On this date in 1886 a pioneer in American music was born in Columbus, GA. Gertrude Pridgett was a precocious singer, joining a local revue at the age of 14 and joining the touring Rabbit Foot Minstrels within a couple of years. She met William “Pa” Rainey in 1904 and they were soon married. They travelled and performed together and she was billed Madame Gertrude Rainey, eventually shortening it to Ma Rainey to match her song and dance partner’s stage name. They soon began their own travelling show, Rainey and Rainey — Assassinators of the Blues.
Rainey had a powerful voice and a deep instinct for the sound of the blues. She blended the styles she encountered (including country blues and gospel) and created a unique blend that has influenced successive generations. She took the road tradition of the bluesman, with music and lyrics steeped in a history of slavery, and adapted it for the stage, creating a new art form. Known as the Mother of the Blues, she was an early influence on blues and jazz great Bessie Smith; poet Langston Hughes also considered her an influence, pointing to the cadence of her performance. Rainey also wrote original songs, somewhat unusual for her generation of interpretive singers.
As the blues gained national attention, Rainey was one of the first African-Americans ever to record their singing. (The first known was Mamie Smith in 1920.) In 1923, she signed a contract with Paramount. In the space of six years she made over 100 records for the label, working with rising stars like Louis Armstrong. While recording, she continued to tour with Pa Rainey as well as the Wildcats Jazz Band led by black music pioneer Thomas Dorsey. Travelling throughout the South and Midwest, she performed for both black and white audiences.
By the end of the 20s, the blues was falling out of national fashion, so Paramount dropped her. She continued to tour, modifying her show to acknowledge the declining interest in vaudeville and minstrel shows. Her shrewd business sense kept her earnings largely intact, and she bought her own tour bus. When she tired of the road, she returned to Georgia in 1935. Retiring from performing, she bought and operated two theaters in Columbus, living well off the proceeds until her death from a heart attack in 1939.
Rainey’s amazing musical sense, great interpretation of blues standards (including the classic formulation of the song See See Rider), songwriting, and fostering of younger talent make her one of the most important singers of the 20th Century. She has been honored with induction into the Blues Hall of Fame (in 1983) and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (in 1990 as an “early influence,” quite apt given the debt acknowledged by Janis Joplin, Eric Burdon, Mama Cass, and many others.) For more information on Ma Rainey and her contemporaries in shaping this uniquely American sound, try the aptly titled documentary, Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues.