Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Professor Kitzel's Time Machine Profile; Ma Rainey


~Ma Rainey 1886~1939 was not the first black woman to record the blues (Mamie Smith did that in 1920) but Ma Rainey was the first big star. By the time Mamie Smith recorded "Crazy Blues" Ma Rainey was already the best known blues singer by far. She would remain a major figure for the rest of the era discovering and becoming an inspiration for future generations af blues, jazz and soul singers from Bessie Smith to Janis Joplin. ..


~Early Years~
Born Gertrude Pridgett in 1886 (according to her) or 1882 (according to a census report) in either Alabama or Georgia into a family of minstrel show performers, she was already onstage herself by at least age 14 according to surviving records. Pridgett joined the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, a popular traveling minstrel troop in the 1890's marrying William "Pa" Rainey an older song and dance comedian in 1904, they thereafter billed themselves as Ma and Pa Rainey. According to Ma she heard a young black girl singing a blues type song in 1904 inspiring her to adopt the style which she claimed she also named "The Blues" however every other source disputes this (including W.C. Handy, Jellyroll Morton, Bunk Johnson, Gus Cannon and Leadbelly) saying the blues had existed since the 1880's. At this point the Raineys began billing themselves as "The Assassinaters of the Blues" and touring heavily especially throughout the south. The Raineys became one of the most popular acts of the era. Ma was a flamboyant, larger than life character; a large woman with multiple chins and gold teeth she developed costumes with flowing gowns, feathered tiaras, boas, huge glittering rings, ropes of pearls, dangling earnings, bejeweled fans and long necklaces made from gold pieces. She entered the stage from inside a giant prop gramophone horn scarlet drapes, gold ropes, leopard skin furniture and fake tropical plants. Pa Rainey acted as emcee, telling jokes, singing a few nonsense songs, doing a few dance steps as well as his specialty, placing large objects in his mouth. Obviously the main attraction was Ma with sang with a powerful voice did dance steps and told ribald jokes. There was also a chorus line one of whom was the young Bessie Smith who Ma discovered in 1912 and trained as a singer and performer until Bessie went solo around 1915. ..


~Recordings~ ..
After Mamie Smith's highly successful 1920 recordings record companies started looking for more blues women to record but in spite of her fame Ma did not actually record until 1923 when she signed with Paramount Records. Her records were an immediate success and of a high quality using a wide variety of bands from top-notch New Orleans style Hot Jazz bands to Memphis style Jug Bands to duets with blues singer Papa Charlie Jackson. Her records were rife with double and sometimes triple entendres and frequent references to her bi-sexuality as well as infidelity, boozing and jail. However unlike some other blues women her songs were mostly upbeat and shamelessly defiant rather than mournful. She continued to record and tour successfully throughout the 1920's but the coming of the great depression and changing tastes brought an end to her recordings after 1929. She continued to perform until 1935 when she retired to Columbus, Georgia. Unlike most of her fellow blues and jazz artists Ma was a good business-woman who made and saved enough money to buy her own home and invest in two theaters in Columbus. She devoted the rest of her time to the baptist church until she died of a heart attack in 1939. ..


~Legacy~ ..
Ma Rainey's influence is deep and wide, covering virtually every female blues, jazz, gospel, soul and rock and roll singer from the 1920's to the 1970's starting obviously with Bessie Smith down through Billie Holliday to Mahalia Jackson to Dinah Washington to Aretha Franklin to Janis Joplin to Queen Latifa. Her sense of style is still the archetype for the blues or soul woman. Her records have been reissued on cd and her old records are highly collectable. A play "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" loosely based on her was written in 1982 by August Wilson. Ma Rainey was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1983 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990 and honored with a U.S. postage stamp in 1994. Another younger and unrelated singer billed herself as Memphis Ma Rainey in the 1950's and Ma's grand-daughter Rosemary is also a singer who sings in Ma's style.


Ma Rainey~vocals w/ various members including; Louis Armstrong ~ trumpet, Kid Ory ~ trombone, Coleman Hawkins ~ sax, Tampa Red~guitar, Georgia Tom Dorsey ~ piano, Fletcher Henderson ~ piano, Tiny Parham ~ piano, Jimmy Blythe ~ piano, Doc Cheatham ~ sax, Papa Charlie Jackson ~ banjo


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