Gertrude Melissa Nix Pridgett was born to sing the blues. This daughter of minstrel singers gave her first public performance in 1900 in "A Bunch of Blackberries" at the Springer Opera House in her hometown of Columbus, Ga. She was just 14. That success led her to join a black vaudeville troupe and travel throughout the Deep South.
When Gertrude was 18, she married singer William "Pa" Rainey. She renamed herself "Ma" Rainey, and they took their act, "Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues," on the road, singing, dancing and telling jokes.
Ma Rainey's warm, earthy voice blended the black rural tradition of spirituals and sharecroppers' field-working songs with big-city honky-tonk rhythms. She sang sad, soulful songs about little work and less money, and of lost romantic loves.
When her marriage broke up, Ma Rainey toured the Deep South, and very occasionally north of the Mason-Dixon line, by herself or with other black musicians. Among them were Fletcher Henderson, Louis Armstrong, Buster Bailey, "Georgia" Tom Dorsey and Coleman Hawkins.
Ma Rainey signed with Paramount Records in 1923. Billed as "Mother of the Blues," she became Paramount's biggest selling star, recording more than 100 songs in six years, including "C.C. Rider," "Bo Weevil Blues," "Gone Daddy Blues" and "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." It was that last song that Pittsburgh playwright August Wilson used to title his stage play recounting her life.
When Ma Rainey died of a heart attack in 1939 at age 53, she had been retired four years from her road life and was operating two theaters in rural Georgia.
Ma Rainey was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame in 1983 and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame seven years later. The U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp honoring her in 1994.
- By Emily L. Bell