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Singer Ma Rainey was the first popular stage entertainer to incorporate authentic blues into her song repertoire and became known as the "Mother of the Blues."
Ma Rainey - Mini Biography (2:38)
A short biography of Ma Rainey, the "Mother of the Blues,” who was a pioneer of the blues music genre. Rainey’s raw delivery landed her a record deal and her own show.
Breaking new ground for women in rock music, Janis Joplin rose to fame in the late 1960s and was known for her powerful, blues-inspired vocals.
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With the help of Mayo "Ink" Williams, Rainey first recorded for the Paramount label in 1923 (three years after the first blues side recorded by Mamie Smith). Already a popular singer in the Southern theater circuit, Rainey entered the recording industry as an experienced and stylistically mature talent. Her first session, cut with Austin and Her Blue Serenaders, featured the traditional number "Bo-Weevil Blues." Fellow blues singer, Victoria Spivey, later said of the recording,
as quoted in The Devil's Music, "Ain't nobody in the world been able to holler 'Hey Boweevil' like her. Not like Ma. Nobody."
1923 also saw the release of Rainey's side "Moonshine Blues," with Lovie Austin, and "Yonder Comes the Blues" with Louis Armstrong. That same year, Rainey recorded "See See Rider," a number that, as Arnold Shaw observed in Black Popular Music in America, emerged as "one of the most famous and recorded of all blues songs. (Rainey's) was the first recording of that song, giving her a hold on the copyright, and one of the best of the more than 100 versions."
In August 1924, Rainey—along with the 12 string guitar of Miles Pruitt and an unknown second guitar accompanist—recorded the eight bar blues number "Shave 'Em Dry." In the liner notes to The Blues, folklorist W.K. McNeil observed that the number "is typical of Rainey's output, a driving, unornamated vocal propelled along by an accompanist who plays the number straight. Her artistry brings life to what in lesser hands would be a dull, elementary piece."
Unlike many other blues musicians, Rainey earned a reputation as a professional on stage and in business. According to Mayo Williams, as quoted in the liner notes to August Wilson's 1988 play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, "Ma Rainey was a shrewd business woman. We never tried to put any swindles on her. During Rainey's five-year recording career at Paramount she cut nearly ninety sides, most of which dealt with the subjects of love and sexuality—bawdy themes that often earned her the billing of "Madam Rainey." As William Barlow explained, in Looking Up at Down, her songs were also "diverse, yet deeply rooted in day-to-day experiences of black people from the South. Ma Rainey's blues were simple, straightforward stories about heart break, promiscuity, drinking binges, the odyssey of travel, the workplace and the prison road gang, magic and superstition—in short, the southern landscape of African-Americans in the Post-Reconstruction era."
With the success of her early recordings, Rainey took part in a Paramount promotional tour that featured a newly assembled back-up band. In 1924, pianist and arranger Thomas A. Dorsey recruited members for Rainey's touring band, The Wild Cats Jazz Band. Serving as both director and manager, Dorsey assembled able musicians who could read arrangements as well as play in a down "home blues" style. Rainey's tour debut at Chicago's Grand Theater on State Street marked the first appearance of a "down home" blues artist at the famous southside venue.
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In the 1920s, women like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith were the first—and for a while, the only—artists to record the blues. American women of this era made great strides toward gaining equality and basic human rights for themselves and others in society, including attaining the right to vote and working toward social justice. The 20th century was a wide-open opportunity for women to embrace the modern world, outside of the traditional bounds of the home.
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They make music with instruments they were born with - their voices. Gifted vocalists have entertained audiences across musical genres from the tour de force arias of Luciano Pavarotti to the classic crooning of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett to the soulful vocals of artists like Aretha Franklin and Mahalia Jackson. With their powerful lyricism, singers like Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and Bruce Springsteen became poet laureates of American music while artists including Joan Baez and Joe Strummer used their voices to prompt social change while they entertained. Rockers from Elvis Presley to The Beatles to Kurt Cobain helped define their generations through their songs while icons like Michael Jackson, Cher and Whitney Houston shaped pop culture with their larger-than-life voices and personas. See these and more famous singers who have struck a chord in musical history.
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