Saturday, April 17, 2021
April 17, 2021

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Ma Rainey injected music with controversy


In the Netflix drama that spotlights a Chicago recording session, Ma Rainey argues with a cop about a fender bender.

“You going to let me tell the story?” he asks her, exasperated.

Rainey, as portrayed by Viola Davis, responds with a steely eyed stare.

“Well, if you gonna tell it, tell it right,” she says.

We’ll try to honor Rainey’s legacy and tell her story right.

The Columbus, Ga., native born Gertrude Pridgett, is known as the “Mother of the Blues.” But the most celebrated modern recognition of her singing career, rooted in the 1920s, was generated by August Wilson in his 1982 play, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” named for her song of the same name (which refers to the “black bottom” dance).

Wilson’s Tony-nominated production from nearly 40 years ago recently spawned the Netflix movie of the same name, a taut 90-minutes that centers on Rainey’s no-nonsense style and command of respect while recording the titular song with members of her Georgia Jazz Band. As played by Oscar winner Davis, Rainey’s body sags in its voluptuousness.

The respect that Rainey demanded sprouted from years of touring — bridging the period of vaudeville and blues — and the recording of more than 100 songs.

Her stage name was coined after she married Will “Pa” Rainey in 1904; the couple toured with the Rabbit’s Foot Company, a minstrel tent show that traveled the South, before forming their own group, Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues.

Rainey’s expressive singing style — often classified as moaning — along with her wildly colorful outfits and gold teeth often overshadowed her songwriting prowess. She wrote at least a third of her own songs, an anomaly during a male-dominated period of music.

Her 1928 composition, “Prove It On Me Blues,” also asserted Rainey’s bisexuality in a defiant lyrical stance (“They said I do it, ain’t nobody caught me/Sure got to prove it on me/Went out last night with a crowd of my friends/They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men”).

Rainey’s career included recording stints with Louis Armstrong (“Jelly Bean Blues,” “See See Rider Blues”) and touring with Tommy Dorsey and his Wildcats Jazz Band in the South and Midwest for both Black and white audiences.


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