Born Gertrude Pridgett, Ma Rainey influenced the blues genre for a number of generations. From her abilities to put on an outstanding performance to her songs referencing sexuality, lesbianism and bisexuality, Ma Rainey, the gold neck woman of the blues, was not only a trailblazer for blues artist but social movements as well.
Gertrude Pridgett was born April 26, 1886 in Columbus, Georgia. Her name later changed to “Ma” Rainey after her marriage to Will “Pa” Rainey in 1904. At a young age, Rainey fell in love with music and began performing in a talent show as a teenager. She later began performing in black minstrel shows as a member of the First African Baptist Church. Sources say she was exposed to the blues around 1902 but was officially introduced to it in Missouri as she heard a young girl’s sad song about a man leaving a woman. With her husband Will, they created the Alabama Fun Makers Company, they later disbanded the group and joined Pat Chappelle’s Rabbit’s Foot Company. Rainey was described as “Mrs.Gertrude Rainey, our coon shouter. She continued with Rabbit’s Foot even after it’s new owner took over in 1912.
Rainey and her husband were billed as the “Assassinators of the blues” by 1914. They would often spend their winters in New Orleans meeting other amazing artist like Pops Foster, Louie Armstrong, Joe “King” Oliver and Sidney Bechet. Rainey also met Bessie Smith as an up and coming Blues singer. sources say Ma Rainey kidnapped Smith, adding her to the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels.
With a high demand for recordings by black musicians and Ma Rainey’s new found fame, she began recording in 1923. She recorded her first eight records with Paramount records that December in Chicago. some of these songs consisted of “Moonshine Blues”, “Bad Luck Blues” and “Boo-Weevil Blues”. Over the next five years she would record 100 other records taking her fame beyond the south. In 1924, Rainey recorded a few records with Louis Armstrong some of those being “Jelly Bean Blues” and “See,See Rider”. In that same year she ventured on tour of the Theater Owners Booking Association in the South and the Midwest of the US.
Although many of Rainey’s songs discussed sexual affairs with men, some of her songs can be found referring to bisexuality and lesbianism. This can be heard in songs like her 1928’s “Prove It on Me.”. Though there isn’t much information to prove this sources suspect Ma Rainey was bisexual. In 1925 Rainey was arrested for hosting an orgy at her house involving women in her chorus. It was also rumored that Rainey’s friendship with famous blues artist Bessie Smith was intimate. “Prove It on Me” was coined by activist Angela Davis as a cultural precursor for the lesbian cultural movement of the 1970s.
As Radio and other forms of recording became more popular, Ma Rainey’s career died gracefully as she was known for live vaudeville. She continued on for a few years, recording 20 songs with Thomas Dorsey until her contract was officially terminated by Paramount Records. Rainey’s style of Blues was no longer considered fashionable.
Ma Rainey Would die of a heart attack in 1939. She was remembered as one of the greatest show woman, performing for black and white audiences, making around $350 dollars a week and writing more than a third of her songs which was not common for blues singers at the time. A dynamic performer, The Song Bird of The South.