Ma Rainey was known for her very powerful vocal abilities, energetic disposition, majestic phrasing, and a ‘moaning’ style of singing. Her powerful voice was never adequately captured on her records, due to her recording exclusively for Paramount, which was at the time known for its below-average recording techniques and poor shellac quality. However, Rainey’s other qualities are present and most evident in her early recordings, Bo-weevil Blues and Moonshine Blues.
Rainey recorded with Louis Armstrong in addition to touring and recording with the Georgia Jazz Band. She continued to tour until 1935 when she retired to her hometown.
Gertrude Pridgett claimed to have been born on April 26, 1886 in Columbus, Georgia.(This can be questioned, however, as the 1900 census listing indicates she may have been born in September 1882 in Alabama.) She was the second of five children of Thomas and Ella (née Allen) Pridgett, from Alabama. She had at least two brothers and a sister named Malissa, with whom Gertrude was later confused in some sources.
She came onto the performance scene at a talent show in Columbus, Georgia when she was 12–14 years old. A member of the First African Baptist Church, she began performing in in Black minstrel show tents. She later claimed that she was first exposed to blues music around 1902.
She formed the Alabama Fun Makers Company with her husband Will Rainey, but in 1906 they both joined Pat Chappelle’s much larger and more popular Rabbit’s Foot Company, where they were billed together as “Black Face Song and Dance Comedians, Jubilee Singers [and] Cake Walkers”. In 1910, she was described as “Mrs. Gertrude Rainey, our coon shouter”, and she continued with the Rabbit’s Foot Company after it was taken over by new owner F. S. Wolcott in 1912.
From 1914, the Raineys were billed as Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues. Wintering in New Orleans, she met musicians including Joe “King” Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and Pops Foster. Blues music increased in popularity and Ma Rainey became well known. Around this time, Rainey met Bessie Smith, a young blues singer who was also making a name for herself.
A story later developed that Rainey kidnapped Smith, making her join the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, and teaching her to sing the blues. This was disputed by Smith’s sister-in-law Maud Smith.
From the late 1910s, there was an increasing demand for recordings by black musicians. In 1920, Mamie Smith was the first black woman to record a record. In 1923, Rainey was discovered by Paramount Records producer J. Mayo Williams. She signed a recording contract with Paramount, and in December she made her first eight recordings in Chicago.
These included the songs “Bad Luck Blues”, “Bo-Weevil Blues” and “Moonshine Blues”. She made more than 100 more over the next five years, which brought her fame beyond the South. 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”.
In 1924 she made some recordings with Louis Armstrong, including “Jelly Bean Blues”, “Countin’ the Blues” and “See, See Rider”. In the same year she embarked on a tour of the Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA) throughout the South and Midwestern United States, singing both for black and white audiences.
She was accompanied by bandleader and pianist Thomas Dorsey, and the band he assembled called the Wildcats Jazz Band.They began their tour with an appearance in Chicago in April 1924 and continued, on and off, until 1928. Dorsey left the group in 1926 due to ill health and was replaced as pianist by Lillian Hardaway Henderson, the wife of Rainey’s cornetist Fletcher Henderson, who became the band’s leader.
Some of Rainey’s lyrics contain open references to lesbianism or bisexuality. For example, a 1928 song, “Prove It on Me”, states:
They said I do it, ain’t nobody caught me. Sure got to prove it on me. Went out last night with a crowd of my friends. They must’ve been women, cause I don’t like no men.
According to the website queerculturalcenter.org, the lyrics refer to an incident in 1925 in which Rainey was “arrested for taking part in an orgy at [her] home involving women in her chorus.” “Prove It on Me” further alludes to presumed lesbian behavior, “It’s true I wear a collar and a tie… Talk to the gals just like any old man.”
Political activist and scholar Angela Y. Davis notes: “‘Prove It on Me’ is a cultural precursor to the lesbian cultural movement of the 1970s, which began to crystallize around the performance and recording of lesbian-affirming songs.” Towards the end of the 1920s, live vaudeville went into decline, being replaced by radio and recordings. Her career was not immediately affected and continued recording with Paramount and earned enough money touring to buy a bus with her name on it. In 1928, she worked with Dorsey again and recording 20 songs, before Paramount finished her contract. Her style of blues was no longer considered fashionable by the label.
In 1935 Rainey returned to her hometown, Columbus, Georgia, where she ran two theaters, “The Lyric” and “The Airdrome”, until her death from a heart attack in 1939 at age 53.
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