Ma' Gertrude Rainey
|Of all the
classic blues singers, only one
can rightfully be called “Mother of the Blues.” Considered by some to be the earliest professional blues singer, Ma Rainey
was the first to take the rural songs of Southern African-Americans into the Northern cities and record them as “the Blues.” Legend has it that after being repeatedly asked what kind of songs she sung, Ma replied simply, “It’s the blues,”
and thus gave the music its name.
Born Gertrude Pridgett in Columbus, Georgia in 1886, she started singing at
age 14, and enjoyed a successful career on the black minstrel and vaudeville circuits.
In 1904 she married the dancer William “Pa” Rainey and took the nickname “Ma.” By 1917 she had separated from Pa and formed her own troupe called Madame Gertrude Rainey and Her Georgia Smart Sets. Her stage shows were a mesmerizing combination of flamboyant theatricality and a raucous (and sometimes raunchy), personal storytelling.
In 1923, J. Mayo Williams of Paramount records, “discovered” Rainey playing
at the Monogram theater in Chicago, and signed her as a recording artist. Between 1923 and 1929, Ma’s rich contralto voice brought to life over 92 songs. She was the first to record many of the most popular rural folk blues songs and composed many of her own songs, making up for her inability to read or write by sketching out the stories in pictures. She recorded with some of the best black jazz and blues musicians of her day, and influenced many of the blues stylists that would follow her, especially her young friend Bessie Smith, whose title as “Empress of the Blues”
was owed in part to the influence of her musical “mother.”
After her last recordings in 1928, Ma Rainey retired, having amassed considerable savings, and moved back to her home in Columbus where she owned and managed two small theaters. When she died of heart disease in 1938, she was listed by the state as a “housekeeper.”