Ma Rainey (1886-1939) was born Gertrude Rainey. She performed on the vaudeville and minstrel circuit in the early days of the blues. She was probably the first popular stage entertainer to incorporate the authentic blues into her show and had a wide and devoted following well before her recorded debut in 1923.
Although Rainey recorded in the classic blues style (which had strong ties to jazz and cabaret), she had one foot firmly planted in the folk tradition, had a tremendous rural following, and along with Mamie Smith, whose "Crazy Blues" sparked the initial "race records" craze, is probably one of the figures most responsible for opening the door for rural music performers. Rivaled only by her contemporary, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey was the premier blues vocalist of the 1920s and, in her rumored bi-sexuality and penchant for proto-bling finery, one of the genre's earliest and most colorful stars.