Who Is Ma Rainey? How the 'Mother of the Blues' Became an Icon
By Latifah Muhammad
Donaldson Collection/Getty Images
Ma Rainey’s title as the “mother of the blues” is an ode to her unremitted genius in transforming the genre despite a relatively short recording career. Now streaming on Netflix, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, starring Viola Davis as the brazen blues legend and Chadwick Boseman in his final film role, has brought new attention to Rainey’s mystifying story.
Adapted from August Wilson’s Broadway play of the same name, the film explores an intense 1927 Chicago recording session between Rainey and her band members, with Davis delivering an unapologetic portrayal of the singer.
“Usually Ma Rainey and how she looks has been greatly stereotyped in cinematic history and in life,” the Oscar winner said in an interview with Zora. “I didn’t want [Ma] to physically look like she was apologizing for herself. I wanted her to switch. If those breasts were hanging out like that? They just hung out. She was unapologetic about her sexuality. I just feel like in playing her, I had to honor that.”
Davis, however, is not the first to portray the icon. Whoopi Goldberg starred as the blues singer in the 2003 Broadway revival of Wilson’s play, a role originally played by Theresa Merritt in 1984, and Monique in the HBO film Bessie.
“Ma Rainey was a woman who wasn’t willing to waver in what she believed in,” Monique said in 2015. “She was very strong-willed, but she had a heart that would open up to the world.”
Through her pioneering contributions to blues music, Rainey has ascended to a level of posthumous celebration and well-deserved adoration. It all started in Georgia.
Who Is Ma Rainey?
Gertrude “Ma Rainey” Pridgett was born in Columbus, Georgia, sometime around 1886 (though Census records state that she was born in Alabama in 1882). Although the details of her childhood are unclear, Rainey was one of at least four children born to Alabama natives Thomas and Ella Pridgett.
At age 14, Rainey began performing in local tent shows, eventually catching the eye of musician William “Pa” Rainey, who was more than 10 years her senior. The couple wed when Rainey was 18.
“Ma” and “Pa” hit the road working as traveling performers. They founded the Alabama Fun Makers company, and later joined the Rabbit Foot touring minstrel shows billed as "Black Face Song and Dance Comedians, Jubilee Singers [and] Cake Walkers.”
By 1914, the Raineys were known as “The Assassinators of the Blues.” Her marriage, however, didn’t last very long. Rainey separated from her husband in 1916 and set off on a solo career.
How She Became the Mother of the Blues
The origins of blues music can be traced back to the post-Civil War era. Birthed from the hardships of the formerly enslaved Black Americans in the deep South, the blues evolved from spirituals and work songs and became a way to air grievances while maintaining the tradition of oral storytelling through music.
"It is hard to define this music,” Wilson wrote in his play. “Suffice it to say that it is music that breathes and touches. That connects. That is in itself a way of being separate and distinct from any other.”
If the blues were an exquisitely designed structure, Rainey was one of its architects. She was introduced to the blues in the early 1900s, years before it was defined as a music genre. Known by nicknames like “Ma Can Can” and “Black Nightingale,” Rainey captivated audiences, belting out lyrics that echoed the agony and angst of Black life in the Jim Crow era.
Rainey’s performance style -- a blend of gritty, sometimes intense moaning, call-and-response delivery and emotional turbulence -- became so popular that she performed for integrated audiences decades before segregation ended.
In the early 1920s, Rainey migrated to Chicago where the blues scene electrified the city. Music producer J. Mayo Williams moved to the Windy City around the same time. Williams, one of the first Black NFL players, ended his football career and found success as a producer and music executive for Paramount Records. After signing Rainey to the label, she laid down her first blues recording in 1923, following the lead of Mamie Smith, noted as the first Black female artist to be recorded.
Paramount marketed Rainey as the “Mother of the Blues,’ a fitting title for her grandiose bravado. Weighing nearly 300 pounds, Rainey played up her stage persona with a flamboyant style of feather boas, flowy sequin gowns, flashy jewelry, gold teeth, fur-trimmed jackets, and her signature headgear.
Rainey was sharp-witted, often categorized as a shrewd, businesswoman who traveled with an entourage that included her choreographer and dancers. She worked with some of the most influential acts of the era such as T-Bone Walker and Tampa Red, and forged a friendship with Bessie Smith, whom she helped mentor.
In 1924, Rainey recorded several collaborations with Louis Armstrong, including “Jelly Bean Blues'' and “Countin’ the Blues.’' That year, Rainey toured the South and Midwest with the Theater Owners Booking Association, backed by pianist Thomas Dorsey and the Wildcats Jazz Band.
Why Rainey Is a LGBTQ+ Pioneer
During her five years with Paramount, Rainey recorded more than 100 songs. Among them, 1928’s “Prove It on Me Blues,” a sultry offering drizzled with not-so-hidden references to Rainey’s queerness. It is arguably one of the earliest song depictions of same-sex relationships in the blues (one of the lyrics is rumored to reference a 1925 lesbian orgy that resulted in Rainey's arrest), and undercuts the brilliance of Rainey’s ability to subtly affirm her sexuality.
She cleverly hid lyrics about lesbianism in earlier recordings like “Shave Em Dry” and “Bo-Weevil Blues,” but also addressed issues like domestic violence in “Black Eye Blues.”
Rainey spent much of her professional life backed by male musicians, yet she never downplayed her complicated feelings for men, namely on songs like “Trust No Man” and “Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.”
The End of an Era
As the roaring ‘20s came to a close, Rainey’s career began to slow down. The music industry became one of the many casualties of the Great Depression. Subsequently, Paramount went bankrupt and ceased all recordings in 1932, ending Rainey’s time with the label.
The brand of blues that made Rainey famous had faded in popularity as swing jazz grew into a dominant genre. Rainey continued touring for a few years, but retired in 1935.
With her music career over, Rainey settled back in Columbus where she ran a string of theaters -- the Lyric, the Airdrome, and the Liberty Theatre. She died of a heart attack in 1939, at age 53.
Over four decades after her death, Rainey began to receive widespread recognition. She earned a posthumous induction into the Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame, and was later inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the GRAMMYs Hall of Fame.
Her trailblazing blues technique inspired generations of artists including Dinah Washington, Big Mama Thornton, Melissa Etheridge, and Cyndi Lauper, who dedicated her Memphis Blues albumto Rainey.
Outside of music, Rainey influenced the writings of poet Langston Hughes, and was the inspiration for the character Shug Avery in Alice Walker's Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, The Color Purple.
In 2004, Rainey was added into the Library of Congress National Recording Register. Three years later, Rainey's former home in Columbus was turned into a museum. The Columbus native’s legacy continues to be celebrated in her hometown, which hosted the first-annual Ma Rainey International Blues Festival in 2016.