The subject of Oscar-tipped Netflix drama Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was a pioneering queer black singer who battled white producers for control
‘I don’t care if you were black, white, green or yellow, she owned the stage and you were mesmerised by her performance’ … Ma Rainey Photograph: Max Jones Files/Redferns
The Guardian –David Smith in Washington
When Florene Dawkins helped come to the rescue of a house that once belonged to Ma Rainey, the “Mother of the Blues”, it was boarded up, frequented by thieves and on the brink of collapse.
“The staircase was almost leaning out of the building,” Dawkins, 65, recalls by phone. “The house was actually in two parts. It was like an explosion went off and we had to come and put a giant puzzle back together.”
Three decades and much fundraising later, the fixer-upper has flowered into a museum in Columbus on Georgia’s Chattahoochee River. Now Dawkins hopes that the release of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a film adaptation of August Wilson’s play starring Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman, will put it firmly on the map.
Davis is magnificently caked in greasepaint and sweat and wears gold teeth and heavy padding, at once pantomime dame and tragic queen: she is capricious and domineering yet bears the weight of generational trauma. “They don’t care nothing about me,” she says of her white record producers. “All they want is my voice.”
Rainey – pioneering as a blues singer, businesswoman and liberated bisexual – grew up in the Jim Crow south in the late 19th century. By her own account, she was born Gertrude Pridgett in Columbus on 26 April 1886, although other records suggest she was born in Alabama in September 1882.
She married singer, dancer and comedian William Rainey when she was 18 and, billed as Ma and Pa Rainey, they toured as performers for minstrel shows that travelled towns setting up their own tents and stages. After the couple separated in 1916, Rainey launched her own touring performance company, Madam Gertrude Ma Rainey and Her Georgia Smart Set.
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.
Dawkins says: “She laid the foundation. A lot of legendary people started with Ma Rainey or grew with Ma Rainey. I read somewhere Thomas Dorsey said, ‘After performing and working with Ma Rainey there was nowhere else to go but to the Lord’.
“I think her voice made a statement. It was strong. It was unapologetic. They didn’t have all the bells and whistles and the amplifiers we have in music today. It was just music point blank to your soul. It was how she was feeling. Like the blues is your story, she told her story.”
Rainey is believed to have remarried, though little is known about her second husband. She is also rumoured to have had relationships with women including Smith. According to the New York Times, on one occasion Rainey was caught by police in a sexual dalliance with some of her female dancers in Chicago. Smith had to bail her out of jail.
Her lyrics were also out and proud. In “Prove It on Me Blues”, she sings: “Went out last night with a crowd of my friends./ They must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men./ It’s true I wear a collar and a tie,/ Makes the wind blow all the while./ Don’t you say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me./ You sure got to prove it on me.”
Dawkins comments: “People in the audience didn’t even know some of the things she was singing about. I think people close to her did but a lot of the time people didn’t understand the lyrics. They just thought it was blues music. You have to remember back in that time no one was open to those type of relationships.”
Rainey’s defiance of social mores threw them into sharp relief. She was, Dawkins argues, a woman ahead of her time. “She said what she meant and she meant what she said. She didn’t apologise for her lifestyle or what she was and that’s what appeals to me.”
Rainey lived in Chicago for much of the 1920s and early 1930s. After Paramount cancelled her recording contract because her style of blues was no longer deemed fashionable, she returned to live touring and performing at private parties. Following the death of her sister and mother, she retired to Columbus in 1935 and is believed to have owned two theatres. After she died from a heart attack in 1939, her death certificate gave her profession as “housekeeping”.
Wilson, dubbed the “American Bard”, wrote Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – the title comes from Rainey’s song of the same name, which refers to the black bottom dance from the Roaring Twenties – in 1982 and it is produced regularly (the superb film version is currently in cinemas and arrives on Netflix on 18 December).
Then last year Rainey featured in a New York Times series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths went unreported at the time. The article observed: “With a mouthful of gold teeth, richly dark skin and flashy jewelry dangling about her, Rainey cast a striking figure, with a ruggedly powerful voice and lavish stage presence to match.”
Dawkins welcomes the renewed interest in this neglected, gifted maverick. “The world is getting to know her,” she says. “I would love to see a full movie of her because Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is only one segment and it doesn’t show her life. So this is opening up the door maybe to a full movie to come about Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey from Columbus, Georgia.”
Such recognition would be just reward for Dawkins’s efforts as director of the Ma Rainey Museum of the Blues, which has inevitably been hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Her favourite exhibits include an original minstrel poster, a portrait of Rainey by a local artist and a piano that remained in the house through thick and thin but was painted lime green. “Not even the vandals would touch it but it is now restored and it looks beautiful.”
Dawkins traces her devotion to preserving Rainey’s legacy to her own childhood in Hot Springs, Arkansas, where her aunt and grandmother owned a club that imbued her with the music from that era. She remembers her parents taking time off work in the 1960s to drive people to the polls and show them how to vote. She describes the politics and history of the time as her personal blues.
“I have to give credit to so many African American men and women who laid the foundation, who travelled, who suffered the indignations and exploitation,” she reflects. “Ma Rainey was one of them and she still persevered. I don’t care if you were black, white, green or yellow, she owned the stage and you were mesmerised by her performance. Her voice was raw and pure and she captivated her audience.
“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.’”
- Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is now showing at select cinemas and will be released on Netflix on 18 December