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Last weekend, HBO debuted, Bessie a new biographical drama focused on the life of blues legend Bessie Smith, starring Queen Latifah in the title role. While much of the film detailed Smith’s rise to becoming the “Empress of the Blues,” it also highlighted an important mentor – the “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey played in the film by Mo’Nique. 

Rainey, born Gertrude Pridgett in Columbus, Ga., was a prodigious performer in the minstrel show circuit of the south. Starting as a teenager, she married fellow performer Will Rainey and they joined F.S. Wolcott’s Rabbit Foot Minstrels troupe. The Raineys gained a reputation for boisterous shows, which eventually attracted Smith around 1912.

The Chattanooga, Tenn. teenager followed her brother in joining a performing troupe, the Moses Stokes Company. Rainey was their lead singer. The pair connected during this time, and a mentoring partnership was born.

Rainey’s legendary bluesy voice was an early influence on Smith’s performing style. The older singer, by just eight years, showed her student the ropes of the vaudeville performing business.

Historians and scholars believe Rainey was bisexual, as was Smith. Professor and activist Angela Davis made Rainey the subject of her 1999 book, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday.

In the book, Davis asserts that Rainey’s 1928 song, “Prove It On Me,” is a “ cultural precursor to the lesbian cultural movement of the 1970s.”

Smith went on to have a far more substantial career than her mentor, despite the many blues singers signed in the ’20’s. By the end of the decade, Smith was said to be the richest entertainer in America. In comparison, Rainey managed a few hits but was not as versatile a vocalist as Smith.

Smith died tragically in 1937 at the age of 43 in a car accident while traveling in the South. Reports suggest that Smith Rainey died two years later in Rome, Ga., long removed from the world of performing and living a quieter existence as the owner of two theaters. She was 53.

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