Personalities | Ma Rainey | Early Years | Jazz & Blues

Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, the ‘Mother of the Blues’, had been singing the blues for some two decades before she commenced her influential series of recordings for the Paramount label in 1923. She even laid claim to naming the music ‘the blues’ after hearing the singing of a young girl in Missouri in 1902, where Rainey was performing with a tent show.

Assassinators Of The Blues

Born Gertrude Pridgett on 26 April 1886, Rainey began performing in her native Columbus, Georgia as a schoolgirl, before joining a number of travelling revues and minstrel shows, working southern theatres, circuses, carnivals and other venues. She teamed with William ‘Pa’ Rainey, whom she married in 1904, to perform as ‘Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues’. Known for her flamboyant stage shows, jewelled attire and colourful lifestyle, she was already one of the best-known blues singers in the South when recruited by Paramount.

A Versatile Performer

Rainey helped to shape the character, style and presentation of blues in its formative years, and her role and stature in the blues genre escalated during her brief but prolific career (1923–28). Her records were noted not only for the powerful majesty of her singing, but also for the variety of outstanding accompaniment by acclaimed jazz, blues and jug-band musicians. Ma Rainey possessed an earthier, more downhome southern style than most of the early blues queens, and was effective working with bluesmen such as Tampa Red, Georgia Tom Dorsey and Blind Blake, as well as with jazz musicians. She retired in 1935 and died four years later, but her influence is evident in the work of her protégé Bessie Smith and many others. Among Rainey’s classics were the original version of ‘See See Rider’, ‘Bo-Weavil Blues’, ‘Moonshine Blues’ and ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ (also the title of an award-winning play written in the 1990s by August Wilson, with a Rainey studio recording session as its setting).

‘When she opened her mouth, she was fascinating, and she made you forget everything.’
Champion Jack Dupree

Classic Recordings

Madame ‘Ma’ Rainey (with Lovie Austin and her Blues Serenaders): ‘Bo-Weavil Blues’, ‘Barrel House Blues’

Ma Rainey: ‘Shave ‘Em Dry Blues’
Ma Rainey (with her Georgia Jazz Band): ‘See See Rider Blues’, ‘Toad Frog Blues’

Ma Rainey (with her Georgia Band): ‘Blues Oh Blues’, ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’, ‘Yonder Comes The Blues’

Ma Rainey: ‘Mountain Jack Blues’, ‘Daddy Goodbye Blues’

Styles & Forms | Early Years | Jazz & Blues
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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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