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Who Was Ma Rainey, and How Did She Inspire Bessie Smith?

Ma Rainey, born Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridgett, nicknamed “The Mother of the Blues,” was one of the first professional and commercially successful blues singers in America. Her recordings of the style were some of the style’s earliest recordings.

Rainey’s professional career began at age 18, when she married Will Rainey and adopted her stage name. The two formed Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues, and toured together for years. In her first five years as a recording artist, she recorded over 100 songs. In the 1910s, she met other would-be legends like Louis Armstrong, and the blues genre was picking up in popularity. These years also introduced her to Bessie Smith, who was just starting to make a name for herself.

From the late 1910s into the ‘20s, Ma Rainey found tremendous success as demand for recorded black music was on the rise. By the late ‘20s, her style of blues was no longer considered “current,” and her contracts with her record labels ended. She quietly retired to Georgia and ran a few theaters until her death from a heart attack in 1939.

Ma Rainey’s singing style was strong, energetic, and had a moaning quality to it that differentiated it from other female blues artists. Her stage presence was powerful and demanding and her ability to carry an audience at a young age were what drew Bessie Smith to her as an inspiration. Though Bessie was only about 8 years younger than Ma Rainey, she found maternal supervision and development through their friendship. Rainey opened the doors for Bessie’s career, and provided Bessie the guidance she needed.