The ‘Mother of the Blues’
Legendary singer

How Ma Rainey became the ‘Mother of the Blues’ and transformed the genre

The story of a powerful and fearless woman and how she became the iconic figure she is today

Gertrude “Ma” Rainey is considered the “Mother of the Blues” for being one of the first African-American professional blues singers and among the first generation to record. Born in 1886 as Gertrude Pridgett, the singer started her career as a teenager and adopted the nickname of “Ma” Rainey after marrying Will “Pa” Rainey in 1904.

The Raineys toured with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels before forming their group, Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues — by the name; you can tell they were killing it. And in fact, she did! After her first recording in 1923, the trailblazing blues singer made over 100 recordings in just five years. Among those musical treasures, we can find “Soon This Morning,” “Bo-Weevil Blues,” “Moonshine Blues,” “See See Rider Blues,” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

The song “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” serves as the superstar’s biopic title and a posthumous celebration of her musical contributions. Starring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman in his final film role, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on Netflix tell the story of a powerful and fearless woman and how she became the iconic figure she is today, after 81 years of her death. “Usually Ma Rainey and how she looks has been greatly stereotyped in cinematic history and in life,” Davis said in an interview with Zora. “The Black woman is always dark, fat, funny, can sing, and is really not sexualized in any way that is dangerous. But that’s not my understanding of women like that. Ma is my Auntie Joyce, my Aunt Letha, who were highly sexual and the most beautiful woman I ever seen in my life. They were stylish.”

Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on Netflix©Netflix
Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman

Davis also said it was imperative to honor Rainey’s physical attributes and her sexual preferences. “I didn’t want [Ma] to physically look like she was apologizing for herself. I wanted her to switch. If those breasts were hanging out like that? They just hung out. She was unapologetic about her sexuality. I just feel like in playing her; I had to honor that.”

Ma Rainey also dated women, and Davis seemed not to be uncomfortable about it; in fact, she said she does not care if others feel a certain way. “I don’t care how uncomfortable people feel with bisexuality; Ma Rainey was bisexual,” she says, pointing to the song ‘Prove it on Me,’ which is about women.

Viola Davis highlighted Chadwick Boseman’s role and said he worked tirelessly because he loved working. “He was not chasing the green, not chasing the money, just chasing the work,” she says. “He has a willingness to let go of ego and almost an insistence to leave Chadwick Boseman at the door and leave that Black Panther-making-a-billion-dollars at the door.”

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is now streaming on Netflix.