Success in 2005 could mean conquering the world of entertainment, or effectively advocating women’s rights on a national stage. Success could even include owning a few theatres or holding benefit concerts for the underprivileged.
Success could also be composing music, being a road manager or signing a major deal with a record label. This encompasses success in 2005. However, a truly phenomenal woman by the name of Ma Rainey was able to accomplish all of the above between the years of 1886 and 1939.
Born Gertrude Pritchett, Ma Rainey eventually became known as “The Mother of the Blues.” She was born in Columbus, GA in April of 1886. At that time, many black entertainers found themselves performing in minstrel shows. The shows often incorporated white actors immersed in black make-up portraying the black life in a negatively stereotypical light. Black entertainers in the show added brilliant musical talent, folklore and comedic relief. These events were some of the most sought-after sources of entertainment throughout the rural south.
Both whites and blacks were among those who paid to partake and enjoy. Rainey’s parents had performed in such minstrels and naturally introduced her to the world of stage.
Starting her professional career at the age of 18, she met and married fellow manager/performer Pa Rainey. As soon as she began touring the south, her career took off and immediately ascended upon her stardom as “Ma” Rainey. From humble beginnings, she went on to become the top recording artist for Paramount Records, and is generally credited with the rise in popularity of blues music in America at the beginning of the 20th century.
She released over 100 songs on the label and is solely responsible for transforming Paramount from a small furniture store into a major enterprise.
She worked with jazz and blues legends such as Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong.
Rainey was also big on pushing female civil rights. She, along with other women of the Harlem Renaissance period, was openly bisexual. Long before Madonna pushed the sexual envelope, Rainey boldly asserted her position. In a still segregated and racially insensitive country, she included these lyrics in her songs:
“Went out last night with a crowd of my friends. They must have been women, ’cause I don’t like no men. Wear my clothes just like a fan, Talk to gals just like any old man
‘Cause they say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me, Sure got to prove it on me.”
“Prove It On Me.”
The ad for the release depicted her in a man’s suit flirting with two women.
According to Western standards, Rainey was a reasonably unattractive woman. She wore gold caps on her teeth and diamonds in her hair. She was short and fat.
Despite all of this, her talent and presence cannot be ignored or minimized. She commanded an audience everywhere she went.
Her voice was timelessly soulful and her personality peacefully warm. Some people just have star quality. Ma Rainey, Mother of the Blues, invented it.
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