If Bessie Smith is the acknowledged “Queen of the Blues,” then Gertrude “Ma” Rainey is the undisputed “Mother of the Blues.”
As music historian Chris Albertson has written, “If there was another woman who sang the blues before Rainey, nobody remembered hearing her.” Rainey fostered the blues idiom, and she did so by linking the earthy spirit of country blues with the classic style and delivery of Bessie Smith. She often played with such outstanding jazz accompanists as Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson, but she was more at home fronting a jugband or washboard band.
Ma Rainey was born Gertrude Pridgett on April 26, 1886, in Columbus, Georgia. She was the second of five children of Thomas and Ella (née Allen) Pridgett, from Alabama. She had at least two brothers and a sister named Malissa, with whom Gertrude was later confused in some cases. She made her performing debut at the age of 14 in a local show called “A Bunch of Blackberries. ” In her late teens, she married William Rainey, and both toured with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels.
That troupe is said to have featured Rainey singing the blues. If that is true, those performances precede the blues boom by some 17 years. No matter, by all accounts, she was the first woman to incorporate blues into vaudeville, minstrel and tent shows. In fact, it is believed that Rainey coached a young Bessie Smith while touring with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels.
In 1914, she and her husband began touring as Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues. They often spent their winters in New Orleans, and there she met such musicians as Joe “King” Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and Pops Foster.
In 1923, Rainey signed with Paramount Records. That December, she made her first eight recordings for the label. These included the songs “Bad Luck Blues,” “Bo-Weevil Blues” and “Moonshine Blues.” Over the next five years, she recorded more than 100 songs for the label. Paramount marketed her extensively, calling her the “Mother of the Blues,” the “Songbird of the South,” the “Gold-Neck Woman of the Blues" and the “Paramount Wildcat.” In 1924, she made some recordings with Louis Armstrong, including "Jelly Bean Blues,” "Countin' the Blues" and "See, See Rider.”
With her broad, toothy smile, multidirectional horsehair wig and necklace of $20 gold coins, Rainey was a sight to behold. “They said she was the ugliest woman in show business,” Alberta Hunter once said. “But Ma Rainey didn’t care, because she pulled in the crowds. Some of us used to laugh at her, because she was so countryfied. But I think her looks were part of her act – just look at some of those kids out there today, those young med with the wild hair and makeup. Are they pretty? No, but people notice them, and they’re making money.”
When the blues faded from popularity in the Thirties, the earthy Ma Rainey returned home to her Georgia hometown, where she ran two theaters. Ma Rainey died from a from a heart attack on December 22, 1939.
Ma Rainey was inducted into the Blue Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 1990, the same year she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2004, “See, See Rider” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.