Ma Rainey (April 26, 1886 - December 22, 1939) was a classic female blues singer, a pioneer of the genre, and one of the first generation of blues singers to record. She was billed as The Mother of the Blues. Many felt she did much to develop and popularize the blues form, and she was an important influence on younger blues women, such as Bessie Smith.
Born Gertrude Melissa Nix Pridgett in Columbus, Georgia, she first appeared on stage in Columbus in "A Bunch of Blackberries" at the age of 14. She then joined a travelling vaudeville troupe. After hearing a blues song at a theater in St. Louis in 1902 she started performing in a blues style. She married fellow vaudeville singer William 'Pa' Rainey in 1904, changing her name to Ma Rainey and the 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.
Ma Rainey was already a veteran performer with decades of touring with African American shows in the U.S. Southern States when she made her first recordings in 1923. Rainey signed with Paramount Records and between 1923 and 1928 recorded 100 songs, sometimes accompanied by bands includings such jazz notables as Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, Fletcher Henderson, and others. Rainey was extremely popular among southern blacks in the 1920s, but the Great Depression and changing tastes ended her career by 1933, when she retired. In 1939, Rainey died of a heart attack.