How did Ma Rainey die? Why the legendary blues singer's age became a controversial topic after her death

Ma Rainey was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 1983 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990


                            How did Ma Rainey die? Why the legendary blues singer's age became a controversial topic after her death
Viola Davis as Ma Rainey (Getty Images)

Starring Viola Davis in a lead role, Netflix has released its brand new flick ‘Ma Rainey's Black Bottom’ and it is already getting positive reviews from critics and the viewers. The movie is an adaptation of August Wilson’s play ‘Ma Rainey's Black Bottom’ and is based on the legendary Mother of Blues singer Ma Rainey.

The 2020 American drama film is directed by George C Wolfe and is produced by Denzel Washington, Todd Black and Dany Wolf, the film stars late Chadwick Boseman in his final film appearance, with Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo and Michael Potts in supporting roles. The film sheds light on various professional and personal aspects of the late legendary singer Ma Rainey. We shed some light on how she died and which controversy troubled her for a long time. 

(Netlix)

Early life

Ma Rainey was born on April 26, 1886, as Gertrude Pridgett, in Columbus, Georgia. However, the 1900 census indicates that she might be born in September 1882 in Alabama. The singer was the second of five children who started performing at Black minstrel shows in her teenage years. At the age of 18, she married William “Pa” Rainey, which is when she adopted the name “Ma.” And, later the couple went on to adopt a son named Danny. Ma Rainey and her husband formed their own group with the name Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues.

Songbird of the South

As luck had it, music producer J Mayo Williams, who was an employee of Paramount Records, discovered her in 1923 and in the next five years, they went on to record more than 100 songs. She was given the nicknames like“Songbird of the South” and the “Gold-Neck Woman of the Blues.” As she earned more fame, she got to collaborate with renowned artists like Joe “King” Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and Pops Foster.

She also joined hands with Armstrong on tracks like ‘Moonshine Blues’, ‘Jelly Bean Blues’, ‘Countin’ the Blues’ and ‘See, See Rider.’  In 1924, she had the opportunity to go on a tour of the Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA) with the Wildcats Jazz Band, which was assembled by Thomas Dorsey.

(Netflix)

Downfall

As 1920’s were coming to an end, Ma Rainey witnessed a downfall as her style of music was longer in demand. Though not affected immediately, she continued recording for Paramount and pocketed enough money from touring to buy a bus with her name on it. Paramount later cancelled her contract saying her style of blues was no longer considered fashionable. On the personal front, there were rumours that she was involved in a romantic lesbian affair with the fellow blues singer, Bessie Smith. She had caused much controversy back then when in her song titled ‘Prove It on Me’, Rainey crooned, “Went out last night with a crowd of my friends. They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.”

According to the website The Cinemaholic, the director of ‘Ma Rainey House and Blues Museum,’ Florene Dawkins, said about the legend, “She couldn’t control the world and segregation and exploitation, but she could control when she went on the stage, she could control the audience no matter. She mesmerised them and that was her control, that was her power, and she put her power into what she did. ‘They might not respect me or like me or think I’m a whole citizen, but when I get on that stage, I mesmerise them. I have them in my hand.’”

(Netflix)

Death

In 1935, Ma Rainey returned to her hometown and ran three theatres namely the Lyric, the Airdrome, and the Liberty Theatre. The blues singer breathed her last on December 22, 1939, after suffering a heart attack in Rome, Georgia, as published by Biography.com. However, there is a lot of discrepancy in her age as the research of Bob eagle says the singer passed away at the age of 57.  

Ma Rainey was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 1983 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. Apart from this, the U.S. Post Office released a 29 cent stamp in her honour in 1994.

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