Biography of Ma Rainey, Mother of the Blues

Ma Rainey In Chicago
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Born Gertrude Pridgett, Ma Rainey (April 26, 1886 - December 22, 1939) was one of the first blues singers to record music. Nicknamed the “Mother of the Blues,” she recorded more than 100 singles, including the hits “Prove it on Me Blues,” “See See Rider Blues,” and “Don’t Fish in My Sea.”

Fast Facts: Ma Rainey

  • Occupation: Blues singer
  • Nickname: Mother of the Blues
  • Born: 1882 or 1886 in either Russell County, Alabama, or Columbus, Georgia
  • Parents: Thomas and Ella Pridgett
  • Died: Dec. 22, 1939 in Columbus, Georgia
  • Top Songs: "Prove it on Me Blues," "See See Rider Blues," "Don’t Fish in My Sea," "Bo-Weavil Blues"
  • Key Accomplishments: 1990 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee, 1990 Blues Foundation Hall of Fame Inductee, 1994 US postage stamp honoree

Early Years

Gertrude Pridgett was the second child born to minstrel show performers Thomas and Ella Pridgett. Her birthplace is often listed as Columbus, Ga., and her birth year is widely reported as 1886. However, census records indicate that the singer was born September 1882 in Russell County, Alabama.

Her singing career took off during her early teens. Like many African Americans, she honed her musical skills in church. By 1900, she was singing and dancing in Georgia’s Springer Opera House, now a National Historic Landmark. A number of artists have performed at the theater, including Buffalo Bill, John Philip Sousa, Burt Reynolds, and Oscar Wilde. Rainey, however, stands out as one of the early greats to do so. 

In addition to the career success she enjoyed as a young woman, Rainey hit a milestone in her personal life when she married performer William “Pa” Rainey on February 2, 1904. The couple performed as “Ma” and “Pa” Rainey throughout the South. Traveling so much, especially in rural areas, is what led Ma Rainey to first hear the blues, a new art form at the time. 

Blues combined African-American spirituals with African musical customs, such as “blue,” or flat notes. Performers would typically repeat the same lines, and the lyrics often discussed heartache or struggles of some sort. When Rainey first heard a singer perform the blues, the woman described a man who’d left her. Rainey had never heard anything like it. Introduced in the late 1800s, the blues paved the way for several different music genres, namely R&B and rock-n-roll.

Ma Rainey came to love the genre so much that she soon started performing blues songs. Her performances thrilled audiences, putting her on the path to become one of the early blues greats. Some scholars have said Rainey influenced younger performers, such as Bessie Smith, the blues singer she met in 1912. But it’s unclear if Rainey really acted as a mentor to Smith, whose singing style differed from hers.

Well into the 1910s, Rainey continued to enjoy musical success, performing with Fat Chappelle's Rabbit Foot Minstrels as well as Tolliver's Circus and Musical Extravaganza. Their shows included chorus lines, acrobats, and comedy acts. When Rainey sang at the end of the program, she looked every bit the stage diva, turning up in showy jewelry, like diamond headpieces and necklaces made of cash. She even had gold teeth, which complemented the gold gowns she wore. 

A Hitmaker for Paramount Records

In 1916, Rainey began performing without her husband because the two had separated. She did not publicly identify as a lesbian, but some of her later musical lyrics and an arrest for throwing an “indecent” party toward the end of her career suggest she had romantic relationships with women. The newly single Rainey performed with her own backing band, billing herself as Madam Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and Her Georgia Smart Sets.

Ma Rainey circa 1923.
Ma Rainey was one of the earliest recording artists to perform blues music. Photo by Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

Rainey cut several songs for Paramount Records in 1923. They included the hits "Bad Luck Blues," "Bo-Weavil Blues," "Moonshine Blues," and "Those All Night Long Blues." Mamie Smith recorded the earliest blues single three years before. Rainey may not have been the first blues recording artist, but she had a prolific output. She went on to record about 100 blues tracks, and "Dead Drunk Blues" was among the most popular. Her songs had many themes. The lyrics, like those of many blues songs, focused on romantic relationships; they also discussed drinking and traveling as well as the African-American folk magic known as hoodoo.

Although Rainey started out performing in the South, the success of her records led to a tour in the North, where she had dates in cities like Chicago with her backup ensemble, the Wildcats Jazz Band. In the following years, Rainey performed with a number of talented musicians, most famously Louis Armstrong.

In 1928, Rainey’s music career began to slow down, as her type of blues fell out of fashion. Paramount did not renew her contract, despite the slew of hits she’d performed for the record label. One of the last tracks she recorded, "Prove It On Me Blues," openly discussed her sexual orientation.

“Went out last night with a crowd of my friends,” Rainey sang. “They must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men. It’s true I wear a collar and tie. Makes the wind blow all the while.”

In the promotional image for the song, Rainey is drawn wearing a suit and a hat, speaking with a few women as a policeman eyes her. The song and the image allude to a women-only party Rainey threw 1925. It got so rowdy that a neighbor complained to the police. The women were getting affectionate with one another when the officer arrived, and as party host, Rainey was arrested for throwing an "indecent party." While the singer could not openly identify as a lesbian during this era, she is regarded as a gay icon today. She’s one of the recording artists featured in Robert Philipson’s 2011 documentary "T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness: Queer Blues Divas of the 1920s."

Ma Rainey’s Impact Today

Although Rainey stopped recording new music in the late 1920s, she continued to perform, simply at much smaller venues than she had during the height of her career. In 1935, she retired from the industry, returning to her hometown of Columbus, Ga. There, she purchased two movie halls—the Lyric and Airdome theaters. Ma Rainey died from a heart attack on Dec. 22, 1939. 

She may have been a singer, but Rainey has been a major influence on black literature and drama. Poets Langston Hughes and Sterling Allen Brown both alluded to her in their works. The August Wilson play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” directly referenced the singer as well. And Alice Walker based blues singer Shug Avery, a character in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Color Purple,” on artists like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.

In 1990, Rainey was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Four years later, the US Postal Service issued a postage stamp in the blues singer’s honor. Her home in Columbus, Ga., became a museum in her honor in 2007.

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