Ma Rainey

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Gertrude Pridgett Rainey, better known as Ma Rainey (April 26, 1886 - December 22, 1939) was a blues singer, the earliest known professional blues singer3, and one of the first generation of blues singers to record. She was billed as The Mother of the Blues. She did much to develop and popularize the blues form, and was an important influence on younger blues women, such as Bessie Smith.

Born Gertrude Pridgett (not Gertrude Melissa Nix Pridgett as has been previously claimed; "Melissa Nix" was her sister) in Columbus, Georgia, she first appeared on stage in Columbus in "A Bunch of Blackberries" at the age of 14. She then joined a travelling vaudeville troupe, the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. After hearing a blues song at a theater in St. Louis sung by a local girl in 1902, she started performing in a blues style. She claimed at this time that she was the one who coined the name "blues" for the style that she specialized in. Musicians and singers who had sang and played in the style said there were no such origins and that the blues had always been. A pioneer in the style, Bunk Johnson said that in the 1880's the blues was already developed.3

She married fellow vaudeville singer William 'Pa' Rainey in 1904, changing her name to Ma Rainey and the pair toured with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels as Rainey & Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues, singing a mix of blues and popular songs. In 1912 she took the young Bessie Smith into the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, trained her and worked with her until Smith left in 1915.

Ma Rainey was already a veteran performer with decades of touring with African American shows in the U.S. Southern States when she made her first recordings in 1923. Rainey signed with Paramount Records and between 1923 and 1928 recorded 100 songs, sometimes accompanied by bands includings such jazz notables as Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, Fletcher Henderson, and others. Rainey was extremely popular among southern blacks in the 1920s, but the Great Depression and changing tastes ended her career by 1933, when she retired. In 1939, Rainey died of a heart attack.

References

  1. Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey by Sandra Lieb (Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1981)
  2. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism by Angela Y. Davis (Pantheon, 1998)
  3. The Music of Black Americans: A History. Eileen Southern. W. W. Norton & Company; 3rd edition. ISBN 0393971414
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