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Queer Blues

October 2007 Script

Kokomo Arnold - Sissy Man Blues (1935)

Don't you just love those old blues lyrics? Someone stole his girl and he woke up with his "pork grindin' business" in his hand. So he says "Lord, if you can't send me no woman, please send me some sissy man." This is Queer Voices on KPFT and this segment is called Queer Music Heritage. I'm JD Doyle and this is another one of my deep history shows. To give it a concise title I'm calling it Queer Blues, and I'll be taking the music of gay, lesbian and bisexual blues artists from the mid-1920's and stopping just past Stonewall, in 1970.

Kokomo Arnold 78

Now that first artist, at least as far as I know, was not gay, but his song "Sissy Man Blues" was a good way to start off. His name was Kokomo Arnold and his version of the song was recorded in January of 1935. As he wrote it I'm giving him credit for likely having the first version of it, though I also have the song by several others, including Josh White.

That song is a natural lead in to one of the oldest songs I'm playing on this show. Ma Rainey was known as the Mother of the Blues, and in 1926 she recorded a song called "Sissy Blues." We'll pick up the song at the second verse.

Ma Rainey stamp

Ma Rainey - Sissy Blues (1926)

Now, if you had a little trouble understanding the lyrics on such an old recording, here are the main plot points:

I dreamed last night I was far from harm
Woke up and found my man in a sissy's arms

Some are young, some are old
My man says sissy's got good jelly roll

My man got a sissy, his name is Miss Kate
He shook that thing like jelly on a plate

Now all the people ask me why I'm all alone
A sissy shook that thing and took my man from home

Ma Rainey and "Sissy Blues," from 1926. But she had another recording that is perhaps the most famous early queer blues song, and it's one of the very few that is lyrically gay, or in this case, lyrically lesbian. This song has been covered many times over the years but of course I'm bringing you the original. From 1928 Ma Rainey and "Prove It On Me Blues."

Ma Rainey - Prove It On Me Blues (1928)

I just love that line "went out last night with a crowd of my friends, they must have been women cause I don't like no men." That was an abreviated version of the song. I wish I had time on this show to play complete songs, but I want to introduce you to as many of these early artists as I can. And you may ask how I can say artists from so many decades ago were gay, lesbian or bi? Well, from researching old liner notes, books, and the internet. I found many references to back up the inclusion of these artists on my show. And this next one is certainly no exception. You do a google search on the name Bessie Smith and the word bisexual, and you'll get over 28,000 hits. Noted jazz journalist and record producer Chris Albertson wrote perhaps the definitive biography of Bessie Smith. He interviewed her niece Ruby Smith in 1971 and got these comments about Bessie and the subject of buffet flats.

  

Ruby Smith - Buffet Flat Story (1971)

Let's hear Bessie sing a little more about those buffet flats.

Bessie Smith - Soft Pedal Blues (1925)

   

Yahoo, Bessie Smith has those "Soft Pedal Blues," from 1925. Also from 1925 is Ethel Waters and her song "Dinah"

Ethel Waters - Dinah (1925)

No, that really wasn't one of her more bluesy songs but lyrically I couldn't resist picking that one. Ethel Waters was perhaps the first black superstar, famous for her work in nightclubs, Broadway, radio and films, being only the second African American nominated for an Academy Award, in 1949. Her signature song was "Am I Blue?"

Up next, if ever there was a blues artist who personified the image of the bull dyke, it was Gladys Bentley. She weighed around 250 pounds and performed in her trademark tuxedo and top hat and openly flirted with the women in the audience. There's not a lot of her catalog that's been reissued on CD, but here's a little of one of her songs called "How Much Can I Stand."

Gladys Bentley - How Much Can I Stand (1928)

Gladys Bentley from 1928 with "How Much Can I Stand." And as Gladys Bentley was a bull dyke, here's an artist singing about them. Lucille Bogan recorded between 1923 and 1935 and many of her songs were lyrically raw, like one called "Shave 'Em Dry." I won't be playing that one. Many blues artists in those days, in order to get around recording contracts, would record under other names. Around 1932 Lucille Bogan began recording under the name Bessie Jackson, and under that name gave us the song "B.D. Women Blues," with BD referring to bull dykes or more colloquially bull daggers.

Bessie Jackson - B.D. Women Blues (1935)

Comin' a time, B. D. women, they'n't gon' need no men.
Comin' a time, B. D. women, they'n't gon' to need no men.
Cause the way they treat us is a lowdown and dirty sin.
B. D. women, you sure cain't understand.
B. D. women, you sure cain't understand.
They got a head like a switch engine, and they walk just like a natch'l man.
B. D. women, they all done learnt their plan.
B. D. women, they all done learnt their plan.
They can lay their jive just like a natch'l man.
B. D. women, B. D. women, you know they sure is rough.
B. D. women, B. D. women, you know they sure is rough.
They all drink up plenty whiskey, and they sure will strut their stuff.
B. D. women, you know they work and make their dough.
B. D. women, you know they work and make their dough.
And when they get ready to spend it, they know just where to go

Yes, those B.D. women can walk and lay their jive just like a natural man. Bessie Jackson and "B.D. Women Blues," from 1935.


Now, before you think I'm only playing women blues singers on this show, I'm going to introduce you to Frankie "Half-Pint" Jaxon. Called "half-pint" because he was only 5'2" tall, Jaxon often performed comedy songs and songs as a female impersonator. He took the role of a woman in the songs, providing lots of sexual double entendre, with songs like this one from 1929, "Operation Blues," where he's playing a woman patient.

Frankie "Half-Pint" Jaxon - Operation Blues (1929)

Also from 1929, here's a bit of a not-so-subtle one, called "My Daddy Rocks Me With One Steady Roll."

Frankie "Half-Pint" Jaxon - My Daddy Rocks Me With One Steady Roll (1929)

UK reissue 45 from the 60s, containing  "My Daddy Rocks Me"

The lyrics from this point pretty much just repeat themselves, except that he takes two instrumental breaks complete with simulated sex sound effects, that are actually very amusing. That was Frankie doing guest vocals on a track by famous blues artist Tampa Red.

Before I leave the 20's & 30's I've got another artist who dabbled in female impersonation, Billy Banks. His band, the Rhythmakers, included some early jazz allstars, like Eddie Condon, Pee Wee Russell and Fats Waller. From 1932 here's Billy and the band with "Oh, Peter."

Billy Banks & His Rhythmakers - Oh, Peter (1932)

Billy Banks on vocals, yes, a terrible eBay scan

Another woman blues singer who was rumored to be lesbian was Alberta Hunter. Her career began in the 1920s and she achieved much popularity, until she retired in the mid-1950s. That retirement lasted for over 20 years until she started singing again in 1978, and again gained much acclaim, performing up until her death in 1984 at age 89. From 1940 here's a bit of her singing "I Won't Let You Down."

Alberta Hunter - I Won't Let You Down (1940)

Alberta Hunter, from 1940. And we're in the 50s now with an openly gay artist who was idolized by Little Richard, and who helped Little Richard get his first recording contact.

Billy Wright - You Satisfy (1950)

Very nice. That was Billy Wright with the song "You Satisfy," one of his first recordings and first successes, done for the famous Savoy record label in 1950. It was Wright who got Little Richard, then Richard Penniman, to come to Atlanta, where he did his first recordings. And Wright, with his big hair, heavy stage make up and gospel-styled blues shouting, no doubt influenced Little Richard.

We'll hear more about Little Richard in a little while, but first this is a good time to invite you to check out my website. If you visit it while you're listening you can see the playlist and follow along, while looking at photos of the artists and recordings. I've always considered our music history as a visual as well as an audio experience. Again, that's at www.queermusicheritage.com, Also, for more very queer programming, please listen to After Hours with Jimmy Carper, every Friday night/Saturday morning from 1 to 4 am, on KPFT, it's Queer Radio, with attitude.

Hedda Lettuce - Drag Queen Blues (2005)

No, that isn't an old blues song. It's a recent one, called "Drag Queen Blues," from drag queen superstar Hedda Lettuce, and it's the perfect intro for these next three artists. This first recording is quite obscure.

I found it on a CD by 50s orchestra leader Tiny Bradshaw. He recorded for the King Record label out of Cincinnati, and singing lead on a couple of his tracks was a female impersonator named Little Tiny Kennedy. From 1952 is "Newspaper Boy Blues."

Tiny Bradshaw & His Orchestra, with Little Tiny Kennedy - Newspaper Boy Blues (1952)

Little Tiny Kennedy backed by Tiny Bradshaw & His Orchestra.

Below, Tiny Kennedy in the 1969 film "Fireball Jungle"

And here's another interesting female impersonator, Billie McCallister. He is probably more known for a comedy album released in 1972 called "What a Big Piece of Meat." That was put out by producer Rudy Ray Moore, who found much success in the 70s by issuing very x-rated comedy recordings, by himself and a stable of others. But I only recently discovered that Billie McAllister's career goes back twenty years earlier. In 1952 he recorded at least four songs for a Memphis label, and the song I picked is interesting because it obviously was recorded as a female impersonator, because it is sung to a man. It's title, "31 E Blues" refers to his trip down Highway 31 to Nashville, in search of his lover man.

Billie McAllister - 31 E Blues (1952)

Even more obsure than Billie McAllister was female impersonator Patsy Valdelar, and historians can't even seem to agree on her last name. I've also seen it given as Valdalia, Vidalia, and Valadear. At any rate, for a couple decades she was the star of the famous Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans. In 1953 Mercury Records recorded several New Orleans artists, and Patsy travelled to Los Angeles to do two songs. One of them was right from her stage repetroire, "Keep Your Hands on Your Heart," which was a hit in 1950 for Billy Wright, who we heard earlier. As legend has it, when she sang that song live she instructed the men in the audience to put their hand over their crotch. Here's Patsy Valedar and "Keep Your Hands On Your Heart."

Patsy Valdelar (or Vidalia) - Keep Your Hands on Your Heart (1953)

We're going to take a break from the female impersonating blues singers and go to a rough and tough woman artist, Big Mama Thornton. Rumored to be lesbian, she's mostly known to the general public today as the artist who first recorded the song "Hound Dog." She had an R&B hit with it in 1952, but of course Elvis had a huge hit with the song four years later. Here's the original.

Big Mama Thornton - Hound Dog (1952)

Big Mama Thornton and "Hound Dog." Let's see if you recognize this next artist.

Little Richard - Directly From My Heart (1953)

Can't quite recognize him? He first recorded in Atlanta in 1951, and then toured all over the southeast, playing Nashville, New Orleans, and so forth, landing in Houston in 1953, where he recorded that last song, "Directly From My Heart," for the Peacock label. That contract really didn't work out so in 1955 he moved to the Specialty Records label. Still don't know who he is? Well, you probably are more used to him sounding like this:

Little Richard - Tutti Frutti (1955)

Yes, that was Little Richard, and of course the song "Tutti Frutti." There's an interesting story about that song. In 1955 Specialty Records producer Bumps Blackwell was sent to New Orleans to record Little Richard, and neither he nor the band quite knew what to make of him, as he came into the studio wearing a loud shirt, with hair waived six inches above his head and talking wildly. They took a break from the session and went over to the Dew Drop Inn, where Richard was no doubt more at ease and he started joking around with the crowd, playing one of the favorites from his stage show. It had lyrics like "tutti frutti, good booty" and "if it don't fit, don't force it, you can grease it, make it easy." The impact on the crowd was the energy they needed to capture in the studio, though they wisely cleaned up the lyrics. Little Richard became a genuine pioneer of rock and roll.

I recently contacted Little Richard and he found time in his busy schedule to take a couple questions. Little Richard, you've gotten a lot of attention lately with that Geico TV commercial. What did you think when they first contacted you to do the commercial? "Look Out, Look Out." Your career has certainly had its ups and downs, and I imagine that applies financially as well. What has been your normal approach to finding work? "Help me, somebody help me." Finally, many rock artists have lived by the credo of sex, drugs and rock & roll, what has been your personal credo? "Mashed potatoes, gravy and cranberry sauce." I'm not even going to ask.

Okay, now that that little diversion is over with, I need to mention another artist, who went by the name Esquerita. He was a friend of Little Richard's and no doubt influenced him quite a bit, if only in his stage presence, as he wore heavy makeup and two wigs, piling his pompador even higher than Richard's. Here's a clip of an interview where Little Richard talks about Esquerita.

Little Richard on Esquerita (date unknown, probably late 50s)

Here's Esquerita with a bluesy song, from 1958, called "Just Another Lie."

Esquerita - Just Another Lie (1958)

That was Esquerita, who sadly died of AIDS in 1986, at age 47.

Esquerita - Dew Drop Inn (1965)

And I couldn't resist one more quick listen to Esquerita, singing about the "Dew Drop Inn." That venue's popped up several times on this show already, with more to come.

Bobby Marchan - Poor Pitiful Me (1956)

We're still in the 1950s and it's time to tell you about Bobby Marchan, another artist who performed as a female impersonator. In fact in 1953 he organized a troup of female impersonators called the Powder Box Revue, and when they toured through New Orleans he decided to stay, sometimes performing at the Dew Drop Inn. At that time Patsy Valdalia, who you heard earlier, was Master of Ceremonies at the Dew Drop, and there wasn't room for two drag divas, so Bobby assumed the same duties at the Club Tijuana. It was there in 1956 that Johnny Vincent, the owner of Ace Records, saw him and signed him to a record contract. Vincent had no idea that Bobby Marchan was not a real woman. And he still didn't a couple days letter when Bobby came to the studio, again in drag. The band was cracking up when Vincent was finally told. That didn't discourage Vincent from promoting Marchan, and his first record for Ace was the one you've been hearing, "Poor Pitiful Me." However, it wasn't until he was teamed with Huey Piano Smith, that lightning struck, and they had a top ten hit in 1958 with the song "Don't You Just Know It."

Huey Piano Smith & the Clowns, Bobby Marchan lead vocalist - Don't You Just Know It (1958)

That song was released as by Huey Piano Smith & the Clowns, and Bobby Marchan was lead vocalist. Marchan had a long career, recorded on quite a number of record labels, and performed until the year of his death, in 1999, at age 69. By far my favorite of his songs was a one that was a number one R&B hit in 1960, and I can't resist playing the full version on this show. Here is "There Is Something On My Mind."

Bobby Marchan - There Is Something On My Mind (1960)

What a drama queen! Again, that was Bobby Marchan.

And by now you might be developing the impression that most of the early gay male blues singers were female impersonators, and I think that would be incorrect. Because, think about it, we only know about the ones who were visible. In those decades sexuality, especially the homo variety, was not much openly discussed. So mostly only if the singers were open about it, as in while doing female impersonation, would gayness even be considered. And of course just because a performer did do female impersonation didn't mean they were gay, but gee, I think it mostly did.

Long John Baldry - Five Long Years (1965)

We're going to take this show's only trip out of the country for this next act, and it seems fitting we pay respect to it, as it was a pioneering band in the history of blues music in England. I'm talking about Blues Incorporated. Their 1962 debut album was called "R&B from the Marquee," and according to one article I've read, it was a watershed moment in British music history, opening the floodgates to the British blues boom, and influencing countless groups, like the Stones, Animals and Yardbirds, to add their own touches to American blues.

One of the main vocalists for Blues Incorporated was Long John Baldry. Baldry himself was very influential all through the 60s and 70s, helping to start the careers of Rod Stewart and Elton John. An album he and Stewart produced together, called "It Ain't Easy," in 1971, yielded Baldry's most known American hit, with "Don't Try to Lay No Boogie Woogie on the King of Rock & Roll."

And Long John Baldry was openly gay, even in the 60s. By the way, before you start guessing, he got his name Long John because he was 6'7" tall. You've been listening to a bit of "Five Long Years," from his 1965 solo album "Long John's Blues." But I want you to hear a bit of a track from the 1962 Blues Incorporated album, and the one I've chosen is the "How Long, How Long Blues."

Blues Incorporated - How Long, How Long Blues (1962)

Long John Baldry, singing lead on "How Long, How Long Blues," from the Blues Incorporated album "R&B from the Marquee," from 1962.

I'm down to the last song, but before I get to it I want to thank you all for listening, and you can hear this show anytime, along with seeing photos of the artists and recordings, at www.queermusicheritage.com. And, as always if you have questions or comments about any of the music I've featured, please write me. This is JD Doyle for Queer Voices on KPFT in Houston.

This show has been about early blues by gay, lesbian and bisexual artists, from the 1920s up to 1970. And I'm going to end the show with a very bluesy artist, who came upon the music scene in the mid 60s with a career that burned fast and hot, going out abruptly with her drug overdose in late 1970, at age 27. I'm talking about Janis Joplin. She had much album success with the San Francisco band Big Brother and the Holding Company, and as a solo artist in 1970 she was working on her next album.
She died before it was finished but enough of it was done to enable the album, called "Pearl" and released the next year, to become her biggest selling album, with her biggest single, "Me and Bobbie McGee." From that same album I'm closing the show with her bluesy cover version of the 1963 hit by Garnett Mimms. Janis Joplin and "Cry Baby."

Janis Joplin - Cry Baby (1970)