Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our. 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'. In 1923, Ma became one of the first Black artists signed to Paramount, and she made her first of roughly 100 recordings. 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 … 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. I'm really excited about that," he told The Hollywood Reporter. So, the main question - is Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom a true story? 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. "That they put it in my hands, the estate, and trust me. 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. 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. Why trust us? When the black bottom exploded in popularity during the Roaring Twenties, several artists, including Ma, recorded dance tracks for it. 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. But Ma Rainey also follows the virtuoso trumpet player Levee (Chadwick Boseman) as he clashes with Ma and her producer, Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne). 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. “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 think that [August] captures our humor as Black people," she told CBS News. The stories highlighted in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom are also based on the real experiences of Black Americans in the early 20th century. 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. The following story contains spoilers from the movie “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” now streaming on Netflix. 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. Inspired by the performer, she allegedly started singing the same song as an encore at her own shows. It’s true I wear a collar and tie. The legendary singer was born Gertrude Pridgett on April 26, 1886. 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. 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.". 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. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is actually one of several works included in August's American Century Cycle collection. 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. ", 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. Yes, I said almost. With the Black Bottom story, viewers can get some interesting details about her life and her rise to fame. 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. That said, there are some real historical elements highlighted in the play. 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. For much of the 1920s, Ma lived in Chicago and performed at house parties and concerts around the city while recording tracks for Paramount. 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. That's good enough for me. 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. 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. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission. 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. 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… 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). “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is among the leading contenders in several categories for this year’s Academy Awards. Gertrude “Ma” Rainey was, without any exaggeration, an icon. ', Kevin Costner Shared A New Photo For His Birthday, Watch Steve Harvey Completely Lose It on 'Feud'. 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.”. An unexpected error has occurred with your sign up. 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. All Rights Reserved. “When she started singing, the gold in her teeth would sparkle,” Rainey’s longtime musical director Thomas A. Dorsey wrote in his unpublished memoirs. 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. It’s not hard to draw a line between that impulse and dominant themes running through hip-hop today. By signing up you are agreeing to our. During the '80s and '90s, Ma's contributions to music continued to be recognized. Soon after, in 1904, Ma married her husband, William "Pa" Rainey. 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 And it would likewise inspire imitators for generations to come. No, the movie sadly isn’t based on a true story. "We're going to do one a year for the next nine years. 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. Ma Rainey and her band the Rabbit Foot Minstrels circa 1924 in Chicago, Illinois. Ma was born Gertrude Pridgett in the South under Jim Crow laws to her mother, Ella, and father, Thomas. 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. Based on the true story of a legendary, but historically underappreciated blues singer, we spend most of the film in two rooms, as Ma … And he humanizes us. 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. 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. This content is imported from {embed-name}. 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. 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. No, ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ is no longer based totally on a real story. We may earn commission from links on this page, but we only recommend products we back. 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. 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). 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. But Rainey’s impact on music, fashion and myth-making still lingers. Kayla Keegan covers all things in the entertainment, pop culture, and celebrity space for Good Housekeeping. Born Gertrude Pridgett in Columbus, Georgia in 1886, Ma Rainey was one of the first African-American professional blues singers, and for a long time after her death she was largely … The exploitation of Black artists was widely prominent at the time of Ma's popularity. 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. She was with her first husband, Will Rainey, for at least 10 years before separating, according … Is Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Based on a True Story? Ma Rainey Is Best Known as a Pioneer of the Blues. The "Mother of the Blues", she bridged earlier vaudeville and the authentic expression of southern blues, influencing a generation of blues singers. By 1927 — a.k.a. Her shows were also some of the earliest integrated shows to take place in the Jim Crow South, according to Lieb. 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. 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." (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.) 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. Ma was born Gertrude Pridgett in the South under Jim Crow laws to her mother, Ella, and father, Thomas. 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. 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. 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. However, it’s based on the 2008 Booker Prize-winning fiction novel of the same name by Aravind Adiga. Sadly, just years after her retirement began, Ma died of a heart attack on December 22, 1939. 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. 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 … “They showed you had a whole self and you were not to succumb to being somebody else’s—as they would say—’play toy.’”. Around the same time, Sandra R. Lieb published a book about Ma's life titled Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey. Even … 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). 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. Yes, it is. And he allows us to talk.". 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. Could Amsterdam's New Economic Theory Replace Capitalism? 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. 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. Please try again later. 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. But She Broke More Than Musical Barriers Ma Rainey and her band the Rabbit Foot Minstrels circa 1924 in Chicago, Illinois. “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. 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. 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. According to A&E, she recorded her last session in 1928, producing songs such as "Black Eye Blues," "Sleep Talking Blues," and "Runaway Blues." Though, per The Guardian, records suggest Ma was born in … This is what you need to know about the real Ma Rainey before (or after) watching. 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 She Broke More Than Musical Barriers. 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. Her legacy as an LGBTQ pioneer also continues to be celebrated. Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. During the Black Arts Movement of the '60s, poet Al Young famously wrote "A Dance for Ma Rainey," to honor her artistry. 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. 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. ... was a true … Watching Viola depict Ma, it's clear the Oscar-winning actress did a lot of preparation to portray the powerful, bawdy, and charismatic singer. But despite its real-life protagonist, the film’s plot is actually a work of fiction. Postal Service commemorative stamp in 1994. 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. Rainey had a perfect voice for her new brand of music: low and gravelly, filled with both raw pathos and brassy authority. As race records flourished in the 1920s, record companies scrambled to sign Black artists while undermining them and exploiting them at every step. 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. 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. 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. Who Is Ma Rainey? 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." “I loved the way they dealt with sexuality, with the relationships with men,” she says. 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. The stage name “Ma Rainey” would come in the aftermath of her 1904 marriage to Will Rainey, a comedian and singer. Her ability to negotiate sizable contracts, combined with her generosity, made her a beloved bandleader among musicians. Most recently, in 2017, the Rainey McCullers School of Arts in Columbus, Georgia was named after both Ma and novelist Carson McCullers. 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