By Mike Greenblatt
“Sophie Tucker? Are you kidding? She isn’t the last of the red-hot anything.” So says John Tefteller of Tefteller’s World’s Rarest Records when your humble columnist had the temerity to even mention Sophie Tucker (1884-1966) in the same conversation about “Mother Of The Blues” Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (1886-1939) and “Empress Of The Blues” Bessie Smith (1894-1937).
“I wouldn’t even call Sophie Tucker a blues singer,” continues Tefteller. “I mean, she was OK for what she was and made some interesting records [one of which was “I’m The Last Of The Red Hot Mamas”], but it’s yet another case of white people coming in and trying to downplay black achievements to elevate themselves to the same level. But with Sophie Tucker, it just doesn’t work.”
The Mother Of The Blues, on the other hand, more than paid her dues and earned her title. Ma Rainey sang in public for almost 20 years before she made her first recordings for Paramount, with whom she stayed for the duration of her career. She was accompanied by such legendary jazzmen as Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson and Coleman Hawkins. Rainey retired from music after a 1928 recording session and died 11 years later of a heart attack. Although her most famous song is “See See Rider” — which has been covered by dozens of artists, including plenty of rock and roll acts — “Dead Drunk Blues” (Paramount 12508) is a stirring example of her eloquence, her ballsiness and her lust.
“I’m gonna get drunk just one more time,” she sings, “’cause when I’m drunk, nothing don’t worry my mind.” Then she admits, “If I don’t get whiskey, I ain’t no good at all,” going on to recount a time in Houston when she got drunk every day (“I drank so much whiskey, I thought I’d pass away.”) Yeah, this was one partyin’ mama all right! Near the end of the song (beautifully accompanied by a lone piano), she asks, in a spoken aside, “Where’s that whiskey bottle?”
It gives the track an immediacy and an all-too-human quality that transcends what Tefteller calls “formula.”
On Paramount’s original advertisement for Rainey’s record, there she stands, on a table, a glass of champagne held over her head, dancing, as three men look up at her, clapping, drinking, one of them appearing to be looking up her dress from behind. The expression on his face in the ad says it all.
Tefteller estimates there may be as many as 25 original copies left of “Dead Drunk Blues.” “Maybe more,” he says. “They’ll turn up every once in a while. Most of ’em will be kinda banged up. A real nice one will be maybe $800, and a banged-up one maybe $100 or so.”
In comparing Ma Rainey with her more famous student, Bessie Smith, (who once took singing lessons from Rainey), Tefteller prefers the former over the latter.
“Bessie Smith, although she recorded for a much more major label in Columbia, her records tended to be formulaic. That’s because once Columbia started selling so many records on her, they wanted that same formula to keep selling. Makes sense from a business standpoint. But there’s just so many more outstanding Ma Rainey records with clever lyrics and none of ’em follow a formula.”
The life of Ma Rainey has since been immortalized by August Wilson. His musical, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” debuted in Chicago in 1982 before hitting Broadway in October 1984, starring Whoopi Goldberg for 276 performances until June 1985. It continues to run regionally to this day by various theatrical ensembles. The cast may change, but the songs are strong, and, thus, Ma Rainey lives forever.