongside her mother at six. Her adult career began in earnest in New York in the late 1930s, where Rosetta took part in guitar battles at the Harlem Apollo and performed with Cab Calloway – the jazz singer known as ‘the hi-de-ho man’. Tharpe picked up a few old-timey nicknames along the way too: “the original soul sister” and “the Godmother of rock and roll” among them. Rosetta would reportedly frequently be told she played guitar like a man. To which her reply was: “Can’t no man play like me. I play better than a man.”

When told she played guitar like a man, Sister Rosetta would say, “Can’t no man play like me. I play better than a man.”

Tharpe courted controversy by dint of her talent, popularity and lifestyle – she was widely rumoured to have had a relationship with collaborator Marie Knight, a partnership that explains why Rosetta’s four-year, pre-fame marriage to preacher Thomas Thorpe took a nosedive. Making no apologies about her divorces, Tharpe’s third wedding took place in a stadium for an audience of 25,000 people. The two consistent relationships in Tharpe’s life – even in her last years in the 1970s, living as an amputee with rapidly declining health – were with God and the guitar, even if she invented the devil’s music as a result.

Famous fan: Frank Turner included an account of Rosetta’s life and work on his 2019 album ‘No Man’s Land’ celebrating unsung women; Keith Richards is a fan, too.

Watch this: Here’s Sister Rosetta performing ‘This Train’ in a Manchester TV studio, in the latter days of her career.

Bessie Smith (1894-1937)

The original hellraiser

Bessie Smith (Getty)

You’ve met the ‘Mother of the Blues’, now meet the ‘Empress Of The Blues’. It might be a stretch to call Bessie Smith unsung – she was herself the subject of a biopic, 2015’s Bessie, starring Queen Latifah in the lead role – but she still might qualify as a Pointless answer as far as the general public is concerned, so here goes.

A blues powerhouse with a voice so strong she rarely sang with amplification, Smith’s was a rags to riches story. Orphaned in Chattanooga, Tennessee, she would sing on street corners with her siblings and eventually joined a travelling troupe as a dancer, which is where she met Ma Rainey.

Ma took Bessie on as her protege and became close. How close, exactly, relies on which account you read, but it’s thought that the two enjoyed a romantic relationship. Reportedly, it was Bessie who bailed Ma out after her arrest for hosting an ‘orgy’ mentioned above – and that sounds like love to us.

Eventually, Smith’s popularity would eclipse that of her mentor. Signed to Columbia Records in 1923, she became the highest-paid black entertainer of her day – that’s the riches part of the story.

More importantly, Smith used her platform and voice to celebrate independence, sexual liberation and the lives of working class people. Among the themes in her work were forced labour (‘Work House Blues’), capital punishment (‘Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair’), racial conflict, hard living (‘Backwater Blues’), female sexuality (‘T’ain’t Nobody’s Biz-Ness if I Do’) and the right to pleasure (‘Need A Little Sugar In The Bowl’). Essentially, she was the originator of the concept behind ‘(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)’ by The Beastie Boys, but on behalf of working class women rather than priviliged New York white boys.

Bessie Smith (Getty)

Though she enjoyed the spoils of success, reportedly travelling in her own 72-foot-long railroad car, Smith notably refused to alter her behaviour to appease those with more refined sensibilities. She missed out on one record deal because she spat during the audition. According to period accounts, she swore, drank whiskey and was remembered by blues scholar CC Rider as having a “mean temper”.

Bessie missed out on one record deal because she spat during the audition

Bessie died a death that was suitably cruel and bizarre enough for a woman who’d been given lemons and turned it into champagne, dying after the second of two consecutive car crashes – in a car taking her to hospital following the first.

Famous fan: Janis Joplin helped pay for a tombstone to be placed on Bessie Smith’s unmarked grave, an event documented by the singer-songwriter Dory Previn on the song ‘A Stone For Bessie Smith’.

Hear this: ‘Downhearted Blues’ captures Smith’s liberated attitude: “I got the world in a jug, the stopper’s in my hand/I’m gonna hold it until you men come under my command”.

Mamie Smith (1891-1946)

The first Black blues voice on record, ever

Mamie Smith (Getty)

Mamie Smith lays claim to be the first African American artist of any gender to make blues vocal recordings, which were cut for the Okeh label in February 1920. By that summer, she had a huge hit on her hands in the vaudeville-style ‘Crazy Blues’, and its success justified the actions of Okeh boss Fred Hagar, who’d received threats of boycotts for recording a Black vocalist.

Its success also opened doors for Black performers and spawned a craze for so-called ‘race records’ aimed at Black people, a term that thankfully didn’t hang around for long for a market that did.

The Okeh label received threats of boycotts for recording a Black vocalist

Despite opening up a new revenue stream for the industry, Smith wasn’t given the opportunity to make much money for herself, and her appearance in a string of films in the 1930s and 1940s seemingly didn’t leave her a fortune – she died penniless in New York in 1946, and was buried in an unmarked grave – an indignity since rectified by fans.

Mamie Smith (Getty)

Recording with white artists for white labels, largely performing material written by other people and retiring from the business in the early 1930s, it’s easy to think of Mamie Smith as being less of a maverick than her contemporaries Bessie Smith (no relation) and Ma Rainey.

Unlike them, her route to the blues was via vaudeville, rather than the other way around. Mamie was an actress performing in a musical revue with minstrel performer Perry Bradford, composer of ‘Crazy Blues’, and was ushered into the studio rather than fighting for it. But be in no doubt just how important it was that Mamie Smith jammed her foot in the door afterwards – leaving it open to an entire generation of unheard African American artists.

In her own words: “Real ‘blues’ music has a fascination about it which gets into the blood” – Mamie Smith, 1921

Hear this: It’s gotta be the aforementioned ‘Crazy Blues’

 

(Sister) Wynona Carr (1923-1976)

The reluctant singing ‘nun’ who fought for the right to be herself

Rosetta Tharpe wasn’t the only singing nun out there. ‘Sister’ Wynona Carr (plain old Wynona Carr when singing secular music) was signed up in 1949 as a gospel singer by record exec Art Rupe to follow in Rosetta’s footsteps – it was he who came up with the nun schtick as a way of marking an artist who, like Rosetta, had endless swagger and sang juke joint gospel with jump blues backing.

The marketing never sat easily with Carr, who reportedly wrote to Rupe saying, “Gee whiz, why did I have to have a Sister Carr handle? I hate it. Mahalia [Jackson, gospel singer] doesn’t have one. That sounds like I’m 90 years old. Must I have it?”. Rupe paid lip service but, ultimately, the name stuck.

Wynona Carr (Getty)

Failing to find success after a few years singing the good lord’s word, Carr was set on wresting control of her own career, and determined to record secular music and begin playing the white clubs, where the money was to be made. In 1955, she wrote to Rupe: “I am not returning to church, but I would like to stay with you if you will allow me to record my kind of music. I don’t want to and can’t be a disgrace to my family by singing the lower class blues. I want to do and can do pops, jumps, ballads and semi-blues… I would like to be in the position where I could play all the clubs and not be limited to my own people.” Rupe capitulated.

Wynona Carr (Getty)

Carr never achieved mass recognition but it was not due to any lack of talent. In fact, Carr’s music – particularly her gospel music – was possessed of righteous indignation and street-smart lyrics that made the glory of God seem like a hoot – ’The Ball Game’ drew on baseball metaphors (“The second base is sin; the third is tribulation”) and ‘15 Rounds For Jesus’ had Carr boxing Satan to defend God’s honour. Suffice to say those songs – and her glamorous image – didn’t connect with the folks in church.

‘15 Rounds For Jesus’ had Carr boxing Satan to defend God’s honour

What’s important is remembering the example Carr set, refusing to give up on the idea that she knew what was best for her own music. It’s a fight that any woman in music will tell you they’ve had at least once in their career.

Hear this: ‘Dragnet For Jesus’ sees Carr appropriate the title of a popular cop show of the day – for Jesus, of course.

Memphis Minnie (1897-1973)

The original punk rocker

Memphis Minnie (Getty)

Memphis Minnie’s early life reads like something from a Great American Novel – born into a family of 13 in Louisiana, ran away at 13, danced on Memphis street corners, joined a circus, ran back to Memphis, performed on Beale Street, made extra money through sex work and was ‘discovered’ busking on the street with her husband in 1929.

In the career that followed, Minnie made a name for herself – both in a duo with her husband and solo following their 1935 divorce – as a blues singer who played harder and louder than any other, and who shredded an electric guitar long before it was commonplace to do so.

Minnie shredded an electric guitar long before it was commonplace to do so

Minnie fought harder, too. According to blues artist Johnny Shines, “any men fool with her she’d go for them right away. She didn’t take no foolishness off them. Guitar, pocket knife, pistol – anything she get her hand on she’d use it”. Add in tobacco chewing and attendant tobacco spitting – even when playing guitar – and it’s fair to postulate that Minnie was the very first punk rocker.

Memphis Minnie (Getty)

But Minnie’s hardness was born in hardship, of course, and her music never failed to express her real life, no matter how chaotic. Take as evidence her tracks ‘I’m a Bad Luck Woman’, ‘I’m a Gambling Woman’ and ‘Drunken Barrel House Blues’.

Famous fan: Led Zeppelin adapted Minnie’s ‘When The Levee Breaks’ on their fourth album; Mazzy Star covered her song ‘I’m Sailin’’ in 1990.

Hear this: ‘Me And My Chauffeur Blues’, in which the chauffeur represents a partner and is threatened with a pistol.

 

Big Mama Thornton (1926-1984)

The rhythm & blues singer who got to ‘Hound Dog’ before Elvis

Big Mama Thornton (Getty)

If you ever hear an artist today talking about their struggle to make it, consider this: how does it compare to that of Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton, who worked cleaning spittoons in saloons – yep, they’re buckets for men to spit in – while waiting for her big break.

Eventually finding a place on the stage, Thornton was given the nickname Big Mama by the manager of Harlem’s Apollo Theater, and it was a caricature she was happy to play up to, frequently telling people she was “louder than any microphone”.

Big Mama Thornton (Getty)

Success came in 1952, when she became the first artist to have a hit with Lieber & Stoller’s ‘Hound Dog’ – a 10 million-seller for Elvis in 1956, but conceived by the writers as “an anthem of black female power”. Thornton’s version topped the R&B charts and helped cement a sound that even Elvis himself would admit to ripping off a bit.

Big Mama Thornton boasted she was “louder than any microphone”

In her later career, Thornton began playing more with her androgyny, performing in a men’s suit at 1980’s Blues Is a Woman concert. Thornton died as a result of alcoholism at 57; her name lives on via the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, which offers a musical education to girls from ages eight to 18.

In her own words: “White or black, rich or poor, if you ever had your heart broken you have the right to sing the blues.”

Famous fan: Elvis Presley was heavily inspired by Thornton’s vocal style – even though he never admitted it.

Hear this: ‘Ball And Chain’ was Thornton’s self-penned flipside to ‘Hound Dog’ – and a song frequently covered by Janis Joplin.

And here’s a great performance of the lead track.

 

Diamond Teeth Mary (1902-2000)

Original gangsta granny

The answer to your first question is, yes, Diamond Teeth Mary – born Mary Smith – really did have the diamonds from her bracelet set into her teeth – until she had them removed to help pay her mother’s medical bills.

A half-sister of Bessie Smith by marriage, Mary had a similarly difficult upbringing. Disguised as a boy, she hopped a train out of her West Virginia hometown at 13 to avoid her abusive father, joined the circus and performed in a string of minstrel shows.

Yes, she really did have the diamonds set into her teeth

Mary adopted the Diamond Teeth Mary persona after Bessie’s death. With her dazzling new stage act, Mary eventually found herself performing alongside some of the era’s greatest names, including Billie Holiday, Ray Charles and Count Basie, touring the world and performing for troops overseas. Oddly, she issued her debut album at the age of 91.

Diamond Teeth Mary’s reinvention – and the creation of a larger-than-life persona built for the stage, has been in pop’s playbook ever since. Mary, meanwhile, enjoyed a long, long life – and performed right to the end.

Famous fans: Blues singer Johnny Copeland, John Lee Hooker and Big Mama Thornton credited Diamond Teeth Mary with their breaks in the business.

Hear This: ‘Walkin’ Blues’ (above) is the song that gave Mary her other nickname: Walkin’ Mary.

Gladys Bentley (1907-1960)

The gender-fluid joker of Harlem

It’s hard to picture how sensibilities can still occasionally be offended by queer culture when you consider the success of Gladys Bentley who, in the 1920s and 1930s, delighted audiences with an act that saw her dressing in male clothes, macking on women in the audience and performing with drag queens.

Sadly, Bentley herself was witness to the growing intolerance. Following the closure of New York’s speakeasies, she moved to California and stripped down her act to her virtuoso piano playing and vocals, but found that her dress sense caused a stir. The situation was worsening, and at times she was required to carry paperwork permitting her to perform in her chosen clothes. In the 1950s she relented, began wearing women’s clothes and saying she was no longer a lesbian, due to the paranoid climate caused by McCarthyism and the search to root out communists in the USA that brought undue scrutiny on anyone living outside the norm.

At times Bentley was required to carry paperwork permitting her to perform in her chosen clothes

In fact, Bentley had identified as queer from a very young age. The suits were not stage wear, but everyday clothing that suited her stature and personality. “It seems I was born different,” she told Ebony magazine, in an upsetting editorial piece renouncing her identity. “At least, I always thought I was.”

Unloved by her mother and feeling like an outcast, Bentley left her Philadelphia home at 16 and ran away to Harlem, New York, finding like minded people at legendary gay speakeasy Harry Hansberry’s Clam House, which is where she developed her act. Soon, she had a residency in Manhattan at Park Avenue’s Ubangi Club, and was touring the country.

Her act – belying her musical talent – incorporated plenty of comedy: she’d sing explicit lyrics, make wild innuendos and adapt popular black songs as satires on white society. The fact that Bentley ended her life an evangelist for the hormones that “cured” her reflects a woman working in a world that became less and less permissive, and more and more asphyxiating. But what she did was so ahead of its time it was considered shocking when Bowie did 40 years later, or Lady Gaga another 40.

In her own words: “Some of us wear the badges and symbols of our non-conformity.”

Hear this: ‘Worried Blues’, above.