Gertrude "Ma" Rainey Biography
The American Blues
The Mother of the Blues
One of the Earliest known American Blues Singer
Born April 26, 1886(?) - Died December 22, 1939
Known for great hits like 'Bo-weevil Blues' and 'See See Rider'
It's documented, as far as the 1900 Census is concerned, Gertrude "Ma" Rainey was born in the month of September in the year of 1882. Fact is, nobody really knows for sure. What's also not very clear, and especially to Gertrude Rainey, is exactly how many siblings she had. It's known that she was the second of five children, and that she had at least two brothers and one sister, but again, nobody knows for sure.
Gertrude's parents, Thomas and Ella Pridgett, were originally from Alabama. It was in 1902 that Gertrude was first introduced to the Blues and by the time she was 12 or 14-years-old she was already performing for talent shows. She was a member of the First African Baptist Church where she commonly performed by singing and dancing in tent shows. She did this until she hooked up with F.S. Wolcott's Rabbit Foot Minstrels and for years toured with them. While touring, she met and sometimes performed privately with Blues legends such as Joe "King" Oliver, Louis Armstrong and Pops Foster.
Blues music was getting popular, and Gertrude "Ma" Rainey could have been the reason. There was a demand for black Blues musicians and everybody wanted a piece of Ma Rainey. Gertrude "Ma" Rainey stayed active between the years of 1900 - 1933 and sounded just as good in her last 'live' performance as she did in her first.
Gertrude Rainey was known for having a powerful voice. Her voice could carry through the largest of crowds, but unfortunately, you can't tell through any of her recordings. Paramount, who were known for their very poor recording quality, had the rights to Gertrude Rainey and did a horrible job of capturing her true vocal gift. She was also known for being quite energetic on stage and very entertaining (which again, you couldn't tell by the recordings). She was very witty, intelligent, wise and above all - a little wild! It's rumored that sometime between 1912 and 1916, she kidnapped an up and coming blues singer who was making a name for herself (Bessie Smith), took her under her wing, taught her to sing and then made her join the blues band that Rainey was in - Rabbit Foot Minstrels.
Gertrude married Will Rainey in 1904 and the both of them joined Rabbit Foot Minstrels, but later formed their own group 'Rainey and Rainey: Assassinators of the Blues' and became very successful.
After 33 years of performance, Gertrude Rainey decided to retire in 1933, and died nearly 6 years later.
Gertrude "Ma" Rainey's legacy will live on. Popular musicians such as Bob Dylan and Memphis Minnie made a tribute in her honor through songs that they wrote by referencing her.
I've listened to recordings of Ma Rainey since writing this Hub and I have to say, I am impressed.