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“Ma” Rainey, Blues Singer

Among the many celebrities that have appeared on the stage of the Springer Opera House was a certain Columbus native who is more often than not remembered by her famous stage-name, “Ma” Rainey. Born in Columbus in 1886, young Gertrude Pridgett made her first public appearance at the turn-of-the-century before Springer patrons in a local talent show called “Bunch of Blackberries”. Within the next few years, she married a fellow performer, Will “Pa” Rainey, and they began touring the South, singing and dancing in black minstrel troupes on the Southern vaudeville circuit.

Because Ma Rainey’s “blues” style of singing was so original, she enjoyed success through most of the 1920s as a talent whose voice was immortalized on some ninety-four recordings that were sold around the country. As “Mother of the Blues”, Ma Rainey recorded alongside such “jazz” notables as Louis Armstrong and Tommy Dorsey.

After an impressive career on the road, Ma Rainey returned to her native Columbus in 1935, where she spent the last four years of her life. Gertrude Pridgett Rainey died at the age of fifty-three in 1939 and is buried in Columbus’s Porterdale Cemetery.

Playwright August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was a theatrical success on roadway in 1984 and was presented at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre in 1991. The play is based on actual situations in which black artists like Ma Rainey found themselves working during the 1920s. Efforts to bring more attention to the artistic achievements of this great performer continue to be made in Columbus. A plaque, placed in her memory, hangs inside the Springer Opera House.

Her house, located at 805 Fifth Avenue, was nominated for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. It was fully restored in 2006 and is now open to the public.