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February 2013 Script

 

Gladys Bentley - Worried Blues (1928)

Gladys Bentley and "Worried Blues," from 1928. And this is JD Doyle with Queer Music Heritage and a special show devoted totally to her. She's been a special interest of mine for quite some time, and in the 1920's and 30's she was especially prominent. She was a big woman, about 250 to 300 pounds and wore men's clothing and cut a dashing figure in her white top hat and tux. And she was something no other blues singer of those decades was, openly lesbian.

I'm going to cover as much of the music of her career as I can, and it lasted into the mid-1950's, and a little later I have some very rare unreleased recordings by her to share with you. You'll definitely want to stick around for that.

But back to the opening song, while there is no chart or sales information to support it, I believe "Worried Blues" could be considered her most popular, because it shows up on many, many blues compilations, and you would be right most of the time if when you see a compilation including her, well, that's the song featured. Like many songs in those years by female blues singers, hers dealt a lot with being mistreated and abused by some man. "Worried Blues" did that, but in this and in some of her other songs she was also in many ways an empowered and independent woman. The lyrics start out with "what makes you men folks treat us women like you do," but later she adds "I don't want no man that I got to give my money to" and "I give my man everything from a diamond ring or dough." So, the character in the song could support herself, and a bit later she warns "the next thing I'm gonna give him six feet in the cold, cold ground." Let's hear the flip side of that 78 where her man is both taking her money and cheating on her. It's called "Ground Hog Blues."

Gladys Bentley - Ground Hog Blues (1928)

One comment I'll make right away is that while she was decidedly the most out lesbian singer, in any music genre, in those years, it was still beyond what the record companies or the public would be willing to accept for her to include lesbian lyrics in what was recorded. I have read about how famous she was for singing the standards of the day and substituting her own very raunchy and suggestive lyrics, and the crowds loved it. I sure wish some of that was captured.

But I did find one example in print of how she changed the lyrics of a hit song of the day. Now, this will make more sense if I let you hear someone sing the original lyrics, as today probably not many will know the song. It was "Alice Blue Gown" and was from the 1919 Broadway hit show "Irene." In the show it was a slow ballad so I'm going to play a more up-tempo version, by Judy Garland.

Judy Garland - Alice Blue Gown

Gladys changed that to

And he said, "Dearie, please turn around" / And he shoved that big thing up my brown /
He tore it. I bored it. Lord, how I adored it. / My sweet little Alice Blue Gown.

See what I mean?

In the Harlem nightclubs she was wildly popular, with both blacks and whites, and especially with the Harlem Renaissance literary crowd. Langston Hughes called her "an amazing exhibition of musical energy." Another club customer wrote to poet Countee Cullen, "When Gladys sings 'St. James Infirmary,' it makes you weep your heart out." Bentley was the inspiration for characters in several books of the time, including a gay novel by Blair Niles called "Strange Brother." Carl Van Vechten, one of the homosexual literati, described someone obviously like her in his book "Parties." He wrote about his character, "when she pounds the piano the dawn comes up like thunder. She rocks the box, and tosses it...and jumps it through hoops." She was definitely a larger than life figure.

Her first records were done on the Okeh label in mid to late 1928 and she did eight tracks during that period. The next song released mention trains, well, this is the blues. Here is "The How Long How Long Blues."

Gladys Bentley - How Long How Long Blues (1928)

Of the eight sides on the Okeh label, all but two were done with piano backing, but on the third 78 both are done with guitar. In "Wild Geese Blues" she reflects on the extreme poverty experienced by blacks, in the lines "hard coal in my cellar, only got to shovel more, can't get no more credit from the butcher or grocery store."

Gladys Bentley - Wild Geese Blues (1928)
Gladys Bentley - How Much Can I Stand? (1928)

Yes, she is tired of men who beat her and is wondering "How Much Can I Stand?"

The last two of the songs on the Okeh label were recorded in March of 1929 and were a little different lyrically, and she did not write either of them. "Big Gorilla Man" continues the story of a woman being abused, but she accepts it. "That big gorilla, a woman killa, and I ought to know, he mistreats me, knocks and beats me, still I love him so, 'cause he's got that something that I need so bad." And yes, this was pressed on a ten inch record.

Gladys Bentley - Big Gorilla Man (1929)

She needs it so bad. The song on the flip side, "Red Beans and Rice," is even more obvious, her man is cheating and she's living on a diet without meat, his.

Gladys Bentley - Red Beans and Rice (1929)

Gladys Bentley only did one more recording during that period, in 1930, and it had no real lyrics, but if there was any doubt whether or not she could skat, this resolves it. The band was the Washboard Serenaders and the song "Washboards Get Together."

Washboard Serenaders - Washboards Get Together (1930)

Whoa, you might need a cigarette after that one. Now, I don't think at this time Bentley had yet developed her top hat and tails butch persona, but it would be on an accelerated course from 1930 on. During the Spring she even had her own radio show, singing the blues for fifteen minutes every Tuesday afternoon on WPCH Radio, across the river in Hoboken. At the same time she was attracting attention performing at The Clam House in Harlem at 7th Avenue and 136th Street, just a few blocks from the area's entertainment center, called Jungle Alley. She would go on to perform in many clubs there, including Connie's Inn, a night spot that evolved into the Ubangi Club. That's where she got her most success.

I want to mention that during those years the police were waging a war on indecency, so more than once club owners found themselves temporarily closed due to what one critic called "the masculine-garbed, smut-singing entertainer." The Ubangi Club though, at least for a few years, was a hit. This spanned roughly 1934 through 1937, and what was interesting is that they formed the Ubangi Club Revue, starring La Bentley, as she was often called, which would perform at many other venues, almost like a travelling show. In the act Bentley was supported by a chorus of pansies, described as "eight liberally painted male sepians with effeminate voices and gestures." The term "pansies" was even used in newspaper reviews of the time. One, from November 1935 talked of "Gladys Bentley and her 'pansie' entertainment, something new for the entertainment field." This of course solidified the homosexual clientele, and really brought in crowds of all types. The Ubangi Club was not the only one to cater to the homosexual market, and a side note is that much later historians termed the early 30's, especially in New York City, as the Pansy Craze.

The Ubangi Club did many series of revues, appearing at wider-known venues such as the Apollo Theatre. The last revue was called "Brevities in Bronze," and while it did well, a number of critics said in it she lacked the spontaneity she once had, and that the show seemed designed to shock for the sake of shocking. It was also different in that she no longer played her own piano, and the pansy chorus was replaced with female dancers, the Ubangettes. Times in general had also changed and Harlem was not the tourist attraction it once was. The Ubangi Club closed in 1937, though the revue was able to continue for a short while at other venues. At that show however she was able to introduce one defiant gem of a song that she became known for, "Gladys Isn't Gratis Anymore."

We're ready now to get to the second stage of Bentley's career, and it's an easy dividing line as around 1937-38 she moved to Los Angeles.

Remember back in the beginning of the show when I said I had some rare, unreleased recordings by her to share with you? This is the time. Around 1939 Bentley recorded some songs on her own, for personal use. I have a newspaper clipping from April of that year so that's how I am confirming the date. They were decidedly not of the type that would be played on the radio then, full of naughty double-entendres. Last fall I acquired some of these, and I made them into a medley for you. It starts out with her then signature song, "Gladys Isn't Gratis Anymore," and then goes into two more where the titles are not precisely given, but I'm referring to as "Lock & Key" and "Jailbait."

Gladys Bentley Medley - Gladys Isn't Gratis Anymore / Lock & Key / Jailbait (~1939)

That last one, about the Nancy the Tennessee jailer keeping an extra close watch on her inmates, showed up on the Ray Bourbon LP "Don't Call Me Madam," around 1954, done more in his recitation style, and just called "Tennessee." It seems songs of this nature were passed around a lot.

I'm moving next to her West Coast career, and we can verify she was a performer in 1942 at Mona's 440, a lesbian club in San Francisco, still wearing her top hat and tails. She did return to New York City to do shows once in a while. One engagement, from October through December of 1944 at a night spot called Tondaleyo's got a lot of media attention.

Around 1945 she recorded some new material for the Los Angeles label Excelsior, writing most of the ten tracks herself. They were released as by the Gladys Bentley Quintette, on five 78's. She played piano on them and the labels even listed the band members. The first track is called "Boogie'n My Woogie."

Gladys Bentley Quintette - Boogie'n My Woogie (1945)
Gladys Bentley Quintette - Thrill Me Til I Get My Thrill (1945)

You also heard the flip side, "Thrill Me Til I Get My Thrill." As you could immediately tell, this is a much different sound than her other recordings, but then that is logical, as it's over 15 years later and music styles had changed.

I have in my collection six of the ten Excelsior tracks, and two of them were updated versions of songs she did for the Okeh label.

I only have time to give you a shortened version of one more of the Excelsior recordings, and I think it's interesting because, knowing her history as an out lesbian, well, the lyrics just don't work for her. She says "Find Out What He Likes and How He Likes It."

Gladys Bentley - Find Out What He Likes and How He Likes It (1946)

Bentley's next recordings were in the early 1950's and here's where it gets fuzzy, as there's just not a lot of information verifying when they were done. One notable recording was a Christmas song, "Jingle Jangle Jump," done with Wardell Gray & the Dexter Gordon Quintet, definitely a quality gig to get. In 1953 she recorded two sides for the Swingtime label, though I cannot verify they were ever released on a 78. The lead side on that one was obviously "4th of July Boogie." Another's release can be verified, as I have a copy of it. On the Flame label was "Easter Mardi Gras," and all I can pin down is that it was from 1952 or earlier. Finally one called "June-Teenth Jamboree" shows up on a number of compilations and again, no real information is available, other than that it was copyrighted in 1952. Did you notice that these four songs are all kind of holiday related? I wonder if that was part of some marketing plan. Anyway, I put them together in a medley of sorts, that will take you from Christmas, through Easter and June-Teenth, finishing on the 4th of July.

Gladys Bentley Holiday Medley (early 1950's):
Jingle Jangle Jump (1952)
Easter Mardi Gras (early 50's)
June-Teenth Jamboree (early 50's)
4th of July Boogie (1953)

No, you didn't miss any lyrics on that last one. "4th of July Boogie" has only vocalizing or skatting, which she's done on several songs.

If you decide to do an internet search on the life of Gladys Bentley, you would not go too long without hearing about her famous article in Ebony Magazine. This was in August of 1952 and was called "I Am A Woman Again." And you can read that article on my website. Now, that magazine was founded in 1945, and is still published, and tried a bit to be the black version of Life Magazine, though I think it tended perhaps too much to sensationalism. And that article certain fit that description. Most scholars think much of what she wrote was pure fabrication, and I certainly found many historical details in it that just don't make sense. Anyway, the crux of "I Am A Woman Again" was that female hormone injections from a doctor had helped her to become heterosexual, she was now happily married, to a man, and she offered up many condemnations of the sins of her past life.

Here's my assessment. This is an important article, written by Bentley, at a very oppressive time in our history. It was during the McCarthyism era, when many celebrities, especially homosexuals, were hoping just to not be noticed. Or, in Bentley's
case wanting to whitewash the lesbian image she had personified for twenty-five years. She was still trying to make a living as a performer, and support an aging mother. We're now sixty years later, and some may think of her as turning her back on her lesbian culture. For myself, I give her a lot of slack. Those were terrible times and hundreds in Hollywood were blacklisted, and there was no organized gay community to offer support.

I like the way historian Eric Garber summed up her accomplishments. He wrote, "she had earned her living--as an openly black lesbian--for decades. She had insisted on being herself during a time when others hid their difference. And she had increased public awareness about sexual variations and spoken for many who could not speak for themselves."

Gladys Bentley died of pneumonia at age 52 in 1960. She had reportedly written an autobiography called "If This Be Sin," but it was never published.

This is JD Doyle and I thank you for listening to this show, and I've got a lot of resources about Bentley at my website, queermusicheritage.com. I'm closing the show with probably the last recording captured of her singing, and in it she showed she was still a terrific entertainer. This is really from a video of her appearance on Groucho Marx' show "You Bet Your Life," from May of 1958. And it gives a remarkable look at not only her singing but talking, as Groucho interviews her just a bit. One comment, you'll hear her tell him she was from Trinidad; not true, she was born in Philadelphia, but her mother was from Trinidad. We can only guess why she answered the question that way. She sings "Them There Eyes."

Gladys Bentley on "You Bet Your Life" - Them There Eyes (1958)