Born Gertrude Pridgett in 1886 in Columbus, Georgia, she married Will Rainey in 1904 having met him while he was passing through Columbus as a comedy singer in a minstrel show. By then she was already appearing in local talent shows and she was reportedly singing blues by the age of 16. The couple toured with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels billed as "Ma" and "Pa" Rainey, "Assassinators of the Blues". Her earthy, powerful voice enabled her to capture the essential quality of rural black southern life. As part of her generous nature she was the foster mother to seven children and she coached a young Bessie Smith when Smith joined the Rabbit Foot Minstrel Show around 1914.
Although Ma had a loyal
following throughout the Southern American States, she was largely unknown
outside of the region until she recorded with Paramount Records in 1923. Her
recording career established audiences for her in the industrial northern cities
of the USA, which she toured in addition to her southern circuit. By this time
she was also billed as Madame Rainey. Ma was highly respected by musicians and
greatly loved by her audiences. Rainey retired from music in 1935 and returned to live in Columbus,
Georgia where she owned and operated theatres, as well as being very involved in
local church activities. She made over 90 recordings in her career, and was
accompanied by many of the greats such as Louis Armstrong, Lovie Austen, Tommy
Ladnier, and Don Redmon. She died of a heart attack in 1939.