But She Broke More Than Musical Barriers. The subject of Oscar-tipped Netflix drama Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was a pioneering queer black singer who battled white producers for control Last modified on … That's good enough for me. In an era dominated by white Tin Pan Alley composers, Rainey imbued her songs with the depth and diversity of her own experiences as well those of other Black women, portraying anguish, rage, euphoria, love, sexual desire and much more. Good Housekeeping participates in various affiliate marketing programs, which means we may get paid commissions on editorially chosen products purchased through our links to retailer sites. “Have you ever been drunk, slept in all your clothes? Why trust us? Ma was born Gertrude Pridgett in the South under Jim Crow laws to her mother, Ella, and father, Thomas. Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. Rainey had a perfect voice for her new brand of music: low and gravelly, filled with both raw pathos and brassy authority. Suits were far from the only fashion statement that Rainey made during her performing career. The George C. Wolfe-helmed film takes plenty of liberties with the August Wilson play it's based on, which in and of itself took creative license with the blues musician's life. Here are the ways in which Rainey was ahead of her time. She and her band could make a sizable $350 a week on tour with the Theater Owners’ Booking Association (for comparison, George Williams and Bessie Brown could make $175, while superstar Bessie Smith raked in $600). While the protagonist is based totally on the very actual African-American blues singer Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, the script itself used to be no longer stimulated through proper events. Ma Rainey Is Best Known as a Pioneer of the Blues. An unexpected error has occurred with your sign up. Though her music temporarily fell out of print when the Great Depression hit and Paramount closed down, her catalog was revived in the 1960s when the songs were picked up by Milestone and Biograph labels, per the New York Times. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is actually one of several works included in August's American Century Cycle collection. For instance, the song Ma is seen recording with her band, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," was an actual number written in response to the 1920s dance craze known as the black bottom, which originated in the Southern Black community (and was reportedly named after a predominantly Black neighborhood in Detroit). Who Is Ma Rainey? Executives coerced blues singers—especially those who had no experience in the recording industry—to sign away future royalties or even ownership of their songs, leaving many artists destitute after the peak of their popularity. But this particular based-on-a-true-story movie is first and foremost a based-on-a-play-that-is-based-on-a-true-story movie; more specifically, August Wilson’s 1982 play of the same name. That said, there are some real historical elements highlighted in the play. Rainey sang about “sissy men” and mannish women, seemingly without judgment; onstage, she performed with “uninhibited, provocative movements,” according to Sandra Lieb, author of Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey. The stories highlighted in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom are also based on the real experiences of Black Americans in the early 20th century. But while Rainey leaned into onstage maximalism, she was also mesmerized by the blues guitarists she saw on the road who took a more spartan, improvisatory and emotionally raw approach to their music. The New York Times reports that the duo eventually became known as "Ma and Pa Rainey, the Assassinators of the Blues." From left, Chadwick Boseman as Levee, Colman Domingo as Cutler, Viola Davis as Ma Rainey, Michael Potts as Slow Drag, and Glynn Turman as Toldeo in 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'. Postal Service commemorative stamp in 1994. Thanks to her showmanship, songwriting and powerful voice, Rainey earned a reputation as one of the most dynamic performers in America in the 1920s, and her tour earnings reflected that popularity. * The request timed out and you did not successfully sign up. According to A&E, she recorded her last session in 1928, producing songs such as "Black Eye Blues," "Sleep Talking Blues," and "Runaway Blues." No, the movie sadly isn’t based on a true story. "We're going to do one a year for the next nine years. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the Netflix adaptation of August Wilson’s play, takes place in a Chicago recording studio in 1927. When the black bottom exploded in popularity during the Roaring Twenties, several artists, including Ma, recorded dance tracks for it. Yes, I said almost. By signing up you are agreeing to our. ', Kevin Costner Shared A New Photo For His Birthday, Watch Steve Harvey Completely Lose It on 'Feud'. Ma Rainey and her band the Rabbit Foot Minstrels circa 1924 in Chicago, Illinois. Ma was still performing in the early 1930s, but after officially quitting show business in 1935, she returned to Columbus, Georgia to run two entertainment venues and participate in church activities. The legendary singer was born Gertrude Pridgett on April 26, 1886. In the 1980s, Ma was front and center in pop culture once again thanks to the Broadway staging of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, starring Theresa Merritt as the acclaimed singer (in the 2003 revival, Whoopi Goldberg portrayed Ma). If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission. They would travel from town to town with the popular Rabbit Foot Minstrels (around this time, famous blues singer Bessie Smith got her start singing as one of Ma's performers). Read Tiger Woods's Agent's Reaction to New HBO Doc, Here's What We Know About 'Bling Empire' Season 2, Ken Jennings Got Majorly Trolled on 'Jeopardy! Ma Rainey Is Best Known as a Pioneer of the Blues. After this, The Guardian reports that Paramount ended up canceling her recording contract "because her style of blues was no longer deemed fashionable.". This content is imported from {embed-name}. Per the critic, legend has it that during a visit to Missouri in 1902, Gertrude first heard a country blues singer. But Ma Rainey also follows the virtuoso trumpet player Levee (Chadwick Boseman) as he clashes with Ma and her producer, Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne). The "Mother of the Blues", she bridged earlier vaudeville and the authentic expression of southern blues, influencing a generation of blues singers. You can unsubscribe at any time. Is McGee Really Leaving 'NCIS' This Year? While this contrast may have rung true in the late ‘20s, it was Rainey who was pioneering a new sound just a few years earlier. We Need Monthly Stimulus Checks Until the Pandemic Is Over. Rainey was born in the 1880s in Columbus, Ga.; she performed on the vaudeville circuit for many years across the South, inheriting some performative traditions from minstrelsy and honing her outsize stage presence and comic timing. "I think that [August] captures our humor as Black people," she told CBS News. But She Broke More Than Musical Barriers Ma Rainey and her band the Rabbit Foot Minstrels circa 1924 in Chicago, Illinois. Though, per The Guardian, records suggest Ma was born in Alabama in September of 1882, the singer herself often said she was born on April 26, 1886 in Columbus, Georgia. In 1904, she married comedian, dancer, and singer Will Rainey; together they toured the South with a variety of minstrel groups, billing themselves as Ma and Pa Rainey. Though, per The Guardian, records suggest Ma was born in … I'm really excited about that," he told The Hollywood Reporter. In it, Viola Davis plays Rainey with both regal composure and pitch-black fury over the course of a sweltering afternoon recording session in 1927, as she fights for respect and artistic autonomy. Born Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridgett in either Alabama or Georgia, in 1882 or 1886, Ma Rainey would become the "Mother of Blues" in her lifetime. Yes, it is. And he allows us to talk.". "He captures our humor, our vulnerability, our tragedies, our trauma. Onstage, she wore satin gowns and diamond tiaras; a necklace of gold coins often hung from her neck. The gritty-voiced Joplin was open about how Rainey was one of her biggest influences, and so was Bonnie Raitt: during Rainey’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction in 1990, she said that “the fire and gusto of Ma’s singing was exceptional.”. The following story contains spoilers from the movie “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” now streaming on Netflix. “When she started singing, the gold in her teeth would sparkle,” Rainey’s longtime musical director Thomas A. Dorsey wrote in his unpublished memoirs. rumored relationships with her female dancers and with, The True Story Behind New Movie 'Breakthrough', The True Story Behind 'Mindhunter' on Netflix, The True Story Behind 'The Last Czars' on Netflix, The Haunting True Story of Henry Lee Lucas, The True Story Behind 'The Pharmacist' on Netflix, Of Lice and Men: The Story of a True Classic. Williams was known to be just as cutthroat as his white counterparts: he would later say that he subscribed to the industry maxim “screw the artist before he screws you,” and that nine out of 10 Paramount artists received no royalties regardless of their record sales. In his play, August made sure to celebrate Ma's sexuality (including her rumored relationships with her female dancers and with Bessie Smith) with the inclusion of the fictional character Dussie Mae, portrayed by Taylour Paige in the Netflix movie. Please try again later. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content at piano.io, The Sad Backstory Behind Disney+'s 'WandaVision'. But despite its real-life protagonist, the film’s plot is actually a work of fiction. Sadly, just years after her retirement began, Ma died of a heart attack on December 22, 1939. The exploitation of Black artists was widely prominent at the time of Ma's popularity. Like Viola, the real Ma Rainey was an incredibly gifted performer. Ma Rainey influenced future legends like Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, but it was her own struggle to remain true to herself as a Black artist during the early 20 th century that became the inspiration for Pulitzer Prize-winner August Wilson’s play, the first of his works to be performed on Broadway Although Viola worried she wouldn't be able to sing well enough to play the iconic "Mother of Blues," after reading the script she knew she had to get involved. (The title song of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” for instance, refers both to sex as well as the Black neighborhoods of cities across the country, including Detroit.) Ma Rainey influenced future legends like Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, but it was her own struggle to remain true to herself as a Black artist … "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" is a new Netflix film inspired by the true-life story of the blues legend. Ma Rainey 's Black Bottom takes place during one day in the blues singer's storied life. In the new film, Rainey’s style of blues is portrayed as archaic compared to the faster hot jazz preferred by her young band member Levee (Chadwick Boseman). The real Rainey would be out of a job just a year later: classic blues was fading in popularity in favor of swing jazz, and the advent of talking pictures had dented the centrality of live performances. And it would likewise inspire imitators for generations to come. Her ability to negotiate sizable contracts, combined with her generosity, made her a beloved bandleader among musicians. So, the main question - is Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom a true story? Watching Viola depict Ma, it's clear the Oscar-winning actress did a lot of preparation to portray the powerful, bawdy, and charismatic singer. The White Tiger Is a Complex Crime Drama with a Dazzling Performance at Its Center, Oxford-AstraZeneca Vaccine Approval the Most Globally Important, Save on the cover price and get Free Issues, Sign up to receive the top stories you need to know now on politics, health and more, © 2021 TIME USA, LLC. Is The White Tiger based on a true story? In an article for The New York Times before his death in 2005, the legendary dramatist wrote: To honor August, Denzel made it known that he intends to bring all 10 of the American Century Cycle plays to the big screen in the years to come. Gertrude "Ma" Rainey (born Gertrude Pridgett, 1882 or 1886 – December 22, 1939) was one of the earliest African-American professional blues singers and one of the first generation of blues singers to record. Please attempt to sign up again. So Rainey began to incorporate blues songs and structures into performances, helping to pioneer a genre that would both entertain crowds while also speaking candidly about Black life in America. Together, they created a double act known as … Ma Rainey's Black Bottom follows the story of real Chicago blues musician, Ma Rainey, but how much of her portrayal in Ruben Santiago-Hudson's adaptation remains accurate to the true story? Viola Davis stars as the blues pioneer and queer icon in the film adaptation of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. On December 18, Netflix released the new film Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, a drama adapted from a play of the same name, written by late Pulitzer-winning playwright August Wilson. In this week’s Sunday Spotlight, NBC’s Rehema Ellis shares the real-life story and music behind the movie, which stars Viola Davis as an early pioneer of the blues. The movie traces the journey of this amazing woman who became one of the most popular singers of all time. Around the same time, Sandra R. Lieb published a book about Ma's life titled Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey. Per Robert Springer's "Folklore, Commercialism and Exploitation: Copyright in the Blues" and History.com, it was common practice for white-owned record labels to get Black artists to sign away their recording rights (and then have white artists release covers of their songs), underpay Black artists, and make it difficult for Black artists to receive the royalties they earned. All Rights Reserved. Gertrude “Ma” Rainey was, without any exaggeration, an icon. This is the true story of the life of Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, the “Mother of the Blues,” and the subject of the Netflix film starring Oscar-winner Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. By Joanna Langfield Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom This adaptation of the August Wilson drama is revelatory, beautifully staged as well as acted and almost perfect. During the '80s and '90s, Ma's contributions to music continued to be recognized. However, it’s based on the 2008 Booker Prize-winning fiction novel of the same name by Aravind Adiga. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, at their web site. Anthony Mackie is unable to watch his late friend Chadwick Boseman in Netflix’s critically acclaimed “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” because it would be too emotional an experience for him. Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images. Even … Angela Davis, in her 2011 book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, 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.” They wield pistols, carouse until the morning, dodge the police, and sleep around for revenge. Many of those, like “Moonshine Blues” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” would become standards of the genre to be covered time and again. Long before bling was in vogue (or even a word), Rainey traveled with four trunks full of accessories which included ostrich plumes, sequins and jewelry. No, ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ is no longer based totally on a real story. To depict the Black experience throughout the 20th century, August penned a play for each decade — Ma Rainey's Black Bottom was set in the 1920s, The Piano Lesson was in the '30s, and Fences (both Denzel and Viola starred in the 2016 film version of the play) was in the '50s. All of the events that unfold in the Netflix movie — which shows a day in the life of Ma Rainey and her band — did not actually happen quite as depicted. But while Rainey earned a good amount of money, it wasn’t nearly the amount that she deserved. “I used to dream of joining Ma Rainey’s band because she treated her musicians so wonderfully, and she always bought them an instrument,” the jazz icon Lionel Hampton is quoted as saying in Chris Albertson’s biography of Bessie Smith, Bessie. “I loved the way they dealt with sexuality, with the relationships with men,” she says. Most recently, in 2017, the Rainey McCullers School of Arts in Columbus, Georgia was named after both Ma and novelist Carson McCullers. As race records flourished in the 1920s, record companies scrambled to sign Black artists while undermining them and exploiting them at every step. In 1935, she pivoted to another kind of leadership when she bought two movie halls: the Lyric and Airdome theaters, in Columbus Ga. She managed them until her death four years later. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is set in 1920s Chicago, and predominantly deals with themes of Black art and culture, racial tensions, and power dynamics. In 1925, she was arrested for throwing an “indecent” and “intimate” party with a group of young women, forcing Bessie Smith—a possible lover of hers—to bail her out. Is Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Based on a True Story? With the Black Bottom story, viewers can get some interesting details about her life and her rise to fame. And he humanizes us. So, yes, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is based on a true story, in that Ma Rainey was a real person, but most of the actual plot is fictional. While other blues singers of the day, like Bessie Smith and Mamie Smith, largely sang songs written by others, Rainey penned at least one third of the songs she recorded. Based on the true story of a legendary, but historically underappreciated blues singer, we spend most of the film in two rooms, as Ma … In 1923, Ma became one of the first Black artists signed to Paramount, and she made her first of roughly 100 recordings. While Ma did live in Chicago in 1927, had relationships with women, and traveled with a band, all of the characters in the play — Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), Butler (Colman Domingo), Slow Drag (Michael Potts), Toledo (Glynn Turman), Sylvester (Dusan Brown), Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), and Levee (Chadwick Boseman) — are fictional. This approach captured the imagination of many Black Americans at a transformative moment in which, thanks to the Great Migration, the longstanding divides between North and South, rural and urban, antique and modern were becoming eroded or blurred. A few years later, she would release “Prove It On Me Blues,” considered one of the earliest odes to lesbianism on record: “Went out last night with a crowd of my friends,” she sang. Rainey didn’t just popularize the genre of classic blues: she helped write it. It’s true I wear a collar and tie. Inspired by the performer, she allegedly started singing the same song as an encore at her own shows. "That they put it in my hands, the estate, and trust me. “They showed you had a whole self and you were not to succumb to being somebody else’s—as they would say—’play toy.’”. While Ma Rainey was very much a real blues trailblazer with an unforgettable persona, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom isn't actually based on a true story. Rainey gleefully leaned into in the sexual revolution of the Roaring Twenties, excelling at writing and performing the types of double entendres often used at the time. When looking at the new Netflix drama Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, one may come to the conclusion that the film is based on a true story.After all, the movie’s lead character — blues singer Ma Rainey — was a real person. Inside Viola Davis's Marriage to Julius Tennon, This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page to help users provide their email addresses. She was with her first husband, Will Rainey, for at least 10 years before separating, according … But Rainey’s impact on music, fashion and myth-making still lingers. Ma is also credited for breaking new ground through the narratives told in her songs, as several of the tunes feature strong feminist elements in the lyrics, as Angela Davis noted in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism. The stage name “Ma Rainey” would come in the aftermath of her 1904 marriage to Will Rainey, a comedian and singer. In 2004, her hit "See See Rider" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and added to the Library of Congress National Recording Registry. ", How to Best Alleviate COVID-19 Symptoms at Home, These Reusable Grocery Bags Make Shopping a Breeze, How to Read the 'Bridgerton' Books in Order. She was inducted into both the Blues Hall of Fame in 1983 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, and honored with a U.S. the year Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is set in — Ma was in her forties and had already made recordings with various musicians under the name Ma Rainey and Her Georgia Jazz Band, including music giants such as Willie "The Lion" Smith and Louis Armstrong. When she was just a teenager, Gertrude started traveling with vaudeville acts, which New York Times jazz critic Giovanni Russonello describes as "cabaret-like shows that developed out of minstrelsy in the mid-1800s and catered largely to white audiences." It was common practice for Williams to buy songs outright from artists for $5 to $20, keep the royalties for himself, and sit back and earn a steady living off them while the artists themselves struggled. This is what you need to know about the real Ma Rainey before (or after) watching. “Through storytelling in both the words that she sang and also her lifestyle, she fought against heteronormative ideas of what a woman should be.”, In a 1984 interview with the New York Times, Alice Walker says that the songwriting of Rainey and other blues singers was pivotal in helping to form the characters in The Color Purple. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on Netflix ends—as many films based on a true story tend to—with a photo montage of the real-life characters depicted on screen. All the characters in the story are struggling in one way or another — even the famous Ma Rainey — and the story suggests that interpersonal conflict is a symptom of greater social issues. Per Rolling Stone, Ma is hailed as a queer icon for being so open about her attraction to both men and women in her songs, though she never publicly identified as bisexual. Kayla Keegan covers all things in the entertainment, pop culture, and celebrity space for Good Housekeeping. According to a New York Times obituary published in 2019 for its "Overlooked" series highlighting luminaries whose deaths went unreported in the paper, Ma was the first entertainer to "bridge the divide" between vaudeville and "authentic Black Southern folk expression." Her shows were also some of the earliest integrated shows to take place in the Jim Crow South, according to Lieb. While very few public performers were fully out of the closet, Rainey didn’t try very hard to hide her bisexuality. For much of the 1920s, Ma lived in Chicago and performed at house parties and concerts around the city while recording tracks for Paramount. By 1927 — a.k.a. Could Amsterdam's New Economic Theory Replace Capitalism? Soon after, in 1904, Ma married her husband, William "Pa" Rainey. Her legacy as an LGBTQ pioneer also continues to be celebrated. Rainey’s duality made her a hit before Southern audiences as well as in Chicago where she recorded—and set a template for future waves of high-low Black musical innovation. Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our. Produced by Denzel Washington and starring Viola Davis, the movie centers around real-life blues pioneer Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, on the day that she and her band record a song called "Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.". Rainey was fired from Paramount in 1928; it is unclear if she received royalties for her work. That style is now known as “classic blues”—but at the time, it was a unique and radical hybrid of several American forms, and Rainey was pivotal in creating and popularizing it. Makes the wind blow all the while.” A cartoon ad for the song released by her record label Paramount embraces this genderbending: She wears a men’s three piece suit and fedora and mingles with two women on a corner, while a policeman watches suspiciously in the shadows. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is among the leading contenders in several categories for this year’s Academy Awards. After separating from William in 1916, Ma started her own performing company called Madam Gertrude Ma Rainey and Her Georgia Smart Set, and she continued to grow in popularity. And when you wake up, feel like you want a dose?” Rainey asks in “Dead Drunk Blues.”, “She transgressed these ideas of white middle class female respectability,” Kimberly Mack, an assistant literature professor at the University of Toledo and the author of Fictional Blues: Narrative Self-Invention from Bessie Smith to Jack White, said in an interview. Ma Rainey, which began streaming on Netflix today, marks the final role for Boseman, who died of complications with colon cancer in August after keeping his diagnosis a secret for four years. It’s not hard to draw a line between that impulse and dominant themes running through hip-hop today. Ma Rainey, known as the “Mother of the Blues,” isn’t nearly as famous as the blues artists who built on her foundation, from Bessie Smith to Billie Holiday. ... was a true … Image Source: Netflix While Ma Rainey was very much a real blues trailblazer with an unforgettable persona, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom isn't actually based on a true story… Ma Rainey was also married twice—to two men. “Her sexual braggadocio, popular in men’s blues songs, helped to create her legend as both fearless and sexually independent,” Mack says. During this time, she brought massive blues hits like "Moonshine Blues," "See See Rider," and "Trust No Man" to the mainstream. A young Louis Armstrong learned from Rainey while playing with her on several recordings (including “See See Rider,” a song that would later be covered by Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Janis Joplin and Old Crow Medicine Show). We may earn commission from links on this page, but we only recommend products we back. And this type of subterfuge was common at Rainey’s label Paramount, despite the fact that it was largely operated by a Black producer, J. Mayo Williams. But her overlooked legacy is being revisited thanks to the release of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a film adaptation of August Wilson’s acclaimed 1982 play that arrived on Netflix on Friday. “They must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men. Ma was born Gertrude Pridgett in the South under Jim Crow laws to her mother, Ella, and father, Thomas. It doesn't get any better than that. During the Black Arts Movement of the '60s, poet Al Young famously wrote "A Dance for Ma Rainey," to honor her artistry. 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