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Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridgett Rainey, better known as Ma Rainey (April 26, 1886 or September, 1882– December 22, 1939), was one of the earliest known American professional blues singers and one of the first generation of such singers to record. She was billed as The Mother of the Blues. She did much to develop and popularize the form and was an important influence on younger blues women, such as Bessie Smith, and their careers.
In the one known interview she did, Rainey told the following story, In 1902 "a girl from town... came to the tent one morning and began to sing about the "man" who left her. The song was so strange and poignant that it attracted much attention,and Rainey learned the song from the visitor, and used it soon afterwards in her "act"." Audiences reacted strongly to the song.
She married fellow vaudeville singer William "Pa" Rainey in 1904, billing herself from that point as "Ma" Rainey. She later had an unknown number of children, one being Clyde Rainey, who served in the USA Navy. "Ma and Pa" pair toured with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels as "Rainey & Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues", singing a mix of blues and popular songs. In 1912, she took the young Bessie Smith into the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, trained her, and worked with her until Smith left in 1915.
Also known, though less discussed, is the fact that she was bisexual.
She was arrested in Chicago in 1925 for hosting an indecent party with a
room full of semi-naked women. Rainey celebrated the lesbian lifestyle
in "Prove It On Me Blues", which presented a cross-dressing, man-hating
persona that was quite distinct from her regular public image:
Ma Rainey was already a veteran performer with decades of touring in African-American shows in the U.S. Southern States when she made her first recordings in 1923. Rainey signed with Paramount Records and, between 1923 and 1928, she recorded 100 songs, including the classics "C.C. Rider" (aka "See See Rider") and "Jelly Bean Blues", the humorous "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom", and the deep blues "Bo Weavil Blues". In her career, Rainey was backed by such noted jazz musicians as cornet players Louis Armstrong and Tommy Ladnier, pianists Fletcher Henderson and Lovie Austin, saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, and clarinetist Buster Bailey. Rainey recorded two vocal duets with Papa Charlie Jackson in 1928, which proved to be her last recordings; Paramount terminated her contract soon afterwards, claiming that her material had gone out of fashion.
Rainey's career dried up in the 1930s--as did the career of just
about every other classic female blues singers of the previous decade.
But her earnings were enough that she was able to retire from performing
French singer/song writer Francis Cabrel refers to Ma Rainey in the song "Cent Ans de Plus" on the 1999 album Hors-Saison. Cabrel cites the artist as one of a number of blues influences, including Charley Patton, Son House, Blind Lemon, Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf, Blind Blake, Willie Dixon, and Blues Boy Willie, whose father toured with Rainey.
American singer/songwriter Bob Dylan refers to Ma Rainey in the song "Tombstone Blues" on his 1965 album, Highway 61 Revisited.
The 1982 August Wilson play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom took its title from her song of the same name recorded before 1928, which ostensibly refers to the Black Bottom dance of the time.
In 1994, the U.S. Post Office issued a Ma Rainey 29-cent commemorative postage stamp.
In 2004, her song "See See Rider Blues" (1925) was inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame, and was included by the National Recording Preservation Board in the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry in 2004. The board selects songs in an annual basis that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".