Ma Rainey created what is now known as “classic blues” while also portraying black life like never before. As a musical innovator she built on the minstrelsy and vaudeville performative traditions with comedic timing and a hybrid of American blues traditions she encountered in her vast tours across the country. She helped to pioneer a genre that appealed to North and South, rural and urban audiences.
Her signature low and gravelly voice sung with Rainey’s gusto and authoritative style inspired imitators from Louis Armstrong, Janis Joplin and Bonnie Raitt among others.
In her lyrics, Rainey portrayed the black female experience like few others of the time reflecting a wide range of emotions and experiences. In her 1999 book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Angela Davis wrote that Rainey’s songs are full of women who “explicitly celebrate their right to conduct themselves as expansively and even as undesirably as men.” In her songs, she and other black women sleep around for revenge, drink and party all night and generally live lives that “transgressed these ideas of white middle class female respectability.” The portrayals of black female sexuality, including those bucking heteronormative standards, fought ideas of what a woman should be and inspired Alice Walker in developing her characters for The Color Purple. Bragging about sexual escapades was popular in men’s songs at the time but her use of these themes in her works established her as both fiercely independent and fearless and many have drawn connections between her use of these themes and their modern use in Hip-Hop.
She joined a wave of African Americans who quit the south to pursue dreams in desegregated northern cities such as Chicago. She signed with Paramount, a furniture company in Wisconsin that had got into the recording business, and became one of the first recorded blues musicians. Between 1923 and 1928 she made nearly a hundred records – one such recording session forms the basis of Wilson’s play – and had numerous hits.
Rainey, who wrote her own songs, was a mentor to singer Bessie Smith and worked with the likes of Louis Armstrong and Thomas Dorsey, who was musical director on some of her recordings. Her full-throated vocals have inspired singers from Dinah Washington to Janis Joplin. Rainey was also a fashion icon who pioneered flashy, expensive costuming in her performances, wearing ostrich plumes, satin gowns, sequins, gold necklaces, diamond tiaras, and gold teeth.
Rainey was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 1983 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. In 1994, the U.S. Post Office issued a 29-cent commemorative postage stamp honoring her. In 2004, “See See Rider Blues” (performed in 1924) was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and was added to the National Recording Registry by the National Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress.