Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by Marty Weil @ChiBluesHistory
I am waiting until after this story posts to watch the recently released movie “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” The film is set in 1927. It takes place over the course of an afternoon recording session in Chicago. According to the trailer, Rainey’s band awaits the arrival of the trailblazing performer, the legendary “Mother of the Blues.” After Rainey arrives late to the session, she engages in a battle of wills with her manager and producer over the control of her music (an almost universal struggle for blues recording artists of the time period). Meanwhile, her ambitious trumpet player, anxious to start his own band, talks with Rainey’s manager and producer.
The film, a reimagining of August Wilson’s Pulitzer prize-winning 1982 play, is directed by George C. Wolfe. It is produced by the famous actor Denzel Washington, and stars Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman (in his final film appearance), with Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, and Michael Potts in supporting roles. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom began a limited theatrical release on November 25, 2020, before beginning to stream on Netflix on December 18, 2020.
Movie Poster for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
The real Ma Rainey bridged the gap between vaudeville and the blues. Her groundbreaking work influencing a generation of blues singers. Rainey’s first record was made in 1923. In the next five years, she made more than 100 recordings, including the critically important tracks, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Soon This Morning,” which were cut during the 1927 recording session that serves as the focal point of the film.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom single
Marty Weil is the editor of@CHIBLUESHISTORYon Twitter. Marty is a blues researcher, educator, and social media influencer.
Pete’s Pics / “Blues in Action” by Peter M. Hurley
Larry “L-Dub” Williams delivers the thunder. If ever there was a blues bass virtuoso, he is the man. When the Mike Wheeler Band is cookin’, L-Dub brings it up from the bottom to new heights. As a rhythm king and a supreme soloist, he commands both roles with the best of ’em.
Larry on the love he has for playing with the Mike Wheeler Band: “I can’t wait to get those first measures outta the way and start digging in!!!! I feel like a kid just getting done with his chores and his mom said you can go out and play with your friends. I feel that kinda happiness!!!” On the band’s peak moments, Williams nails it: “It’s Indescribable, when we’re firing on all cylinders it’s like nothing can go wrong, you kinda leave your body and go to a place of joy, happiness, togetherness, love peace and harmony!!! Mike Wheeler’s (guitar/vocals) playing is so electrifying I can’t help but to dig in with him, we contact so well it’s explosive!!! BJ (keyboardist Brian James) is the glue on keys, he makes a lot happen, he’s awesome!!! Cleo’s (Cole) drumming is amazing, he can hold that groove, stick the pocket like no other!!! These guys on stage…man…it’s like the Ohio Players said, ‘Heaven must be like this!!!‘ “
The treat is hearing the Mike Wheeler Band and knowing how he feels because it shows. And it’s in every note.
Photo taken at Tony Mangiullo’s Rosa’s Lounge, 3420 W. Armitage, Chicago, IL 60647, Aug. 4th, 2020. rosaslounge.com
Larry Williams plays bass with Elixir Strings on a 5 string Fender Jazz bass through Gallien Krueger amps.
Mr. Hurley is a contributing photographer and writer for Living Blues Magazine and the staff photographer for Chicago Blues Network. His recent book Blues Legacy: Tradition and Innovation in Chicago, in collaboration with Blues historian and author David Whiteis, showcases his work in the field. His passion for blues music began with the Chess Studios’ sound of Bo Diddley and continues to this day. Visit Peter’s Website here.
“Heart of the Blues” by Joanna Connor
Joanna Connor is a weekly contributor to bBluesNote with her column “Heart of the Blues.” Joannais a Guitar Instructor with At Home Chicago Blues. To take lessons with Joanna, click here.
“If I am going to sing like someone else, then I don’t need to sing at all.” – Billie Holiday
“Listen to my story and everything will come out true.” – Bessie Smith
I watched August Wilson’s play about Ma Rainey like many of us. Profound, powerful, provocative. Dialogue steeped in truth and delivered like blues cadences. While a good portion of the play focused on the interaction of her fictionalized band and the heavy continued history of racism in the music world, the world at large and the impact on the individual, we were privileged candid vignettes into the heart of the lioness that was Ma Rainey. What this production brought to me was a river of memories performing behind some of Chicago’s paramount African American women vocalists, the musical offspring, the legacy, the inheritors of women like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.
The first trip I took to Chicago, going to BLUES on Halsted Street, I walked in (after praying the gruff man at the door wouldn’t card me as I was 19 at the time), and saw Big Time Sarah come from behind the bar, grab a rowdy patron, throw him out the door unaided, saunter back up the aisle and proceed to sit in with the band on the tiny steamy stage and blow the roof off with some lusciously lascivious blues. I have many stories to tell about Sarah, I played guitar and opened the show while in her band throughout the years. She was a hustler, a story teller, proud, tough, loved hard, often times lived harder, unapologetically Sarah.
If you’re a believer in reincarnation, or a skeptic, bearing witness to Valerie Wellington’s potent vocal performances on any given night was to see Bessie Smith being channeled or relived through this woman. It was no mere tribute, it was so genuinely vividly emanating from Valerie, it was authentic. There you were, back in time, reliving a night with the Empress of the Blues whose voice had re-emerged into this young woman. And just like Bessie, gone tragically and way to soon.
Barbara LaShore was a towering woman whose voice matched or exceeded the vessel it was placed in. I played guitar for her every week at the Kingston Mines for a few years. She brought theatrical touches, a voice that could tackle the low down blues, flights into jazz or skillfully handle cascading lines in classic R n B. Feathers, sequins, satin, silk, all six feet of her unapologetic and majestic. She was a diva and that was totally fine.
Katherine Davis, Photo by Peter M. Hurley, (At Home Chicago Blues Trading 4s)
There were others whom I was honored to accompany – Angela Brown, Hollee Maxwell, Gwen Little, Melvina Allen, Jean Caroll… all bringing their own idiosyncratic style and sharing their own chapters of love, lust, loss, joy and hope.
There are two women who warmed my heart to play guitar for on any given night – Zora Young and Katherine Davis. Both women are delights to to the audience and band. They both sing their hearts out, they seduce your ears with rich and soulful and sensual voices, they breathe life into standards and respect the history and tradition.
All of these spirited women were and some blessedly still are, gifts to us. Keepers of the flame, yet blazing new trails by being who they were and being true to themselves, sending out the essence of human experience, told through a black woman’s heart, soul, and mind through the music. I can only imagine and somehow know that the great pantheon of the mothers that came before them would smile and beam and say “Go ahead Sister!”
One of the many shows we’ve presented in 2020, you can watch this At Home Chicago Blues Trading 4s video concert below with Katherine Davis & Paul Kaye, Mike Wheeler & Larry Williams.
At Home Chicago Blues Trading 4s Online Concerts
The next At Home Chicago Blues Trading 4s show is New Year’s Eve at 9:00 PM CST.
Get your ticket in advance, $9.95 for nine incredible artists. The online concert is a great way to ring in the new year safely, from home. Plus, you can get a free ticket when you get the 2021 Calendar!
“Blues from the Inside Out” is a podcast featuring top names in blues and roots music from a unique, artist-to-artist interview perspective.
Host Dave Specter is Guitar Instructor and Musical Director of Chicago Blues Network. To take lessons with Dave Specter, sign up here. See video lessons here.
Start 2021 with Blues (the good kind)…
Sign up for 4 months of lessons at the price of 3! Monthly lessons are $23.95, and your first 4 months are only $71.85. This includes access to 45+ video lessons and weekly LIVE Zoom meetings with your Instructor and Chicago Blues Master.