“Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey’s vocal styling and technique birthed a genre that is still being listened to today. Born Gertrude Pridgett, she was raised in Columbus, Georgia to Alabama natives Thomas and Ella Pridgett. She found her love for performing early by participating in a talent show at age 14. However, it wasn’t until she married her husband and music partner William “Pa” Rainey at age 18 that her career took off.
Now, going under the name “Ma Rainey,” the blues pioneer and her then-husband began performing in minstrel and vaudeville shows around the U.S. The married duo soon formed the musical outfit the Alabam Fun Company before joining vaudeville entrepreneur Pat Chapelle’s Rabbit’s Foot Company. Ma’s popularity grew along with blues music, leading her to become one of the most popular musicians of the early 20th century. She gained a reputation for her powerful voice and her ability to connect with audiences on a deep emotional level. During this time, the Raineys toured as Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues from 1904 to 1917. At the same time, she met a young up-and-coming singer named Bessie Smith, who she mentored.
After her marriage to Rainey dissolved in 1916, Ma continued performing with her new band the Wildcats Jazz Band. Despite her immense talent and success, Ma Rainey faced numerous obstacles throughout her career. As an African American woman in a male-dominated industry, the performer had to fight for every opportunity and overcome countless barriers. She was often subjected to racism and sexism and struggled to make a living as a musician.
Following her blues contemporary and friend Mamie Smith becoming the first recorded blues artist, Rainey signed her first recording contract in 1923 with Paramount Records, where she made over 100 recordings. By 1924, she was recording with a young trumpeter named Louis Armstrong. She continued touring the American South throughout the 1920s. Unfortunately, Rainey’s style of singing fell out of favor as the Great Depression set in, and more music genres started to emerge. Paramount terminated her contract as a result.
After losing her recording deal, Rainey retired from recording and performing. She settled down in her hometown of Columbus, where she managed three theaters — the Liberty in Columbus, and the Lyric and the Airdrome in Rome, Georgia. She managed them until her death at age 53 from a heart attack on December 22, 1939.
Ma Rainey brought blues music to the masses during rough times for the U.S., especially for Black citizens. She faced incredible challenges but refused to be silenced, using her voice to create music that continues to inspire and move audiences. Although her contributions as a trailblazer were undermined for a long time, I will say, “Ma Rainey, we appreciate you for inspiring change and bringing people together with your music.”
A tune’s like a staircase — walk up on it.