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Album Review

Apparently inspired by August Wilson's play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1982), this 1998 Giants of Jazz compilation samples 24 of the archetypal blues singer's classic sides recorded between December 1923 and September 1928. As that more or less covers a time line that touches upon her entire recording career, this disc may serve as a good solid taste of her potent artistry. Audio quality is better than on previous reissues; considering the fact that these recordings were originally carved onto notoriously muddy-sounding Paramount 78 rpm platters, what you get here sounds remarkably good. Gertrude Pridgett "Ma" Rainey (1886-1939) was a powerful woman who sang about real life in a manner that was more honest and forthright than almost anybody else on the scene until her friend Bessie Smith developed her own streetwise and slightly more urban take on the blues. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is one of the few humorous recordings that Rainey ever made. The Black Bottom was a dance that was every bit as popular, for awhile, as the Charleston. Obviously the play on words is milked for maximum bawdiness, and this gives us a taste of the traveling minstrel show approach that was the foundation of both Rainey's and Smith's professional existence. "See See Rider Blues" is utterly essential, and "Prove It on Me Blues" is a proud statement about being a woman who prefers the intimate company of other women. Speaking of outspokenness, her famous "Hear Me Talking to You" is conspicuously absent from the track listing, and whoever slapped this package together probably also should have chucked in the "Ma and Pa Poorhouse Blues," a duet with singing banjoist Papa Charlie Jackson from her second-to-last-ever recording session. What did make it onto this disc certainly merits careful inspection. A glimpse beneath the discographical surface reveals the presence of pianists Georgia Tom Dorsey, Lovie Austin, Jimmy Blythe and Fletcher Henderson; here's guitarist Tampa Red, trombonist Big Charlie Green, cornetist Tommy Ladnier (his playing with Rainey is often extraordinarily expressive), and reedmen Jimmy O'Bryant, Buster Bailey, Don Redman and Barney Bigard. 23-year-old Louis Armstrong may be heard on "See See Rider Blues" and "Jelly Bean Blues"; 21-year-old Coleman Hawkins wielded a thunderous bass saxophone throughout the session that resulted in "Stack O'Lee Blues" and "Wringin' and Twistin' Blues." Rainey's music has a special sort of charm all its own, and might grow on you before you even realize what's happened. If after hearing this little sampler you find yourself grooving on the majesty of her no-frills approach to the blues (and life!) give some thought to the prospect of savoring her complete works in sequential order, rather than settling for the illogical, inverted chronology presented here.


Born: April 26, 1886 in Columbus, GA

Genre: Blues

Years Active: '10s, '20s, '30s

Ma Rainey wasn't the first blues singer to make records, but by all rights she probably should have been. In an era when women were the marquee names in blues, Rainey was once the most celebrated of all; the "Mother of the Blues" had been singing the music for more than 20 years before she made her recording debut (Paramount, 1923). With the advent of blues records, she became even more influential, immortalizing such songs as "See See Rider," "Bo-Weavil Blues," and "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." Like...
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1923-1928, Ma Rainey
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