Known as one of the first great female blues vocalists, Ma Rainey, born as Gertrude Pridgett, recorded more than 100 songs in the late 1920s, but is often overlooked for her influence on other blues singers like Bessie Smith and Mamie Smith.
Born in Georgia, Ma Rainey began performing and touring in her early 20s after she met and married William Rainey, also known as “Pa Rainey,” a vaudeville performer. The couple toured as a song and dance team with African-American minstrel groups.
While on the road in 1902, Ma Rainey heard a country blues singer for the first time in Missouri. She was influenced by the sound of heartbreak and its mysterious melody. As she began to hear blues more throughout the south, she began to intertwine it with her own vaudeville style, something that hadn’t been done before. Her unique style helped her popularity grow.
Her songs covered stories of heartbreak, magic, superstition, travel and the day-to-day experiences of Black females in the south. Some of her most famous songs include, “Moonshine Blues,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “See See Rider,” “Blues Oh Blues,” “Oh Papa Blues,” “Trust No Man” and “Slave to the Blues.” A young Louis Armstrong played on several of her recordings and live performances.
During her performances, she was known for wearing long gowns with diamonds, lots of gold jewelry and her mouthful of gold teeth. She captivated her audiences with her deep and brassy, yet energetic voice.
Her style and on-stage life was recently portrayed in Netflix’s 2020 movie, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” with Viola Davis starring as Ma Rainey and Chadwick Boseman as a trumpeter. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was originally as a play in 1982 by Black playwright August Wilson. It was one of ten-plays by August chronicling the twentieth century African American experience.
Ma Rainey retired from the music business in 1935 after the Great Depression led to a decline in touring and jazz music took over in popularity. She returned to Georgia and died in 1939. After her death, she was inducted into both the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.