Rainey worked at the Springer Opera House in 1900, performing as a singer and dancer in the local talent show, “A Bunch of Blackberries.” On February 2, 1904, Pridgett married comedy songster William “Pa” Rainey. Billed as “Ma” and “Pa” Rainey the couple toured Southern tent shows and cabarets. Though she did not hear blues in Columbus, Rainey’s extensive travels had, by 1905, brought her into contact with authentic country blues, which she worked into her song repertoire. “Her ability to capture the mood and essence of black rural southern life of the 1920s,” noted Daphane Harrison in Black Pearls: Blues Queens “quickly endeared her to throngs of followers throughout the South.”
While performing with the Moses Stokes troupe in 1912, the Raineys were introduced to the show’s newly recruited dancer, Bessie Smith. Eight years Smith’s senior, Rainey quickly befriended the young performer. Despite earlier historical accounts crediting Rainey as Smith’s vocal coach, it has been generally agreed by modern scholars that Rainey played less of a role in the shaping of Smith’s singing style. “Ma Rainey probably did pass some of her singing experience on to Bessie,” explained Chris Albertson in the liner notes to Giants of Jazz, “but the instruction must have been rudimentary. Though they shared an extraordinary command of the idiom, the two women delivered their messages in styles and voices that were dissimilar and manifestly personal.”
Around 1915, the Raineys toured with Fat Chappelle’s Rabbit Foot Minstrels. Afterward, they were billed as the “Assassinators of the Blues” with Tolliver’s Circus and Musical Extravaganza. Separated from her husband in 1916, Rainey subsequently toured with her own band, Madam Gertrude Ma Rainey and Her Georgia Smart Sets, featuring a chorus line and a Cotton Blossoms Show, and Donald McGregor’s Carnival Show.
With the help of Mayo “Ink” Williams, Rainey first recorded for the Paramount label in 1923 (three years after the first blues side recorded by Mamie Smith). Already a popular singer in the Southern theater circuit, Rainey entered the recording industry as an experienced and stylistically mature talent. Her first session, cut with Austin and Her Blue Serenaders, featured the traditional number “Bo-Weevil Blues.” Fellow blues singer, Victoria Spivey, later said of the recording, as quoted in The Devil’s Music, “Ain’t nobody in the world been able to holler ‘Hey Boweevil’ like her. Not like Ma. Nobody.”
Even though she was married to Pa Rainey, Ma Rainey did nothing to hide her love of women. In 1928 she recorded “Prove it on Me Blues,” which makes no secret of her relationships with women.
“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.”
In 1925 the police raided a party hosted by Ma Rainey. When the police arrived, they found some of the women undressed and in “intimate” situations. Ma Rainey was arrested for throwing an “indecent party.”
Ma and Pa Rainey mentored another famous bisexual Blues singer, Bessie Smith, known as The Empress of the Blues. Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith were close friends and possibly lovers. As a matter of fact, it was Bessie Smith who bailed Ma Rainey out of jail in 1925.
In 1923, Rainey also released “Moonshine Blues” with Lovie Austin, and “Yonder Comes the Blues” with Louis Armstrong. That same year, Rainey recorded “See See Rider,” a number that, as Arnold Shaw observed in Black Popular Music in America, emerged as “one of the most famous and recorded of all blues songs. (Rainey’s) was the first recording of that song, giving her a hold on the copyright, and one of the best of the more than 100 versions.”
In August 1924, Rainey—along with the 12 string guitar of Miles Pruitt and an unknown second guitar accompanist—recorded the eight bar blues number “Shave ‘Em Dry.” In the liner notes to The Blues, folklorist W.K. McNeil observed that the number “is typical of Rainey’s output, a driving, unornamated vocal propelled along by an accompanist who plays the number straight. Her artistry brings life to what in lesser hands would be a dull, elementary piece.
Unlike many other blues musicians, Rainey earned a reputation as a professional on stage and in business. According to Mayo Williams, as quoted in the liner notes to August Wilson’s 1988 play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, “Ma Rainey was a shrewd business woman. We never tried to put any swindles on her. During Rainey’s five-year recording career at Paramount she cut nearly ninety sides, most of which dealt with the subjects of love and sexuality—bawdy themes that often earned her the billing of “Madam Rainey.” As William Barlow explained, in Looking Up at Down, her songs were also “diverse, yet deeply rooted in day-to-day experiences of black people from the South. Ma Rainey’s blues were simple, straightforward stories about heart break, promiscuity, drinking binges, the odyssey of travel, the workplace and the prison road gang, magic and superstition—in short, the southern landscape of African-Americans in the Post-Reconstruction era.”
With the success of her early recordings, Rainey took part in a Paramount promotional tour that featured a newly assembled back-up band. In 1924, pianist and arranger Thomas A. Dorsey recruited members for Rainey’s touring band, The Wild Cats Jazz Band. Serving as both director and manager, Dorsey assembled able musicians who could read arrangements as well as play in a down “home blues” style. Rainey’s tour debut at Chicago’s Grand Theater on State Street marked the first appearance of a “down home” blues artist at the famous southside venue.
Draped in long gowns and covered in diamonds and a necklace of gold pieces, Rainey had a powerful command over her audiences. She often opened her stage show singing “Moonshine Blues” inside the cabinet of an over-sized victrola, from which she emerged to greet a near-frantic audience. As Dorsey recalled, in The Rise of Gospel Blues, “When she started singing, the gold in her teeth would sparkle. She was in the spotlight. She possessed listeners; they swayed, they rocked, they moaned and groaned, as they felt the blues with her.”
Though the TOBA and vaudeville circuits had gone into decline by the early 1930s, Rainey still performed, often resorting to playing tent shows. Following the death of her mother and sister, Rainey retired from the music business in 1935 and settled in Columbus. For the next several years, she devoted her time to the ownership of two entertainment venues—the Lyric Theater and the Airdome—as well as activities in the Friendship Baptist Church. Rainey died in Rome, Georgia—some sources say Columbus—on December 22, 1939.