DECEMBER 22: Ma Rainey (1886-1939)
The legendary performer and the woman once dubbed the “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey, passed away on this day in 1939. There were incessant rumors about Ma Rainey’s lesbianism during her lifetime and in 1925 she was arrested for participating in an orgy with multiple women.
One of the only known photographs of Gertrude Pridgett a.k.a Ma Rainey, circa 1914 (x).
Ma Rainey was born Gertrude Pridgett on April 26, 1886 in Columbus, Georgia. She was the second of five children born to Thomas and Ella Pridgett. Her career as an entertainer began at the young age of 12 when she began performing in black minstrel shows with her church, the First African Baptist Church of Columbus. After marrying a fellow performer named Will Rainey in 1904, she was given her legendary name of Ma Rainey. The duo started out with the Rabbit’s Foot Company of “Black Face Song and Dance Comedians” before striking out on their own as Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues.
It was while performing in New Orleans in the winter of 1914 when Ma Rainey was first introduced to some of the biggest names in black showbiz of the day: Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Pops Foster, and her eventual lover, Bessie Smith. In 1923, Ma Rainey would be discovered by J. Mayo Williams, who was a producer for Paramount Records. She was signed to Paramount in December of that year and would go on to record over 100 songs in the next five years. Some of her hits include “Bo-Weevil Blues,” “Bad Luck Blues,” and “Moonshine Blues.”
Many of the Ma Rainey’s lyrics include hints of her lesbianism. In “Prove It on Me,” she sings
“They said 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…”
In 1925, Ma Rainey and several of the women who were in her chorus were arrested at Ma Rainey’s own home for purportedly participating in an orgy. It was Bessie Smith, fellow blues singer, lesbian, and America’s highest paid black performer of the era, who bailed Ma Rainey out of jail that night. Ma Rainey’s guitarist, Sam Chatom, would later say that Bessie and she were most likely lovers: “I believe she was courting Bessie…if Bessie’d be around, if she’d get to talking to another man, she’d run up. She didn’t want no man talking with her.”
As live vaudeville acts became less and less popular with the American public and were replaced by radio in the 1930s, Ma Rainey’s career also went into decline. In 1928, she recorded a final 20 songs before her contract was terminated by Paramount. In 1935, she returned home to Georgia and became a successful theater owner. Until her death on December 22, 1939, she operated three popular Georgia theaters – the Lyric, the Airdome, and the Liberty Theater.