Gertrude Pridgett (Ma Rainey)
April 26, 1886 – December 22, 1939
Little is known about Ma Rainey’s early life beyond her being born Gertrude Pridgett. Her date and place of birth are generally listed as April 26, 1886, in Columbus, Georgia though some sources which include census records list her date and place of birth as September 1882 in Alabama. She was the daughter of Thomas and Ella Pridgett, two minstrel show performers.
Pridgett showed early signs of singing talent and gave her first public performance at 14-years-old during the “Bunch of Blackberries” talent show at the Springer Opera House. Following in her parents’ footsteps, Pridgett began working as a traveling musician performing at a variety of venues with vaudeville acts. At the age of 18-years-old Pridgett married William “Pa” Rainey who was also a vaudeville performer. The couple put together an act and began touring the South with Pridgett taking her husband’s last name and adopting “Ma” to match, thus “Ma Rainey” was created.
While traveling through the South, Rainey was exposed to the local music of small towns and rural communities. It was in these environments that she heard the blues which was still an emerging genre at the time. The blues were heavily influenced by spirituals which were grounded in a call-and-response style of singing that originated in West Africa and was brought to America and handed down by the enslaved.
After 12 years of marriage and performing together, Rainey separated from her husband and launched “Madame Gertrude Ma Rainey and Her Georgia Smart Set.” The reason for the separation and whether or not the couple officially divorced is unclear. Some sources speculate that she was possibly bisexual due to later songs that were about relationships with women though she never publicly identified as such. Also, a wild party that resulted in her arrest for indecency as well as a very close relationship with Bessie Smith contributed to rumors about her personal life.
Now solo, Rainey delved even more deeply into her love for the blues though she continued to include other genres in her performances. She combined her flashy stage presence with a deep powerful voice that she used to add emotional depth to songs. The rest of the show featured a diverse array of performers. Touring the Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA) circuit allowed Rainey to build a solid fan base throughout the South where she performed for large segregated audiences.
Rainey made her first blues recordings after signing a recording contract with Paramount Records in 1923. To be clear, Rainey was not the first person to make a blues record but she was one of the earliest and most influential. She would record over 90 records during the five years that she was with Paramount. As a singer and songwriter, her prodigious output and distinct delivery helped to cement her legacy in the blues genre. Her songs primarily dealt with topics from the everyday lives of Black people from the South. Some were avant-garde for the time as she was a woman singing about sexuality, independence, and being empowered.
Her recordings had exposed her to new audiences outside of the South allowing her to successfully tour the North. Yet, by 1928 Rainey’s career began to decline as musical tastes evolved. Many of Rainey’s recordings had been hits for Paramount but they opted out of renewing her contract. Circuit tours also dwindled but Rainey continued to perform in smaller venues and tent shows.
A shrewd businesswoman, Rainey had done quite well financially and had enough money saved to retire in 1935 following the deaths of her mother and sister. She was primarily based in Chicago, Illinois from the 1920s to 1930s but settled in Columbus, Georgia where she lived with her brother. While Rainey was no longer performing, she remained involved in the entertainment industry by purchasing and managing two theaters.
Ma Rainey passed away at 53-years-old on December 22, 1939, after suffering a heart attack. Her music served as a blueprint for generations of singers, songwriters, and other musicians. But she was also an inspiration for poets such as Langston Hughes, August Wilson’s play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”, and Alice Walker’s Shug Avery character in “The Color Purple.”
- Brandman, Mariana. 2021. Gertrude “Ma” Rainey Biography. 2021. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/gertrude-ma-rainey.
- Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia, ed. 2021. “Ma Rainey.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. May 27, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ma-Rainey.
- “Ma Rainey.” 2020. Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. December 14, 2020. https://www.biography.com/musician/ma-rainey.
- Nittle, Nadra Kareem. 2018. “How Ma Rainey Forever Changed Blues Music.” ThoughtCo. Dotdash. November 13, 2018. https://www.thoughtco.com/biography-of-ma-rainey-4177933.
- Rixon, Karla. 2010. “Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey (1886-1939).” Blackpast. December 15, 2010. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/rainey-gertrude-ma-1886-1939/.
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