Once upon a time in Black Entrepreneur History there lived an African American singer, performer and entrepreneur named Gertrude Pridgett, Gertrude Rainey, and most popularly known as Ma Rainey, the Mother of the Blues.
Known for a style of the blues that she first heard down south in Missouri, Ma Rainey made the sound her own, and eventually ended up recording almost 100 songs, taking blues to another level.
Birth & Childhood
According to census records, she was born in 1882 during the month of September in Alabama, however, other records indicate that she was born on April 26, 1886 in Columbus, Georgia. Another record, which is obviously erroneous, is her death certificate record which records her date of birth as November 20, 1892 with the brother Thomas Pridgett as the informant for the death certificate.
Gertrude Pridgett was the daughter of Ella Allen Pridgett and Thomas Pridgett, Sr. who were both African American minstrel performers, meaning that although they played a role for financial stability, like most black minstrel performers, they normally lived against that type of performance in their daily lives, often bringing activism to the stage during entertainment.
Her parents had seven children, however, by the early 1900s on the 1910 census of Columbus, Georgia, there were only four alive. It is unknown their cause of deaths. Therefore, Gertrude grew up with three other siblings. Two of her brothers were named Esse and Thomas Jr, named after his father. Her father died sometime before 1910 because her mother, Ella, was listed as widowed.
Career & Marriage
On the 1910 census, Gertrude Pridgett was listed as 25 years old, the older sister of her two teenage brothers, and she was also married to William Rainey. They’d gotten married 1902, and by this census, had been married for 8 years.
Because she grew up the daughter of performers, it was no coincidence that she performed her first performance in a talent show at the Springer Opera House in Columbus, Georgia. She was 14 years of age or so, and her talent was felt.
It was when she married at the age of 17 to William Rainey, a performer as well, they began touring as a couple, a duo – she became known as Ma Rainey and he as Pa Rainey. It was around this time that she heard southern Blues for the first time when they’d gone to Missouri. It was at that point, she created her sound in tune with that southern Blues sound, and made music catering to and about Black southern life and people.
By the time 1923 came along, she’d already separated from her husband William (1916) and founded her own band – Madam Gertrude Ma Rainey and Her Georgia Smart Sets. In 1923, she started recording for Paramount, and in five years recorded 92 songs.
It was in 1924 that Paramount released a Ma Rainey Mystery Record that was accompanied by Lovie Austin and her Blues Serenaders featuring Tommy Ladiner, and on the reverse side of the record was Ma Rainey’s Blues “Honey Where You Been So Long”. Ma Rainey and Paramount created a contest for any member of the “Race” that could name the album.
Ma Rainey had become known as “one of the best known colored women in the show business,” based on her super feature show on Bernardi midway – Ma Rainey’s Paramount Flappers, an all star colored review that played in all the colored theaters in the east.
Ma Rainey was also known for her dancing as well as song. In 1926, the Monogram Theater was packed every night to see her perform with her Jazz Band “in which she showed herself to be more natural and truer to racial originality than most record singers. Rainey was recorded as being “talented in dancing.“
Performing was her life until 1935 when she retired to head three theaters.
Ma Rainey passed away on December 22, 1939 from a heart attack due to Coronary Heart Disease and Aortic Valvular Disease as a result of Hypertension. According to the death certificate, she was pronounced dead at 9:40pm. She was buried in Porterdale Cemetery in Columbus, Georgia.
At the time of her death, she lived in a home she had built for her mother in Columbus.
Honors & Awards
Ma Rainey was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1990) and the Blues Hall of Fame. She also has a US Postage Stamp bearing her head shot with a bright smile.
The year 2020 came with the the completion and release of the movie Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, starring the late Chadwick Boseman (Levee) and Viola Davis starring as Ma Rainey,
The New York Age (New York, New York) 07 Jun 1924, Sat Page 7
The Yazoo Herald (Yazoo City, Mississippi) 01 Oct 1929, Tue
The Pittsburgh Courier (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) 09 Jan 1926, Sat Page 10
1900 United States Federal Census for Gertrude Priggett
Georgia Muscogee Columbus Ward 05 District 0091
1910 United States Federal Census for Gertrude Raney
Georgia Muscogee Columbus Ward 5 District 0105
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Blues Hall of Fame