As a Rabbit’s Foot performer, Gertrude rose to stardom as one of the best “coon singers” in the region, adopting the stage name “Ma Rainey,” a play on her husband’s nickname, “Pa.” Often, she was on the receiving end of three to four encores a night at the Globe Theater (now Clara White Mission building) on Ashley Street. As the popularity of blues increased, she gained fame well beyond the South.
Ma Rainey’s musical career began many years before this, though. She began performing in talents shows and in church minstrel shows as a teenager in Columbus, Georgia. When she first met her husband, they formed a group known as the “Alabama Fun Makers Company,” prior to joining Chappelle’s Rabbit’s Foot Company in 1906.
In 1910, Frank Crowd opened the Globe Theater on Ashley Street and a year later, the Raineys joined his Globe Stock Company. One theater observer of their performances stated that “the female member of the team caught the house from the go and kept them with her.” Another praised her but suggested her husband should retire. After 1914, they were often referred to as “Rainey and Rainey: Assassinators of the Blues.”
In 1923, Ma Rainey was “discovered” by Jay Mayo “Ink” Williams, a producer with Paramount Records. She signed a deal with Paramount, and by the end of the year she had recorded nearly ten tracks, including “Bad Luck Blues” and “Moonshine Blues.” Over her first five years with the label, she recorded over one hundred tracks, including some duets with big names like Louis Armstrong.
In 1935, she returned to Columbus, Georgia where she operated three theatres into her death in 1939. Her legacy continued on, though, and she was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 1983 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. A musician who honed her craft in Jacksonville, Ma Rainey is now colloquially referred to as “Mother of the Blues,” the “Songbird of the South,” the “Gold-Neck Woman of the Blues,” and the “Paramount Wildcat.”
Article by Ennis Davis and Kristen Pickrell