‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ Sparkles, and So Did the Artist Who Inspired It

Netflix has come down our cyberchimney with an early holiday present this year, the revival of the August Wilson play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

Viola Davis plays a great Ma Rainey in this new filmed version, which became available Friday on Netflix, and Chadwick Boseman left us another gift with his final role, the trumpet player Levee.

Director George C. Wolfe has always done justice to Wilson’s series of plays about the American black experience in the 20th century, and here he conveys the way Wilson turns a dramatized recording session into an examination of how racial oppression shapes both individual lives and a nation.

The show spins out from a real-life 1927 session in which Rainey recorded, among a half dozen other numbers, the play’s title song.

We get into artistic integrity, artistic disagreements and the challenge of keeping up with evolving public tastes, all interwoven with the cold hard truth that success did not earn a black artist an exemption from being treated as black.

Everybody of every color has the blues sometimes. Colored folks had more and more often. Wilson, Wolfe, Davis, Boseman and the rest of a fine cast start with that truth and turn it into a theatrical song.

The revival of the play, first produced on Broadway in 1984, reminds us how sadly timeless many of its themes have remained.

It also provides an occasion to dust off the career and music of the real Ma Rainey, who was known as “The Mother of the Blues” and alongside Bessie Smith gave the blues its first solid foothold in American popular music.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom doesn’t distort Ma Rainey’s life. Her portrayal isn’t wrong. It’s just incomplete. Because Wilson didn’t write the play as a history lesson, it doesn’t flesh out her remarkable career, which tells a rich story of its own.

Gertrude Pridgett was born in either 1886 or maybe 1882, in Georgia or maybe Alabama. It wasn’t considered important in the post-bellum South to catalog the lives of those who just 25 years earlier had mostly been slaves.

Gertrude’s parents were minstrel show performers, one of the few professions Southern whites figured it was okay to let black folks enter.

Gertrude turned out to be a natural entertainer, and by the time she was a teenager she had made entertaining her life’s profession.

She started in local Georgia vaudeville shows and by 1906 had moved up to the vaudeville big time: the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, which were owned by Pat Chappelle before being purchased in 1912 by F.S. Wolcott. (And yes, that’s where The Band got the idea 60 years later for “W.S. Walcott Medicine Show.”)

In 1904 Gertrude Pridgett had married Will “Pa” Rainey, which gave her the “Ma” nickname that she reportedly disliked. In her presence she preferred to be called “Madame.”

She and Rainey, a fellow vaudevillian, performed the music, skits and moves of the day. Their description in the promotions for the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels was “Black Face Song and Dance Comedians, Jubilee Singers [and] Cake Walkers”

She was at other times described as a “coon shouter,” reflecting America’s casual racial vernacular a century ago.

If Wilson’s Ma Rainey seems a bit testy at times, defiant about how she wants her music regarded and presented, it’s easy to see where that could have come from.

While today we know Ma Rainey only from her recordings, it was her live show that made her reputation. She and Will eventually started their own road act, the “Assassinators of the Blues,” and Madame was the showstopper.

She dressed in colorful costumes with plumes and a necklace of 20-dollar gold pieces. Once her recording career started, she would begin her stage act by rising out of a cardboard replica of a giant Victrola.

Her stage song repertoire has been largely lost to history, but it seems to have included what we would come to call the blues pretty early. She told folklorist John Work she first heard a blues song in 1902 and added it to her act then. The way tent shows worked, however, she would also have been singing popular songs of the day.

One of the interesting things about her recording career is how late it started.

The first widely identifiable “blues” song wasn’t recorded until 1920, when Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” was considered a crazy idea. Once it became clear this music had a following, things picked up and record labels started looking for a female blues singer of their own.

In late 1923 Ma Rainey was signed by J. Mayo Williams of Paramount Records, which is both the good and the bad news.

Paramount recorded some of the greatest blues singers ever.

But it recorded them badly.

To compete with the major labels like Columbia — where Bessie Smith had begun recording early in 1923 — Paramount pressed records on the cheap, meaning Ma Rainey, like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charley Patton and dozens of others, was never heard to full advantage on Paramount.

Some blues historians argue that if Rainey had recorded with the cutting-edge electric technology at Columbia, as Bessie Smith did, that today she and Smith would be considered co-equals as the alpha female blues singer of the 1920s.

Rainey was also in at least her late 30s by the time she first recorded, in December 1923, and years of shouting vaudeville songs had taken a toll on her contralto voice.

Still, she had plenty left, and she recorded 94 songs over the next five years at Paramount. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was recorded toward the end, about a years before her final sessions.

It’s often suggested the Depression killed her recording career, because it killed lots of careers once people couldn’t afford to buy records. It’s just as likely she was dropped by Paramount largely for the reason that gets batted around in Wilson’s play: that her classic blues style was considered too old-school for a new wave of blues fans who wanted something livelier and more danceable.

Perhaps for that reason, there isn’t an army of subsequent female blues singers who imitated Ma Rainey.

She was revered nonetheless, as a pioneer who carved out a trail through hard land and helped bring a whole style of music into the American lexicon.

She sang heartbreak blues and no-good-men blues. She recorded love songs about gay men and lesbians. She wrote many of her songs, working from familiar blues lines (“Sitting here wondering / Will a matchbox hold my clothes?”) and adding interesting wrinkles (“Ain’t crazy ‘bout my yeller, ain’t wild about my brown / Makes no difference when the sun goes down”).

Her list of sidemen and band members alone tells you the place she held in the music of the 1920s. Louis Armstrong played behind her before his Hot Five and Hot Sevens sessions. She was accompanied by Fletcher Henderson, Kid Ory, Blind Blake, Buster Bailey, Coleman Hawkins and Tampa Red. One of her bands — the one that backed her on the real-life “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” session — was anchored on piano by Georgia Tom Dorsey, who eventually disavowed the blues and went on to write the gospel standards “Take My Hand Precious Lord” and “Peace in the Valley.”

Ma Rainey is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She’s on a U.S. postage stamp.

And it sure would have been fun to see her on stage at a tent show.

Rainey continued performing for another seven years after her recording career ended. In the mid-1930s she retired to Georgia, where she owned and ran a couple of theaters and became active in church work. .

On Dec. 22, 1939, just about 81 years ago, she suffered a heart attack and died.

August Wilson packed a whole lot of her into Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. She packed a whole lot more into her life.

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”