Gertrude "Ma Rainey" Pridgett is known as the "Mother of the Blues" and is one of the earliest blues singers as well as one of the first generation of artists to record their work in that genre.
Born in 1886 (or possibly September 1882), she started singing in church at first before moving through different performance groups, including Rainey and Rainey: Assassinators of the Blues after her 1904 marriage to Will Rainey. In 1923, she was discovered by Paramount Records and promptly signed to their label. She made over 100 recordings throughout the next 5 years, quickly becoming a household name.
Paramount capitalized on her successes, marketing her as the "Mother of the Blues", the "Songbird of the South", and the "Paramount Wildcat", among other monikers. Ma Rainey was unapologetically blunt with her choice of lyrics. Most of her songs make reference to love affairs with men, though some songs have a noticeably bisexual tone, like the 1928 song, "Prove It On Me Blues".
They say 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.
It's true I wear a collar and a tie,
Makes the wind blow all the while
Don't you say I do it, ain't nobody caught me
You sure got to prove it on me.
After decades of touring and recording her work, Rainey retired to her hometown of Columbus, Georgia, in 1935, where she ran three theaters until her death four years later in 1939.
Rainey was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990 for her early influences on today's music industry.
In 2020, Netflix produced a film adaptation of August Wilson’s landmark play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, played by Viola Davis, taking place in Chicago in 1927.