Sunday, November 1, 2009

November 1: Ma Rainey, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"

Artist: Ma Rainey
Album: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Year: 1924-1928 (recorded)/1975 (released)
Label: Yazoo

There are countless cases throughout music where artists were tragically ahead of the times. In most cases, this simply meant that their music was so innovative that the general public simply could not grasp the genius behind their music. However, in the first decades of the twentieth, many artists were literally ahead of the times, as any form of mass recording had simply not yet been invented. Though there were undoubtedly thousands of amazing artists who were never heard due to this, a number of these extremely early voices were preserved for generations to come. As the 1920's set in and the United States began an economic downturn, blues singers, primarily female blues singers, became the most celebrated musical artists in the land. While singers like Bessie Smith and Mamie Smith went on to become household names, both of these brilliant singers took much of their style from the singer who has been given the title, "Mother Of The Blues," Ma Rainey. Truth be told, by the time recorded music became a reality, Ma Rainey had already been in high demand for more than two decades. As one of the greatest singers of her generation, her recordings are scattered across dozens of sessions, and many collections of her music have been released since the advent of the CD. By far, the finest collection of Ma Rainey's work, and therefore representing some of the greatest singing in history, is the fantastic 1975 compilation release, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.

Ma Rainey is truly as much of an innovator and icon as one can be. Aside from her stunning voice, the reason she is called the "Mother Of The Blues" is because she herself often claimed that she was the one who came up with the actual term" blues" singing. As the story goes, in the early 1900's, Rainey was traveling with a vaudeville act when she heard a song sung by a girl in Missouri and learned the song later that day. The songs' sad, slow style was like nothing else she'd ever heard, and Rainey instantly incorporated it into her act, and it became well liked by audiences. This, in essence, is one of the many theories on "how" blues singing in its formal sense began. It was also in these vaudeville days where Rainey encountered a young Bessie Smith, when Smith joined the company as a dancer. There are many conflicting reports concerning Rainey's influence on Smith and vice versa, but one true fact is that the two were friends for life, and were strong supporters of the other as they both pursued their careers. Rainey's place and status as one of musics' elite as been solidified countless times over the decades, from lyrical tributes on Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited to August Wilson's 1982 play about African American struggle, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.

Since Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a compilation of various recording sessions, along with the fact that, in the early days of recording, accurate records of session musicians were rarely kept, it is quite difficult to give proper credit to all of the musicians that make this collection of songs so brilliant. The musicians take the classic sound of the time and are able to make it swing, whilst simultaneously keeping in line with Ma Rainey's soulful, sad singing. Though most of the musicians remain unnamed, there are a handful of well known performers who are present throughout the recordings. Sitting in on may of the tracks and playing clarinet is jazz giant, Don Redman. Having played with everyone from Smith to Louis Armstrong to Fats Waller, Redman is easily one of the most heavily recorded players of his generation. By far one of the most important saxophone players ever, Coleman Hawkins was a rising star when he sat in to record for Ma Rainey. He is one of the few musicians who you can actually pick out in the band, as his tone and style are quite evident even this early in his career. Also found on a number of tracks in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is piano master, "Georgia" Tom Dorsey. The final player on the sessions who's contributions are noted are those of trombone innovator, Kid Ory. Though this does leave a number of musicians unnamed, those who were present for the scattered recording sessions serve as a testament to the caliber of player that Ma Rainey garnered due to her amazing singing abilities.

With her deep, low voice, one can quickly hear how much Ma Rainey's singing style influenced nearly every blues and soul singer in recorded history. Loaded with emotion, and taking the lead of every song with amazing confidence, there are truly few singers who have as strong and original a style as that of Ma Rainey. Along with her innovative singing style, the truth of the matter is, Ma Rainey also had songs that were of a somewhat controversial nature. Often pushing the boundaries on what was acceptable, her songs are often a bit more risqué and "steamy" than those of her contemporaries. There are also a handful of lyrics that seem quite ambiguous in nature, and even some with rather clear lesbian themes. This was due to the fact that Rainey was somewhat open in her bi-sexual nature. In fact, in 1925, Rainey was arrested in Chicago for an "indecent" party, as she was found in a room full of half naked women. This incident, and many similar can be found in the songs of Ma Rainey, and such bravery in lyrics at that time was simply unheard of. This more open, almost sultry approach to her lyrics and singing helped to pave the way for later artists who wished to approach topics that were considered "taboo." Whether it was her voice, or the content of her songs, there have been few artists as amazing and influential as Ma Rainey.

There are innovators, and then there are those who truly began a new form of music. Though there are a few others who may lay claim to the founding, none make as strong a case as Ma Rainey when it comes to the origins of popular blues signing. With her powerful, almost growling voice, and the loads of emotion with which she sings, Rainey truly created the blueprint from which nearly every artist after created their sound. Making her name in the vaudeville era, Rainey's career had all but ended when the popularity of recorded music began, following The Great Depression era. Due to the prime of her career coming before this popularity, the hundred or so recordings that exist were scattered over a number of sessions, which happen to include a small handful of fellow music legends. Regardless of whom she has backing her musically, Ma Rainey's voice shines on every single track, and her vocal dexterity remains often copied, but largely unrivaled to this day. With countless compilations being created over the years, it is often difficult to find an album that accurately depicts everything that makes the music of Ma Rainey so amazing. Though later compilations contain more songs due to the advent of the compact disc, to fully appreciate Ma Rainey, one need look no further than then extraordinary 1975 release, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.

Standout tracks: "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," "Booze And Blues," and "Don't Fish In My Sea."

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