Netflix’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom stars Viola Davis as one of the most influential blues singers of all time. The real Ma Rainey was the first stage entertainer to bridge the gap between the white and the Black performance circuits. “If you don’t like my ocean, don’t fish in my sea,” Rainey warned in her 1927 song, “Don’t Fish in My Sea,” but the crowds couldn’t stay away. She was one of the first entertainers to play integrated shows in the Jim Crow South, and the first popular singer with authentic blues in her setlist.
“Madame” Gertrude Rainey was the “Mother of the Blues,” but the world knows her as Ma. She wasn’t the first woman to sing the blues. She’d actually heard it while playing vaudeville, tent shows, and cabarets. Rainey wasn’t even the first woman to record the blues. She began recordings when she was 38 in 1923, three years after Mamie Smith’s Feb. 14, 1920 recordings of “That Thing Called Love,” “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down,” and “Crazy Blues” for Okeh Records in New York City.
A Georgia Cakewalk and Some Alabama Fun Makers
Ma was born Gertrude Pridgett on April 26, 1886, in Columbus, Georgia, or September 1882 in Alabama, according to a later census. Her parents were minstrel troupers Thomas Pridgett, Sr. and Ella Allen-Pridgett. She began singing professionally in 1896, after her father died. Her first public performance was in the 1900 stage show, “The Bunch of Blackberries,” at the Springer Opera House in Columbus. Pridgett soon performed on the tent-show circuit with troupes which set up their own stages.
Pridgett first heard country blues in 1902 while she was on the road, according to Sandra Lieb’s Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey. At a stop in Missouri, she saw a young woman singer accompany herself on guitar playing a song in a pentatonic scale with blue notes. Pridgett added the song to her repertoire as an encore. The everyday anguish and joy resonated with audiences. Pridgett would continue to add songs she heard in the towns she played.
In 1904, Pridgett married a singer, comedian and dancer named Will Rainey, and they toured as the duo Ma and Pa Rainey. “Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues” played regularly until the pair separated in 1916. Ma went solo, touring with her own tent show, Madam Gertrude Ma Rainey and Her Georgia Smart Set, which included a chorus line of male and female dancers. The traveling troupe spent winters in New Orleans where Ma mingled with the cream of jazz masters.
In 1923, she was signed to Paramount Records by Mayo “Ink” Williams, who was the most successful blues producer of his time, the first Black producer at a major label, and the only person ever inducted into both the National Football Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame. Pianist Thomas A. Dorsey entered Rainey’s world in 1924. Dorsey, who would later go on to gain fame as a gospel songwriter, was also her manager and musical arranger, much like the trombone player Cutler (Colman Domingo) in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. He spotted the talent for Rainey’s touring ensemble, the Wild Cats Jazz Band. The musicians played blues, but also performed written sheet music to play contemporary jazz.
During Rainey’s five-year recording career at Paramount, she recorded with a rotating crew of musicians in various musical settings, but who all laid down genuine rural blues songs of heartbreak, betrayal, drinking, superstition, prison road gangs, and hard and easy loving.
Rainey wrote or co-wrote about a third of the 92 songs she recorded for her label. With her strong voice, unapologetic lyrical sexuality, and onstage abandon, “the Paramount Wildcat” devoured contemporary women blues singers like Ida Cox and Sippie Wallace like appetizers. Ma wore that tag as proudly as the gold she adorned herself with after she became famous and became the “Golden Necklace Woman of the Blues.” Her only competition was known as “The Empress of the Blues,” and it was a very friendly rivalry.
Ma was performing with the Moses Stokes’ Traveling Show when she met Bessie Smith, the troupe’s new chorus girl dancer, in 1912. Ma was 26 and Bessie was 18. Chattanooga, Tennessee-born Bessie Smith had spent her childhood performing on street corners. Both her parents and a brother died by the time she was nine years old. Smith went on to be the highest paid African American performer of the “Roaring Twenties.”
According to the book Bessie, by Chris Albertson, legends persist that Rainey kidnapped Smith, forced her to join the Rabbit Foot Minstrels and taught her to sing the blues. Bessie’s sister-in-law Maud Smith says the legend isn’t true, but it made for great publicity. While there are some accounts that Rainey was Smith’s vocal coach, it appears her suggestions were more about vocal stylings and performance. Both were virtuoso singers with distinct and personal deliveries. Ma’s slow driving moan and Bessie’s vibrant contralto were signatures. They performed together regularly and the two artists remained lifelong friends.
Both singers expressed themselves boldly, their lyrics were masterpieces of double entendre, and their lives were as risqué as the songs. The two Jazz Age divas proudly proclaimed their bisexuality. While neither confirmed rumors that they were lovers, Smith bailed Rainey out of jail when the Chicago police busted in on the singer in the middle of some erotic personal entertainment with some of her female dancers. And Rainey’s bisexuality comes through in her songs.
“It’s one of the things that I really loved about Ma Rainey,” George C. Wolfe, director of the movie version of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, tells Den of Geek.* “One of the songs that she records… is a song called ‘Prove It on Me [Blues],’ in which she sings these incredibly bold, very unapologetic lyrics such as, ‘I went out last night with a bunch of friends. Must have been women because I don’t like man.’ And that was one of her hit songs in the 1920s. And so she lived her life unapologetically that way.”
And it’s not that she didn’t “want no man to put no sugar in my tea,” as she sang in “Bo Weavil Blues,” but “some of them’s so evil, I’m afraid they might poison me.” On some occasions, however, they came up with something interesting. “My man says sissy’s got good jelly roll,” Rainey confessed on her 1926 song “”Sissy Blues.”
In other songs she admits a fondness for younger men. Colman Domingo, who plays one of Ma’s band members in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, tells us the power of Ma’s life was that she could make these things happen in a country with systems as stacked against her 1920s America.
“I love in the film how she holds her woman with her nephew right there,” Domingo says. “And everyone knows that Ma is gay as well. I love that August is examining that, that she created her world. And in her world, she is the queen, and everything she says goes as well. They know. They know Ma’s proclivities in every single way. And that was also that pioneering spirit. She was fighting so many systems at that time, being a woman, being a gay woman, in a male dominated industry. She’s a true champion.”
In her 1998 book, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Angela Davis sees Rainey as a revolutionary who embraces heterosexuality and lesbianism, and observes the women in Rainey’s songs “explicitly celebrate their right to conduct themselves as expansively and even as undesirably as men.” Davis sees Rainey, as well as Smith and Billie Holiday, as inspirational models for how African American women can overcome racism, sexism, and capitalism.
The iconic jazz legend Louis Armstrong was so inspired by Ma Rainey, he stylistically paid homage to her every time he put down his horn to sing. Even his facial expressions were reportedly reminiscent of Rainey’s. “Satchmo” played cornet on Rainey’s songs “Yonder Comes the Blues,” “Jelly Bean Blues,” “Countin’ the Blues,” and “Moonshine Blues.” The 1927 re-recording of that song is featured in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, but the original 1923 version was done with him, May, and Lovie Austin and Her Blue Serenaders.
Armstrong was also part of Gertrude “Ma” Rainey & Her Georgia Band’s rendition of the now-standard piece “Stack O’Lee Blues.” Ma was one of the song’s early interpreters, though her rendition actually carries the melody of the song “Frankie and Johnny.”
Along with Charlie Green on trombone, Buster Bailey on clarinet, Fletcher Henderson on piano, and Charlie Dixon on banjo, Armstrong also played cornet for Ma in mid-October 1924 for the blues classic “See See Rider Blues.” The song has been covered over 100 times. Rainey’s was the first version, and her recording was added to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry in 2004. She holds the copyright.
The singer, songwriter and astute businesswoman helped make black female autonomy mainstream. The horsehair wigs and the gold teeth she wore on stage empowered her fans. In Black Pearls, author Daphne Harrison said Rainey’s voice was “a reaffirmation of Black life.” Alice Walker cites Ma Rainey’s music as a cultural model for her novel, The Color Purple. In the song “Tombstone Blues” from the 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited, Bob Dylan pairs Ma Rainey with Beethoven.
Rainey’s songs inspired poets like Sterling Brown, whose 1932 poem “Ma Rainey,” describes one of her concerts from the eyes of her audience. “When Ma Rainey comes to town, folks from anyplace miles aroun’ flocks in to hear Ma do her stuff,” he enthused.
Rainey also inspired the 1982 August Wilson play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. In spite of Levee’s protests in that play and its Netflix movie adaptation, she did play Harlem. Ma did shows at The Lincoln Theatre on 135th Street near Lenox Avenue.
Cause of Death
Rainey retired from music in 1935, after the death of her mother and sister. She settled in Columbus and spent her time running the two playhouses she owned: the Airdome and the Lyric Theater. Ma Rainey died from a heart attack on Dec. 22, 1939 in Columbus, Georgia. “People it sure look lonesome since Ma Rainey been gone,” blues guitar legend Memphis Minnie bemoaned on her 1940 tribute “Ma Rainey” before humbly promising the good works of “the Mother of the Blues” would go on.
“Ma” Rainey was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1983 and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. “To tell the truth, if I stop and listen, I can still hear her,” Langston Hughes wrote in his 1952 poem “Shadow of the Blues.” Madame “Ma” Rainey cast a long one.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom premieres on Netflix on Friday, Dec. 18.
*Additional reporting by Don Kaye.