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Nine O'clock Blues: Ma Rainey

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Known as 'The Mother of the Blues,' Ma Rainey was born Gertrude Pridgett in Columbus, Georgia, in 1886.

Born into a show biz family, she started singing in minstrel shows and vaudeville stage revues at a very early age.

In 1902 she married the song and dance man William Rainey, who was known as Pa and from then on Gertrude became known as Ma Rainey. The couple became a song and dance act known as Rainey and Rainey and their show included the Blues music that Pa introduced Ma to.


The Rainey’s played the South and, occasionally, other parts of the country with Tolliver's Circus, The Musical Extravaganza, and The Rabbit Foot Minstrels. While a member of The Rabbit Foot Minstrels Rainey met Bessie Smith and became something of a Blues mentor to the younger woman.

It was in the 1920s that Ma Rainey started to work as a solo artist playing the T.O.B.A. vaudeville circuit. T.O.B.A. stood for Theater Owners’ Booking Association, although artists like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith referred to the group as “tuff on black asses.”

Given how very early Ma Rainey was performing the Blues, it is no stretch at all that Paramount Records billed her as the 'Mother of the Blues' after she signed with the label in 1923. I should note that I had little luck finding any historian that listed any Blues singers prior to Ma.

While recording over 100 songs on Paramount between 1923 and 1928, Ma Rainey was accompanied by many top jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, and Coleman Hawkins.


Ma Rainey retired to her hometown of Columbus, Georgia, in 1935 and ended her years running 2 theaters that she was able to buy due to her wise management of her Blues career income.

The 'Mother of the Blues' died of a heart attack in 1939.

Also on this week’s show we’ll check out Linsey Alexander. Alexander was born in Mississippi and raised in Memphis and grew up in a poor family. Linsey got his start playing the Blues after he was given a guitar by a family friend, with whom he played on his family’s front porch. When he moved to Chicago in 1959 he did so with money he got from pawning that guitar.

Among the many artists that Alexander has played with are B.B.King, Bobby Rush, Buddy Guy, Little Milton, Magic Slim, Otis Clay, and Eddie ‘The Chief’ Clearwater.

 Linsey Alexander is a mainstay of the myriad Blues clubs of the south side of Chicago where his vocals and guitar prove night after night why Blues in a club is such a delight.

I like Linsey’s quote "Blues music is not hard- it's just a documentary about life."

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