“Mother of the Blues”
The first popular stage entertainer to incorporate authentic blues in her song repertoire, Ma Rainey performed during the first three decades of the twentieth century, enjoying widespread popularity during the blues craze of the 1920s. Her consistency over her five year recording career and the high quality of her accompanist’s portray her talents as far more worthwhile than those of many blues singers.
Gertrude Pridgett was born on April 26, 1886, in Columbus, Georgia. Her parents were minstrel show performers, and she went right into the entertainment business since a young age. She worked at the Springer Opera House in 1900, performing as a singer and dancer in the local talent show, "A Bunch of Blackberries." Around 1902 she heard a ‘strange and poignant lament’ while traveling through Missouri, and afterwards started bringing blues into her act. Pridgett married traveling singer William "Pa" Rainey in 1904 and billed as “Ma and Pa Rainey” the couple toured Southern tent shows and cabarets. By 1915, the Raineys were touring with Fat Chappelle's Rabbit Foot Minstrels. They were billed as the "Assassinators of the Blues" with Tolliver's Circus and Musical Extravaganza. Separated from her husband in 1916, Rainey subsequently toured with her own band, Madam Gertrude Ma Rainey and Her Georgia Smart Sets, featuring a chorus line and a Cotton Blossoms Show, and Donald McGregor's Carnival Show.
Already a popular singer in the Southern theater circuit; Rainey entered the recording industry as an experienced and stylistically mature talent. She had a deep contralto voice and sang with great power and feeling, in broad impressive sweeps of sound. Her songs were boisterous, yet melancholic and her low down meaning blues were without rival. She gave the public a distinctly Southern folk based music, singing about life’s joys and sorrows in a poetic but simple direct language. All the years on the road performing in tent shows at a close personal level with her audience carried over to her recordings, giving them credibility.
Ma Rainey first recorded for the Paramount label in 1923. Her first session, cut with Lovie Austin and Her Blue Serenaders, featured the traditional number "Bo-Weevil Blues". That was followed by the release of "Moonshine Blues," again with Austin, and "Yonder Comes the Blues" with Louis Armstrong. That same year, Rainey recorded "See See Rider," which has since become a blues standard. Ma Rainey’s was the first recording of that song, giving her a hold on the copyright, and one of the best of the more than 100 versions.