With gold teeth sparkling through her wide smile, perfectly unruly hair, and an ostrich feather in hand, no one doubted that Ma Rainey, affectionately and appropriately known as the “Mother of the Blues,” had stage presence. Be it her natural flair that captivated her audiences, or the raspy voice and moaning style that sang of life like it was, she drew attention wherever she went. And with that attention, Rainey redefined the blues genre.
Long before there was a Mother of the Blues, she was known as Gertrude Pridgett. Born April 26, 1886, in Columbus, Georgia, she was the second of five children born to her parents, Thomas and Ella Pridgett. When she was just fourteen years old, her career unknowingly got started when she performed in “Bunch of Blackberries,” a local talent show, at Columbus’s Springer Opera House. Shortly after that, the young woman took her talent and her show on the road.
There was just something about that voice. She was a quick hit one the road. Traveling in vaudeville and minstrel shows, Rainey met the man who would give her the name she would forever be known by, and the other half to her song-and-dance routine, William “Pa” Rainey. Together, they toured as an entertainment duo in the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, among other tent shows.
While singing for one troupe, Rainey crossed starry paths with a fourteen-year-old Bessie Smith, who was at the time looking for an escape from Chattanooga. Smith was hired as a dancer, but Rainey took the aspiring singer under her wing while they toured together. Although their time together was short, many say Smith’s early recordings reflected Rainey’s influence on her style. Her time with the Mother no doubt had an impact on her becoming known as the “Empress of the Blues.”
Through her traveling career, Rainey brought blues to where it hadn’t been before. Her bluesy ballads were raw, filled with emotion and the sad, hard truths about life, especially those truths related to living (or surviving) as a black woman in the South. Women were just starting to make a scene on the blues circuit, and Rainey’s appeal landed her a record deal with Paramount Records in 1923. Her hit “Moonshine Blues” spread her name and unique style further north, as she went on to record with some of the best artists in the industry, including Louis Armstrong.
Over the following five years, Rainey recorded more than one hundred songs under the Paramount label, including “Jellybean Blues” and “See, See Rider.” But time was not kind to the career of Ma Rainey. Musical tastes were changing, swaying farther from the rural blues that was as much a part of her as it was a career. In 1928 Paramount dropped her, finding no use for the woman that had defied the odds and created a legacy from which other women would reap the benefits.
By the early 1930’s, blues (along with jazz) was replaced with a more upbeat genre known as swing. In 1933, Rainey officially retired, moving back home to Georgia where she bought and managed two theaters. She was no longer in the spotlight, but still in sight of the stage, the lights, and the music. She lived there until 1939, when she died from a heart attack.
Like many artists, recognition for her achievements didn’t come in life or even immediately following her death. In 1983, roughly forty-five years after her death, she was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame. She was later inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, and Georgia Women of Achievement. But it’s likely Rainey wouldn’t bat an eyelash over all the recognition—or the previous lack thereof. Instead, she might have turned her emotions into a song, singing it low in her earthy tones—gold teeth shining, ostrich feather in hand.
“So fare you well, daddy. Someday you’ll hear bad news.
So farewell, daddy. Someday you’ll hear bad news.
When you look for your mama, she’s gone with the farewell blues.”
Ma Rainey, “Farewell Daddy Blues”
HEAR MA RAINEY SING “FAREWELL DADDY BLUES” IN THIS 1924 RECORDING
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