MA RAINEY, American singer (d. 1939); The great blues singer was part of a circle of black Lesbians and bisexuals that included Bessie Smith, Jackie “Moms” Mabley, and Josephine Baker.
Rainey was one of the earliest known American professional blues singers and one of the first generation of such singers to record. She did much to develop and popularize the form and was an important influence on younger blues women, such as Bessie Smith, and their careers. Rainey was born in Columbus, Georgia. Gertrude “Ma” Rainey She first appeared on stage in Columbus in “A Bunch of Blackberries” at 14. She then joined a traveling vaudeville troupe, the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. After hearing a sad song sung a cappella by a local girl in a small town in Missouri in 1902, she started performing in this style, and claimed that she was the one who named it “blues.”
In the one known interview she did, Rainey told the following story: In 1902 “a girl from town… came to the tent one morning and began to sing about the “man” who left her. The song was so strange and poignant that it attracted much attention and Rainey learned the song from the visitor, and used it soon afterwards in her “act”.” Audiences reacted strongly to the song.
She married fellow vaudeville singer William “Pa” Rainey in 1904, billing herself from that point as “Ma” Rainey. She later had an unknown number of children, one being Clyde Rainey, who served in the US Navy. “Ma and Pa” pair toured with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels as “Rainey & Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues”, singing a mix of blues and popular songs. In 1912, she took the young Bessie Smith into the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, trained her, and worked with her until Smith left in 1915.
Also known, though less discussed, is the fact that she was Bisexual. She was arrested in Chicago in 1925 for hosting an “indecent party” with a room full of semi-naked women. Rainey celebrated the Lesbian lifestyle in “Prove It On Me Blues”, which presented a cross-dressing, man-hating persona that was quite distinct from her regular public image:
Went out last night with a crowd of my friends,
They must have been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.
It’s true I wear a collar and a tie, Make the wind blow all the time
They say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me, Sure got to prove it on me.
The great blues singer was part of a circle of black Lesbians and bisexuals that included Bessie Smith, Jackie “Moms” Mabley, and Josephine Baker. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a 1982 play – one of the ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle by August Wilson – that chronicles the 20th-century African-American experience. The play is set in Chicago in the 1920s, and deals with issues of race, art, religion, and the historic exploitation of Black recording artists by white producers.
The play’s title comes from Ma Rainey’s song of the same name, which refers to the Black Bottom dance. Rainey, whose life as a well-known blues-singer of the 1920s is an inspiration for the play, is also the titular character. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was published in the early 1980s and premiered at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. Its Broadway debut at the Cort Theatre in 1984 won a New York Drama Critics’ Circle award and garnered a Tony Award nomination for Best Play.
A 2020 American film directed by George C. Wolfe and written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, based on the play of the same name by Wilson. The film focuses on Ma Rainey, and dramatizes a turbulent recording session in 1920s Chicago.
Produced by Denzel Washington, Todd Black, and Dany Wolf, the film stars Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman, with Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, and Michael Potts in supporting roles. The project was originally announced alongside Washington’s Fences in 2013 as part of his ten-picture deal with HBO. The adaptation eventually moved to Netflix, and filming commenced in Pittsburgh in 2019. Boseman died during post-production in August 2020, making Black Bottom his final film appearance; the film is dedicated to his memory.
The film has been universally acclaimed by critics, who lauded the performances of Davis and Boseman, as well as the costumes and production values. It was named as one of the ten best films of 2020 by the American Film Institute. The film received five Academy Award nominations at the 93rd Academy Awards, including Best Actress for Davis, and Best Actor for Boseman. It won for Best Costume Design and Best Make-up and Hairstyling.
Additionally, the film received eight Critics’ Choice Movie Award nominations and nine NAACP Image Award nominations, including Outstanding Motion Picture, with Davis and Boseman both winning lead acting awards. Davis and Boseman also won lead acting awards for their performances at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, making history as the first Black actors to win in leading categories in the same year, both received nominations at the Golden Globes, with Boseman posthumously winning Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama.