on this day

December 22, 1939 – Blues singer Ma Rainey died of a heart attack

 She claimed to have been born on April 26, 1886 (beginning with the 1910 census, taken April 25, 1910), in Columbus, Georgia. However, the 1900 census indicates she was born in September 1882 in Alabama, and researchers Bob Eagle and Eric LeBlanc suggest that her birthplace was in Russell County, Alabama. She was the second of five children of Thomas and Ella (née Allen) Pridgett, from Alabama. She had at least two brothers and a sister, Malissa, with whom Gertrude was later confused by some writers.

December 22, 1939 - Blues singer Ma Rainey died of a heart attack

Known as “The Mother of the Blues,” Rainey was one of the earliest African-American professional blues singers and one of the first generation of blues singers to record. She was billed as the “Mother of the Blues”. She began performing as a young teenager, beginning her career as a performer at a talent show in Columbus, Georgia, when she was about 14 years old singing “Bunch of Blackberries,” at the Springer Opera House in Columbus. A member of the First African Baptist Church, she began performing in black minstrel shows. She later claimed that she was first exposed to blues music around 1902. She soon became known as Ma Rainey after her marriage to Will “Pa” Rainey, in 1904. She formed the Alabama Fun Makers Company with her husband, but in 1906 they both joined Pat Chappelle’s much larger and more popular Rabbit’s Foot Company, in which they were billed together as “Black Face Song and Dance Comedians, Jubilee Singers [and] Cake Walkers”. In 1910, she was described as “Mrs. Gertrude Rainey, our coon shouter”. She continued with the Rabbit’s Foot Company after it was taken over by a new owner, F. S. Wolcott, in 1912.

December 22, 1939 - Blues singer Ma Rainey died of a heart attack

Beginning in 1914, the Raineys were billed as Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues. Wintering in New Orleans, she met numerous musicians, including Joe “King” Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and Pops Foster. As the popularity of blues music increased, she became well known. Around this time, she met Bessie Smith, a young blues singer who was also making a name for herself. A story later developed that Rainey kidnapped Smith, forced her to join the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels, and taught her to sing the blues; the story was disputed by Smith’s sister-in-law Maud Smith. The Raineys later formed their own group, Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues.
From the late 1910s, there was an increasing demand for recordings by black musicians. In 1920, Mamie Smith was the first black woman to be recorded. In 1923, Rainey was discovered by Paramount Records producer J. Mayo Williams. She signed a recording contract with Paramount, and in December she made her first eight recordings in Chicago, including “Bad Luck Blues”, “Bo-Weevil Blues,” “Moonshine Blues,” “See See Rider Blues” (1924), “Black Bottom” (1927), and “Soon This Morning” (1927), which brought her fame beyond the South. Paramount marketed her extensively, calling her the “Mother of the Blues”, the “Songbird of the South”, the “Gold-Neck Woman of the Blues” and the “Paramount Wildcat”.

December 22, 1939 - Blues singer Ma Rainey died of a heart attack

Walking on stage, she made an incredible impression before she even began singing, with her thick straightened hair sticking out all over, her huge teeth capped in gold, an ostrich plume in her hand, and a long triple necklace of shining gold coins sparkling against her sequined dress. The gravelly timbre of her contralto voice, with its range of only about an octave, enraptured audiences wherever she went. She generally sang without melodic embellishment, in a raspy, deep voice that had an emotional appeal for listeners. Rainey was known for her powerful vocal abilities, energetic disposition, majestic phrasing, and a “moaning” style of singing. Her powerful voice was never adequately captured on her records, because she recorded exclusively for Paramount, which was known for its below-average recording techniques and poor shellac quality. However, her other qualities are present and most evident in her early recordings “Bo-Weevil Blues” and “Moonshine Blues”.
In 1924 she made some recordings with Louis Armstrong, including “Jelly Bean Blues”, “Countin’ the Blues” and “See, See Rider.” Armstrong accompanied her in “Jelly Bean Blues” (1924), and later her Georgia Jazz Band included at different times Tommy Ladnier, Joe Smith, and Coleman Hawkins. In the same year she embarked on a tour of the Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA) in the South and Midwest of the United States, singing for black and white audiences. She was accompanied by the bandleader and pianist Thomas Dorsey and the band he assembled, the Wildcats Jazz Band. They began their tour with an appearance in Chicago in April 1924 and continued, on and off, until 1928. Dorsey left the group in 1926 because of ill health and was replaced as pianist by Lillian Hardaway Henderson, the wife of Rainey’s cornetist Fuller Henderson, who became the band’s leader. She also toured and recorded with the Georgia Jazz Band. One of the few times her flair for comedy comes through is in her widely popular “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (1927). Although these recordings scarcely do her vocal style justice, they do give a sense of her raw, “moaning” style and her exquisite phrasing. Her songs and vocal style reveal her deep connection with the pain of jealousy, poverty, sexual abuse, and loneliness of sharecroppers
and southern blacks.
Although most of Rainey’s songs that mention sexuality refer to love affairs with men, some of her lyrics contain references to lesbianism or bisexuality, such as the 1928 song “Prove It on Me”:
They said I do it, ain’t nobody caught me.
Sure got to prove it on me.
Went out last night with a crowd of my friends.
They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.

According to the website queerculturalcenter.org, the lyrics refer to an incident in 1925 in which Rainey was “arrested for taking part in an orgy at [her] home involving women in her chorus.” “Prove It on Me” further alludes to presumed lesbian behavior: “It’s true I wear a collar and a tie … Talk to the gals just like any old man.” The political activist and scholar Angela Y. Davis noted that “‘Prove It on Me’ is a cultural precursor to the lesbian cultural movement of the 1970s, which began to crystallize around the performance and recording of lesbian-affirming songs.”

December 22, 1939 - Blues singer Ma Rainey died of a heart attack

Towards the end of the 1920s, live vaudeville went into decline, being replaced by radio and recordings. Rainey’s career was not immediately affected; she continued recording for Paramount and earned enough money from touring to buy a bus with her name on it. In 1928, she worked with Dorsey again and recorded 20 songs, before Paramount terminated her contract. Her style of blues was no longer considered fashionable by the label.
In 1935, Rainey returned to her hometown, Columbus, Georgia, where she ran three theatres, the Lyric, the Airdrome, and the Liberty Theatre until her death. Rainey’s death came just as her work began gaining serious attention among collectors and critics. She was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame in 1983, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1992, and Georgia Women of Achievement in 1993. In 1994 the US Postal Service issued a stamp in her honor.


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