By Susan Sliwicki
Think of the song “See See Rider” and chances are pretty good your mental jukebox cues up the version by The Animals from the 1960s, or maybe Chuck Willis’ take on the song (which he titled “C.C. Rider”) in the late 1950s.
But years before The Animals were out of diapers — let alone in them — Ma Rainey made her mark with the song “See See Rider Blues.” And she did it in high style. Her backing band, The Georgia Jazz Band, featured Louis Armstrong on cornet, Charlie Green on trombone and Buster Bailey on clarinet.
“It is more of a jazz record than a blues record, as are many of the Ma Rainey records,” said John Tefteller of Tefteller’s World’s Rarest Records. “They used to call her the Mother of the Blues, and she was one of the big-selling blues artists in that time period. She made lots of records, sold lots of records and was very, very popular, but she definitely has a lot of jazz overtones. In fact, the band that backed her up, they were always top-notch jazz musicians from the Chicago area.”
Tefteller has all of Ma Rainey’s records, but it’s not for the typical reason that drives many collectors.
“I think they’re interesting,” Tefteller said. “I don’t think they’re astounding, but they’re historically important. Some of are better than others. The ones that are good are certainly worth people checking her out.”
Known throughout her career by such billings as Black Nightingale, Mother of the Blues, The Paramount Wildcat, and Songbird of the South, Rainey was born Gertrude Pridgett on April 26, 1886, in Columbus, Ga., the daughter of minstrel troupers. She reportedly was singing the blues by 1902, and teamed up with William “Pa” Rainey — whom she later married — to tour as a song and dance team, according to “Blues Who’s Who.” She began recording for Paramount in 1923. She suffered a heart attack and died Dec. 22, 1939.
The first records that the white recording executives in the 1920s created that involved any type of African-American musicians were jazz records, Tefteller said. Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Ida Cox, whose records basically featured jazz music with bluesy lyrics, were the successes of the day.
“Back in the ’70s and ’80s, when I was first buying these records, you could find people still alive from the ’20s and ’30s, and they would refer to them as blues records and would always say, ‘The women singers, those are the real blues,” Tefteller recalled.
The “traditional” blues records collectors tend seek out today tend to be more guitar-oriented, Tefteller said. The “down-home country blues” styles of artists like Charley Patton didn’t gain notice until a little later, Tefteller said.
Tefteller readily admits he’s not really a huge fan of Ma Rainey’s style of blues. But in his book, her version of “See See Rider Blues” gets points over Chuck Willis’ more melodic take on “C.C. Rider” because Rainey’s is more interesting.
“Most of the Ma Rainey records are quite listenable, and some of the are quite fun, because she’s got a really interesting style and a fun atmosphere to them. They become interesting little novelty things to listen to, rather than boring semi-jazz,” Tefteller said. “Her influence is still felt, even 75 years later.”
A used copy of Ma Rainey’s “See See Rider” could be yours for $100 to $300, Tefteller said. Expect to pay in the neighborhood of $800 for a really cherry mint copy, he added.
“It’s not particularly rare, because it was one of her bigger-selling records,” Tefteller said. “It’s one that a lot of the people don’t want to get rid of, so you don’t see a lot of them up for sale.”