Blues legend Ma Rainey was bestowed with the title of “Mother Of The Blues,” as she was largely responsible for bringing the genre to prominence during the early 20th century. The Columbus, Ga. native was an influence on future Blues singers and other great creative minds such as Alice Walker and Langston Hughes.
Born Gertrude Pridgett on April 26, 1886, the future Ms. Rainey learned the art of performing from her parents who were both minstrel show troupe stars. Honing her skills in “minstrel tent” shows across the Deep South, Rainey commanded the stage as a young girl. Rainey married comedy singer William “Pa” Rainey in 1904 and the pair performed together in tent shows and cabarets. According to some accounts, Rainey didn’t hear blues until 1905 but began to use the style in her own music.
Around 1912, the Raineys’ travels brought them into contact with a young blues singer named Bessie Smith who they befriended. Smith went on to achieve fame as well, although her career was cut tragically short by her accidental death in 1937. In 1923, three years after singer Mamie Smith became the first woman to record a blues record, Paramount Records signed Rainey. She recorded over 100 records for the label in a five-year span, with Paramount billing her “The Songbird Of The South.”
Rainey’s raw lyrics and potent vocals made her a star and she toured extensively across the nation. She recorded with jazz great Louis Armstrong in 1924 and for several years, Rainey toured with the Wildcats Jazz Band. Rainey’s lyrics were considered racy for the times, and some theorize she may have been singing about bisexuality and other risque topics in her music.
Scholar and author Angela Davis added that one of Rainey’s songs, “Prove It On Me,” was a precursor to the lesbian cultural movement of the ’70’s. Hughes and poet Sterling Brown wrote about Rainey in their works. Brown mentioned Rainey in his 1932 poem, “Ma Rainey,” which was featured in his Southern Road collection. Walker said that Rainey was a creative and cultural influence for her book, The Color Purple. Rainey retired from music in 1935, as her style of blues was going out of fashion.
She owned two theaters in Columbus and was reportedly a solid businesswoman who handled her finances well. Rainey suffered a heart attack in 1939 reportedly in the town of Rome, Ga., although some outlets say she died in the town of her birth. Rainey served as an influence for others such as the late August Wilson, folk singer Bob Dylan and others. In 1990, Rainey was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame.