Script for March 2006...

Those Singing Drag Queens, Part 1

     

Rae Bourbon - I Don't Want to Be a Madam (1957)

This is Queer Voices on KPFT and this segment is called Queer Music Heritage. I'm JD Doyle and welcome to a very special show. I'm calling it "Those Singing Drag Queens," and to some the title may sound a little flip, or even contradictory. No, I'm not talking about drag queens who lip sync, because our culture has a long history of drag artists, or female impersonators, who did indeed do their own singing. Stick with me and on tonight's show we'll explore singing drag artists from the 20s up through the 80s, and we'll visit with one of the most renown, who started performing before Stonewall and is still active. From Atlanta, we'll meet Diamond Lil.

But I said I'll cover from the 1920s through the 1980s. That's just on this show, which is Part 1. Next month I'll be back to cover about the last 15 to 20 years of drag artists who do their own singing. And I might as well mention this now. My regular listeners know that I generally have two versions of my show. One is tailored for airing on Queer Voices, meaning it's limited to about 58 minutes, but the version at my website does not have that time constraint. That allows me to give full interviews and to play songs that, well, I just can't play on regular radio. Okay, that's enough introduction, and I've not told you who opened the show. I gave that honor to the drag artist who I consider to be the leader of the pack, Rae Bourbon, and his song "I Don't Want To Be A Madam" was recorded in 1957. I'll devote more time to Rae a little later, but I want to approach this subject roughly chronically, so that takes us back to the early 20s.

[background music for this section, plus the description in a few minutes on Ray Bourbon, is "You Go To My Head" by Billy Tipton, 50s, who was kind of a drag queen in reverse, spending her whole adult life disguised as a male jazz performer]

The earliest recording of a drag performer that I know of is from around 1922, and is by Ross Hamilton, who performed under the name of Marjorie. But I need to go back a few years earlier, to 1917, during World War I, when a group of Canadian soldiers stationed in France got together for a variety show, which led to forming a professional troop. They named themselves The Dumbells, after a logo for their military division, and had much success for over ten years. Many of the individual members released solo recordings, on 78s, of course, and in 1977 these were gathered together into an album, which is how I got the song by Ross Hamilton. Now remember, this recording is taken from a 78 rpm record, and is 84 years old. Here's Ross Hamilton, known as Marjorie, and a little of the song "Darling I Love You."

Ross Hamilton - Darling I Love You (1922)

A number of the artists you'll hear tonight are from England, like this next performer, who had a long career. Douglas Byng was one of the most popular variety and cabaret artists of the 20s and 30s, and the majority of his performances were in drag. This particular track, from 1932, is called "At The Ball."

Douglas Byng - At the Ball (1932)

Douglas Byng, from 1932, and like most of the artists on this show, in order to cover as many as possible unfortunately I will only be able to give you a taste of them, rather than play the whole songs, which in some cases you'll thank me.

This next song is from 1940 and is our first black artist of the show, 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 "My Daddy Rocks Me With One Steady Roll." One of his songs I can play on the air is called "Be Your Natural Self."

Frankie "Half-Pint" Jaxon - Be Your Natural Self (1940)

All right, since you insist, my internet listeners will get to hear a little of the song "My Daddy Rocks Me With One Steady Roll." For that song, from 1929, Jaxon was doing guest vocals on a recording by the famous blues artist Tampa Red.

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

And here's another interesting black female impersonator, Billie McAllister. 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)

Billie McAllister, from 1952, and I wish I had a lot more recordings by him.
I introduced the show with Rae Bourbon, and now I'm going to tell you more about him. In my opinion he was the leading drag artist of the early years. Yes, there were other famous performers I could mention, such as Charles Pierce, TC Jones and Jim Bailey, and you'll hear about them a little later, but they only released two or three albums each. Ray Bourbon was many times more prolific. Starting in the mid-30s he recorded about 40 78 rpm records, and in the 1950s and 60s released eleven LPs. I'm not sure that even RuPaul or Divine or other modern artists can match that, in today's era of multiple CD singles.

On some of Ray Bourbon's early 78s he spelled his name R-a-y, and then he switched it to R-a-e, and I'll explain that after I read something from his obituary. I've got a couple lines from the obituary that ran for him in Variety magazine. Bourbon died July 19th, 1971. In addition to the facts of the obituary, you might notice the language of the way Variety magazine described Bourbon, and I quote:

    Rae Bourbon, 78, cafe entertainer, died of a heart attack in the
    State Hospital at Big Springs, Texas. He had been serving a life
    jail term as an accomplice in a 1968 murder, stemming from a
    dispute over pet dogs.

    Bourbon, who did femme impersonations in vaudeville as well
    as sophisticated songs in niteries, played many rooms in New
    York and elsewhere. He came to the attention of Mae West, who
    cast him in two of her shows. At one time, in 1956, he sent out press
    releases stating that he had had a sex change operation.

So says the obituary, but that last part was all hype, he didn't have an operation, it was rumors perpetuated by him and he milked it. On one of his albums from around 1956 he even reproduced the newspaper articles that talked about him having a sex change…that album was even titled "Let Me Tell You About My Operation".
Bourbon, to say the least, was quite colorful. With the next two selections, I hesitate to quite call them songs, because Bourbon had kind of a recitation style. He had piano music in the background, and he just recited his verses over that. You'll hear his trademark laugh, or giggle, in this song. It's called "When I Said No To Joe," from the album I just mentioned, "Let Me Tell You About My Operation."

Rae Bourbon - When I Said No To Joe (1956)
Rae Bourbon - I Must Have A Greek (early 50s)

I followed "When I Said No To Joe" with one of my favorites. It's called "I Must Have A Greek" and is from an early 50s LP called, and I love this title, "You're Stepping On My Eyelashes."

My internet listeners get to hear two more, that are a little more explicit. First, from the mid-30s is one of his very first recordings, called "My First Piece" and it will be followed by a track called "Sailor Boy" from an early 50s album called "Bourbon, 100 Proof."

Ray Bourbon - My First Piece (mid-30s)
Rae Bourbon - Sailor Boy (early 50s)

The incomparable Rae Boubon. And for a bit of trivia, playing background for Rae on a number of his recordings was Bart Howard, composer of the song "Fly Me To The Moon."

   Bart Howard Bart Howard  (1915-2004)

Continuing in the 50s, next up is Arthur Blake. He was from England and was one of the leading impressionists of that time, and also did wonderful versions of Noel Coward, Jimmy Stewart and Tallulah Bankhead. Bette Davis was said to have preferred his impressions of her. He recorded an album on his own in 1957, and in 1967 appeared on a Jayne Mansfield album, where he did the voices of various stars. From his first album, "Curtain Time," Blake is vamping through a song as Mae West.

Arthur Blake - A Ride Before Breakfast (1957)
Lynne Carter - Gypsy In My Soul (1957)

Following Arthur Blake was a very popular American drag artist named Lynne Carter. He often traveled with a famous troop of performing female impersonators known as the Jewel Box Revue, and had one album on his own, called "She's a He," from around 1957. Blake and Carter, like many of the drag artists of these early years had in common that their acts were mostly comedy, and they would throw in a song here and there. So while this show is about singing drag artists I do realize that for some I won't be doing them justice, as their forte was really stand up comedy.

This next artist is TC Jones. He also was very popular in the 50 & 60s, appearing in a couple of Broadway revues, the most famous being "The New Faces of 1952." That was the same show that gave Paul Lynde his start. Jones appeared in the movies "Promises, Promises," and the Monkees movie "Head," and on television on Ed Sullivan, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and even on the Wild Wild West. He recorded two albums in the late 50s, called "Mask and Gown" and "Himself," and both included Bette Davis impressions. I'm sharing with you a track from each album. From "Mask and Gown," from 1957, comes "Ten Cents a Dance" and then from his 1959 album called "Himself" you'll hear his version of Bette Davis singing the song "Bill"

TC Jones - Ten Cents a Dance (1957)
TC Jones - Bill (1959)

Commercials In a Plain Brown Wrapper - Drag Detergent (1960)

Ah yes, that skit, called "Drag Detergent" was from a comedy album from 1960 called "Commercials In a Plain Brown Wrapper." Just something I threw in as a break from the music.

And 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 play list and follow along, while looking at photos of all the drag queens and their 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.

Jose Sarria - Hello (1960)

Okay, now we're going back to the San Francisco of around 1960, to the world of Jose Sarria. You've probably never heard of Sarria, but he was one of the main drag queen activists of that time. In the late 40s he started doing drag shows at a club called the Black Cat, one of the most famous gay bars of that era.

Taking activism to its limit, in 1961 Sarria ran as the first openly gay candidate for public office, predating Harvey Milk's run for City Supervisor by 16 years. He came in last in a large slate of candidates, but his 5600 votes demonstrated that there was a sizable vocal gay community in San Francisco. In 1965 Jose and various gay bar owners established the Tavern Guild to combat the police harassment and they sponsored San Francisco's first large, public drag ball. Over 500 gay men and lesbians bravely crossed police lines, flood lights and police photographers to attend the event, at which Jose was named Queen of the Ball, and he soon proclaimed himself Empress of San Francisco.

Out of the activities held by the Tavern Guild, Jose developed the bylaws and functions of the Imperial Court of San Francisco. The Royal Court System that evolved around Jose has been described as a kind of Shriner's Club for drag queens, where funny hats are replaced by fabulous gowns, big hair, and flamboyant makeup, and titles. From the start, the System began raising money for various gay charities through benefit drag performances. This court system eventually spread over the country, to include a chapter in Houston. These days Jose is still busy with imperial court activities, and he had a cameo in the movie "To Wong Foo," and his biography "The Empress Is A Man" was published in 1998. Around 1960 Jose Sarria released a very rare drag album called "No Camping". You're going to hear him do his own version of "A Good Man Is Hard To Find."

Jose Sarria - A Good Man Is Hard To Find (1960)

In 1960 Bobby Marchan had a #1 R&B hit with the song "There Is Something On Your Mind," and he had quite a colorful background. In 1953, he organized a troupe of female impersonators called "The Powder Box Revue" and when it was booked in New Orleans for a while he decided to stay, and worked in the clubs as a female impersonator, emcee and singer. He was signed to Ace Records and worked for a while with Huey Piano Smith, producing some of the finest New Orleans Rock & Roll. He recorded for various record labels through the 70s but never matched his hit "There Is Something On Your Mind."

The song I picked for you to hear by Bobby Marchan was his first success, from 1956, an odd number called "Chickie Wah Wah." Lyrically you might first think, oh, this is a heterosexual song, but if you pay attention you might wonder why he didn't seem to know how to react to that sweet little girl.

Bobby Marchan - Chickie Wah Wah (1956)

I'm going to follow Bobby Marchan with a soul singer who performed mainly in the Toronto, Canada, area and was known for his flamboyant effeminate stage persona, and I've found photos of him dressed in drag. His name was Jackie Shane and he even had a top ten hit in Canada, with some lyrics that are seemingly fairly blatant for 1963, in his song called "Any Other Way."

Jackie Shane - Any Other Way (1963)

"Any Other Way" by Jackie Shane, and the back cover of his album "Jackie Shane Live," had this amusing section. The liner notes were describing Jackie as an artist and a person, and it said, and I quote, "What are Jackie's likes and dislikes? Well, you know Jackie likes 'chicken.' Even where food is concerned, Jackie likes chicken. The only problem is when Jackie suggests 'Let's go out and get some chicken after the show, you can't be too sure what he has in mind." Well, I think I can guess.

Next up we're going to the New Orleans of Jimmy Callaway. He was a staple at the famous Club My-Oh-My. He only had one recording, and it was a 45, and is very rare. It was probably from around 1963. It had a picture cover that on one side shows him in drag hanging from a milk truck, with the caption "show me a milkman that wears high heel shoes, and I'll show you a Dairy Queen." You can see this cover on my webpage. Oddly, that joke is not included on the record, which is titled Jimmy Callaway on Stage. Here's Jimmy Callaway. Oh, and since the song has an instrumental part in the middle I inserted a couple of his jokes into that portion.

Jimmy Callaway - Hello Dolly (1963)

From the same era was Ty Bennett, who like many of the artists you've heard so far, just did not make a good looking woman. Bennett was very successful as a female impersonator in the 60s, and while he was more known as storyteller, this song appeared on his only album, "Queen For A Day."

Ty Bennett - If I Can't Sell It, I'm Going To Sit On It (1964)

And the song by Ty Bennett, as you probably figured out, was called "If I Can't Sell It, I'm Going To Sit On It," and that album was from around 1964.

We're going to leave the country now for a few minutes, stopping first in France, around 1962, for Guilda and her album "Une Femme Pas Comme Les Autres," or "A Woman Not Like The Others." You can say that again. You'll recognize the song, sung in French, as "My Man."

Guilda - L'Homme (1962)

And here's another singing drag queen, this time a very obscure one who moved from Canada to England in 1960 and did sort of a comedy opera style. Here's Jean Fredericks, with an English music hall favorite, "Nobody Loves A Fairy When She's Forty."

Jean Fredericks - Nobody Loves A Fairy When She's Forty (1964)

Jean Fredericks had two recordings, both very rare. One was a 1964 album called "Recitals Are A Drag," and the song I played came from what I believe was her only 45.

Next, we're we're staying in the 60s but jumping to New Zealand, for an artist named Noel McKay. I've not been able to find out much about McKay's life, but as a recording artist he was fairly prolific. I have four long-playing albums by him, and for a drag artist that's a lot, and he also released a number of extended play 45s, called EPs in those days, though they were more in the vein of party records, and did not picture him in drag. If you go to my website and see his album covers, you'll agree he does not make a pretty woman, but his singing isn't bad, and I love that he didn't beat around the bush about using the male to male pronouns. So, from his album "Noel McKay In Person," here's the ever-popular "A Good Man Is Hard To Find."

Noel McKay - A Good Man Is Hard To Find (mid-60s)

Welcome to the second hour of "Those Singing Drag Queens," Part 1.

A very popular drag queen in England in the 60s and 70s was Lee Sutton, and again, his act was more comedy than singing, but I found this song quite interesting. From his 1968 album 'Presenting Lee Sutton, a Near Miss," here's "The Lady Is A Fake"

Lee Sutton - The Lady Is A Fake (1968)
Danny La Rue - Mame (1970)

Following Lee Sutton was Danny La Rue, from his 1970 album, "Hello, Danny." Now, La Rue is practically a national institution in England, and has been in the business since the late 60s, and at age 78 is still performing. He's had many recordings, has been in movies, and has been a very active performer in nightclubs and West End shows, and even had his own club in the 60s, that attracted many celebrities. His recordings are all singing, rather than including any comedy, and as you might have picked up from hearing a little of his version of "Mame," his style was more in the English Music Hall mode. In fact in 1982 he made history when he did one of his most adventurous roles ... that of 'Dolly Levi' in the musical "Hello Dolly!" It was the first time in theatrical history in England that the part of 'Dolly' had been played by a man and the first time that a man has played a female role in a major musical.

Danny La Rue - Hello Dolly (1970)

Back to America and we're in the late 60s, and by now I don't have to tell you that many of the singing drag queens would not have been accused as being singers. A very good example is one known just as Michelle, who had two albums, and the first was itself a rarity, a two-record set of a live performance called "Ready Or Not, It's Me." She followed up that album with one called "It's Me Again," from around 1968, which is where this song comes from, the non-melodic "Why Am I So Lovely?"

Michelle - Why Am I So Lovely? (1968)

Gee, I could listen to her, well, not very long. But let's reflect a moment. Michelle is about the first drag artist, at least who released recordings, who actually used a name that was decidedly female. Everyone else I've played have used male names, Douglas, Arthur, Noel, Jimmy, Bobby, etc. Or they used names that were neutral, Lee, Ray, Jean, Jackie. For the most part these names were their real names and the artists didn't really feminize them in the early days. Perhaps they were maintaining the idea that this was an act, rather than an identity. Or perhaps it was a little in reaction to the laws. In some places in the early years it was illegal to perform in drag, so it may have just been less hassle to use a man's name. It was probably a combination of many factors.

Another artist who went by a name that sounded female was Minette, but that was her real last name. And the song I'm going to play is so bad it's kind of fascinating. It's from a very rare album from 1968 called "Come To Me At Tea-Time". Her album is different from most of the drag artist albums of those years, as it was not comedy. Also she wrote all the songs, which was rare for a drag artist, and even more unusual, they were very topical. This was 1968 and all over the news was the hippie movement, psychedelic drugs and the Vietnam war, and she dealt with all those subjects. So I picked the song with the most out lyrics, and it's probably the only queer song you'll ever hear about Lyndon Johnson. It's called "LBJ, Don't Take My Man Away."

Minette - LBJ, don't take my man away (1968)

Now we're up to one of my favorites, Charles Pierce. Pierce was one of the most famous of the drag performers of our culture. In his act he gave gleefully nasty impersonations of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Tallulah Bankhead, Mae West, Carol Channing, Katherine Hepburn, Gloria Swanson, Barbara Stanwick, and many others. His mimicry was expert and he coupled it with gaudy costumes and outrageous humor in a career that spanned four decades and included frequent television and movie appearances. He recorded two comedy albums in the 70s and in 1983 his "Legendary Ladies of the Silver Screen" show was captured on video. While he did very little singing in his act, I could just not leave him out of this show, and found on one of his videos the perfect song. Here's Charles Pierce and "Want to Buy an Illusion."

Charles Pierce - Want to Buy an Illusion / One of the Boys (1987)

That was Charles Pierce. Another very popular illusionist was Jim Bailey, whose been performing since the early 70s, in Las Vegas, on television and in the movies, and of course on record. His impressions were dead on, especially of Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand, as you'll hear in this short medley, from his 1973 album, "Live at Carnegie Hall."

Jim Bailey - You Made Me Love You / Second Hand Rose (1973)

This next artist is from Australia and his success goes far beyond performing as a woman. Reg Livermore was been a musicals star in Australia since the 60s, with leading rolls in that country's productions of "Hair," "Rocky Horror Picture Show," "Barnum," and most recently, in "The Producers." But he attracted my attention for his 1975 one-man show called "The Betty Blokk Buster Follies." That show included the drag standard "What Makes a Man a Man," and I almost used that song on this show, but then I got his 1976 album "Wonder Woman." Well, the costumes he wore in that show are even more outrageous, and the album included one of my favorite Motown songs, one first done in 1968 by Gladys Knight & the Pips, although I much much prefer the much more dramatic version by Yvonne Fair in 1976. This song just begs to be done by a drag queen. It's called "It Should Have Been Me."

Reg Livermore - It Should Have Been Me (1976)

In the early 70s a singer and producer named Rudy Ray More became very successful with a series of records. They were unique in the side of black culture that they portrayed. He became one of the first x-rated comedians, with a series of albums with not-so-subtle titles like "Eat Out More Often" and "Let's Come Together," and others I'm not going to name. As his success grew he added other artists to his stable, like Billie McCallister, who I played early in the show, and female impersonator Jerry Walker. That performer's album, from 1971, was called "Fairy Godmother" and from it is "I Live the Life I Love Because I Love the Life I Live."

But wait a minute, I've got Rudy Ray Moore himself to introduce Jerry Walker. This intro is from a promotional 45, and note that he very incorrectly says Walker is the first female impersonator to have a comedy album.

Rudy Ray Moore - Jerry Walker intro (1971)
Jerry Walker - I Live the Life I Love Because I Love the Life I Live (1971)

Jerry Walker, from the album "Fairy Godmother." He had one more album that I know of, which has eluded me so far, and I'd love to have it as it sounds irresistible. It was called "Sell It Or Sit On It."

Another performer who I can't play on regular radio was Liz Lyons. He had two albums in the early 70s which were mostly x-rated comedy, but he threw in an occasional song. His first album was called "Up Your Ass," and the second was "Around the World," from 1975, from which I got the song "A Long Long Time."

Liz Lyons - A Long Long Time (1975)

We're going back across the ocean now for the next several performers, stopping first in the Netherlands for a cabaret artist known as Daisy Dynamite, from her 1975 album "Live at Oscar Wilde"

Daisy Dynamite - See What the Boys in the Backroom Will Have (1975)

Did I just hear you asking the question, how come there aren't any drag artists singing opera? Well, this may answer that question.

Michael Aspinall - Aprile (1976)

You didn't really want more than a minute of that, did you? That was called "Aprile" and was released in 1976 in the UK by "The Surprising Soprano, Michael Aspinall," which was the title of his album.

More so than in America the British seem to have fascination with men dressed in drag. Through the 70s and 80s on radio and then television, the duo of Hinge & Bracket charmed millions. Patrick Fyffe and George Logan portrayed two lovable elderly spinsters named Hinge & Bracket. They released a number of albums and from one from 1983 called "Dear Ladies" comes the classic "Can't Help Lovin' That Man." I give you Dr. Evadne Hinge and Dame Hilda Bracket.

Hinge & Bracket - Can't Help Lovin' That Man (1983)
Dame Edna - Here I Am (1976)

After Hinge & Bracket was the unmistakable Dame Edna. Barry Humphries first found success in his native Australia, where he created the character Edna Everage in 1956. That role has served him well, in the theatre, television and on film. One of the earliest of his shows to make it to vinyl, in 1976, was "Housewife Superstar," from where I got the song you just heard, called "Here I Am." And I should add that Humphries is one of the very few heterosexuals to appear on this show. And here's some more trivia, the country of Australia has just released a series of postage stamps featuring his picture, which has got to be some sort of first for a drag artist.

Still another English drag artist was one with a very campy name, Frank Foo Foo Lamarr. Born in Manchester, Lamarr became that area's most famous cabaret artist, with a night club he named after himself. His autobiography was called "I Am What I Am," so it should not be surprising that he would record this song on his 1976 album, "My Life at the Palace, the Frank Lamarr Story."

Foo Foo Lamarr - My Way (1976)
The Trollettes - Nagasaki (1983)

[Note:  this song was identified for me in Feb 2007 by a listener in Hawaii; thanks, Hannah! The song "Nagasaki" was composed and written by Harry Warren and Mort Dixon in 1928]

Now I can't really tell what the name of that last song was, and the titles are not listed on the album. The album by the way is called "The Trollettes, Live at The Cricketers" The Cricketers in the early 80s, it says on the back of the album, was voted The Best Drag Pub in London. A couple interesting aspects of the album, at least to me, is that this is a rare example of two drag artists performing together. In this case it was Jimmy Court and David Raven, with the very campy name, The Trollettes. Also the record label was called Bona Records. Gay history trivia buffs might know that the word "bona" was a favorite slang term in an almost secret gay language in England called Polari, so I like that it was used in the label's name. You can check out my August of 2004 show for more info on Polari.

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Okay, were there Spanish drag queens? Well of course, here's one from 1978 called Pierrot, with an album by the same name and a song called "Homosexual." If someone can tell me what this song is about, I'd love to know.

Pierrot - Homosexual (1978)
Samantha - Rock Me Baby (1979)

I followed Pierrot with another Spanish drag queen, named Samantha. I have one 45 by her, from 1979, and it contained the dance song "Rock Me Baby."

In Berlin in the early 80s there was a famous drag club called Chez Nous, and over the years several albums were released of their variety shows. From one from 1980 is just a snippet of the artist Domino, singing "Cabaret Paree."

Domino - Cabaret Paree (1980)

In 1977 a movie came out named "Outrageous," starring Canadian female impersonator Craig Russell, and ten years later it even had a sequel, "Too Outrageous." Russell was one of the major female impersonators of the 70s and 80s and did remarkable impressions of female stars. He was well known for doing Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand, and Mae West, but I thought I would give you a taste of his Carol Channing, with a dash of Marlene Dietrich and Ethel Merman.

Craig Russell - Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend (1977)
Craig Russell - Some of These Days (1987)

Now how many drag artists can you think of that also do Louis Armstrong? Those songs were respectively from his movies "Outrageous" and "Too Outrageous."

   

And, there's more, you've tuned in to the last hour of Part 1 of "Those Singing Drag Queens."

In London in the early 80s Paul O'Grady created an alter ego he named Lily Savage, and Lily started her act in the gay clubs, and then broke into television in the 90s, eventually hosting her own show in England. She is tall, very blond and her humor is very adult, and she has released a number of comedy shows, on CD and video. Along the way she's sung in several productions, including one of Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs. Now that must have been something special. But she's only released one song on its own. From 1988, and with the help of dance music producer Ian Levine, here's Lily Savage and a little of her song "Tough at the Top."

Lily Savage - Tough at the Top (1988)

I quite like that one. That was Lily Savage.

This next artist is not really a female impersonator, but I think he's earned a well-deserved mention on this show for an album he released in 1986. Fred Barton is a composer, director, actor, singer, etc, etc, and his long career started as co-creator of the show "Forbidden Broadway." He's had many more accomplishments than I can name in this short introduction. But he's on this show for his one-man creation "Miss Gulch Returns," in which he played Elmira Gulch. You remember Elmira Gulch, don't you? Well the premise was the entertainment comeback of the witch from "The Wizard of Oz." Here's the very clever song in the show that she sings first, "I'm a Bitch."

Fred Barton - I'm a Bitch (1986)
Fred Barton - Pour Me a Man (1986)

Fred Barton, from "Miss Gulch Returns," and I couldn't resist including a little of that show's cabaret favorite "Pour Me a Man."

play that Victrola...

Diamond Lil QMH ID

Diamond Lil Interview

One of the natural hazards of doing history show, especially since this is part 1 of the story, is that most of the artists are no longer with us. But I am very pleased to bring you an interview with an artist who started performing in drag before Stonewall, and is still active today. She's a true Atlanta legend and her name is Diamond Lil, and she stood apart from the other Atlanta drag queens in the early days because she didn't lip sync, she did her own singing, as you'll hear in this short intro to her style.

Diamond Lil - Proud Mary (1984)

Where did you grow up

Grew up on Savannah, Georgia, land of the oleander, wisteria and Spanish moss

And, what was your first drag experience?

Well, let's see, I was about five years old and I decided…you know how kids are…I decided to go through my mother's things. I put on some pumps, real pretty satin slips my mother had, and sort of a French chapeau hat, you know, that turned to the side, and everything. I went out on the sidewalk and sang for all the little neighbors and everything. Some black folks lived across the street, in Savannah, you know, in a row house, they had kids and all, they just loved it. I was an instant star. And so I just sang and carried on on the sidewalk. I was about five years old.

When did you start performing for people in drag?

I did at little parties, you know, people would have little parties, little cocktail parties, and I would do songs, so I danced for soldiers and sailors, and they loved it.

Were you lip-syncing then?

Mostly dancing, mostly just dancing

And you progressed to lip-syncing then?

Oh, yes, I did that and also did a few things with live piano. There was a club that had live piano; they had guest singers there so I did some guest spots there, not a whole lot because in early days drag was on the blue laws…you know, you could get arrested for that, for being in drag, so you know folks just didn't do drag much. I could paint up a little bit, you know, put some lip rouge on, a little eyebrow pencil and stuff, but basically not full drag, except for a little bit of paint

I was going to ask you about that. Were you arrested for doing drag?

Oh, I've been arrested for drag all my life. So what's new, pussycat?

Roughly when did they stop arresting people for performing in drag?

Atlanta, let me see, I think my last actual female impersonation charge was probably roughly 1970. God, that's 35 years ago, I can't believe it. But they were still doing it then. The cop, I can't believe it, was horrible, although I told him there was no such charge…he wrote me up "female impersonation"…there's no such charge as that. And besides that particular night I was only in what folks would call cosmic drag. That means a little bit of drag and a lot of men's attire, you know, like no falsies, none of that, a man's shirt, a man's pair of shorts, man's sandals, a little bit of paint on the face and like that.

A Wig?

Yeah, I was wearing sort of a hippie-type wig. You know, the hippies were in the city, and all of them had long hair down to their…real long, for guys, so I mean, I wasn't out of context or anything. And I went before the judge and I brought a bag of what I had on and I said these are the man's sandals, this is the man's pants, this is the man's shirt, this is the wig. I said I was going to a hippie nightclub and I wanted to be one of the hippies, so I put the wig on because my hair was short, and I said I didn't want to be an outcast and all, so I put on this wig and everything, and I said, "this is what I had, your honor." And he said, "Hmm, $35 for female impersonation, fine." And I said, "Well, your honor, do I have the right for appeal?" And he said, "You do." And I said, "You may consider this case appealed, right now." So I went to the American Civil Liberties Union lawyer and appealed it. Of course that cost me $150 for the lawyer, to appeal it, and they just supposedly just took it off the record, supposedly, but you know how they are down at the Police Department. Probably still on it.

How did you get the name Diamond Lil?

In the olden years, you know, drag queens had to go with men's names, like Ray Bourbon, was R-A-Y Bourbon, and then when he supposedly had that sex change, in Mexico, which was all fake, he changed it to R-A-E. Rae Bourbon, R-A-E. Well, he told me all that, and had those fake papers, where he could play cities like Atlanta that didn't allow drag, so he claimed he was a woman. And then Charles Pierce, that's how he got his name, Charles; and TC Jones, Charles Pierce, and you know, others.

So I went to Columbus, Ohio, [to perform] and came up with the name Lesley Diamond. Well, Lesley's a crossover name, could be a man or a woman. So I used that in Columbus, Ohio, and came back to Atlanta after I did that stint there, and I got hired here at one of the clubs, and the owner said "well, what is your name, how do I announce you?" I said, "Well, I don't know, people just know me as Lil all over Atlanta," and I said "that's kind of silly, and I don't want to use Lesley Diamond, I'm through with that name." And he said, "Well, you're on, you're on, what am I to say?Just Lil, or what?" And I said, "What about Diamond Lil?" "Ladies and Gentlemen, Miss Diamond Lil." And at that time I hadn't really paid much attention to Mae West, by the way, because she was popular in the 20s. She was way before my time, and so I didn't know she had written a play entitled "Diamond Lil," but she had, I'm sure you've heard of it. So I didn't even know that until, I'd say, two, three years later. I said [to myself], "Oh, Jesus, people are going to think I stole it from Mae. Well, no, you didn't, you got it erroneously. And to hell with it, you've already got it."

Well, I try not to get too deep into an interview before hearing some more music, so could you please tell me about "Love Generator"

"Love Generator" is the weirdest thing that has ever happened in show business. "Love Generator" was supposed to be [the song] "Cabbage Town Katie." Alright, well we got into the studio and I got this producer. Well, the producer, I didn't know, wanted to do his own thing. And he began saying, "Well, you need to straighten out these tracks. Let's change this track and get rid of that. Let's add a hot guitar on this one. Oh, well let's put maybe some electric piano on this other track." By the time I turned around the whole concept was changed. When they played it back it had nothing to do with Cabbagetown. Okay, well the tracks got changed. I said "This has nothing to do with Cabbagetown, it won't work. You've got all this money put in it. You've got to do another song." So I sat down, I said "What the hell can you do with this track." So, up comes "Love Generator," and I don't know where it came from

There are two versions of that song also.

Oh, yes, well what happened was once again the studio took so long, and I said, "Since you're going to put out an LP, and you're out of money," I said "use the same track and make it a comedy version between Bette Davis, Mae West, Tallulah Bankhead and Katherine Hepburn, and let them be at a party and let them be, you know, talking to one another. And so what it is, I changed the different voices, which I really didn't rehearse that well, and make it a sort of comedy. And lo and behold if a lot of people really don't like that version a lot. They really do.

Diamond Lil - Love Generator (Glamour Version) (1984)

How did you move from lip synching to real singing?

Because the jealous queens kept voting me off the stage. You know, they gradually got more and more people on the stage, to where they had ten different performers. I started it, the whole kid and caboodle. I started it and they expanded it, cause more and more people wanted to join in, and so the owner of the club kept adding more and more to the cast, and the cast decided they didn't like me because I was very, very good with what I did, so they were jealous and they didn't like that. So they would begin to just vote me off the stage and go to the owner and say "Get Diamond Lil off the stage. We want work." And of course the owners, being so namby-pamby, would kind of go along with them and tell me, "Oh, well, don't come in, we're having disharmony with the other entertainers," and this, that and the other, and they did me that well all over town, and I said, "the hell with them, I'll just get me a band. I'll just put a little ad in the paper and drum up a band.

How was the band received?

They loved me as an immediate success, just immediately, and the guys, the four guys that I started with, the Converse Allstars, they adored me. They were four straight guys. One or two of them I should have tried something with, but I never believed in mixing business with pleasure, or pleasure with business, whatever. Most of my bands, the majority of my bands were primarily straight, 90% of them, you know, they're not gay bands. So that's how I started. The drags made me do it. It was not my intention to become a big rock & roll star. It was all an accident.

Was there a club that was perhaps more prominent than others in your career?

Well we had at one time around the early 1970s and mid 70s, we had seven or eight drag clubs throughout the city and they began to diminish. I played a lot of the straight rock & roll clubs that were basically musical clubs, you know, where a lot of straight people went, and some gay clubs a little. But the gay clubs never wanted much of anything but pantomime. They really didn't want to fool with bands too much.

What about the Sweet Gum Head?

That was basically pantomime. I did play with the band, I believe, once, and that was very, very successful. And then I was emcee there for a long time, and that was very successful

Was that perhaps the most popular drag club in Atlanta over the years?

It lasted about ten years. It was very, very popular. People came from all around to go to the Sweet Gum, you know, it was real, real popular. They had really nice shows, you know, lip synch

I think I was in that club, I came through Atlanta perhaps '80 or '81.

It closed in '81, I think perhaps August of '81, seems like it was the summer of '81 when it finally closed

Tell me about your stage act

Well, I'm just a wild Tina Turner-style, so if you've seen Tina, which I'm sure you have, it's very much like her, very, very much like her. I dress a little differently than she does, but I do a lot of rapping with the audience, more so than she does. She does more songs, and I'll do a song or two and then I'll rap a little bit with the audience, and tell a joke or two or a short story or two. I add a little bit more dialog to the show, than Tina does. She sticks more to her songs. And I change looks, from blonde, to redheads, brunettes

How about the song "Jailhouse Jezebel"?

Oh, that came to me because I've been thrown in jail so many times until it was a natural.

Diamond Lil - Jailhouse Jezebel (1984)

This next song will be for my internet listeners only. Tell me about "Big Lollipop"

Oh, "Big Lollipop," the musicians went to a studio and this guy called me and said, "Diamond, we've gone into the studio and we have really cooked with a musical composition, and it's just as hot as it could be. We want you to do some lyrics." And so he gave me the tape, and I thought, "What in the world is this going on here?" So that just sort of began to gel. I don't know where that came from either, and so I wrote the "Big Lollipop" over it, and it was quite a hit, they loved that one. And I made a big production out of it. I used to have backup dancers with it, you know, male backup dancers, you know, in jock straps and everything, and in each jock strap they had a big lollipop I'd pull out of their jock strap and throw it out to the audience. Oh, it was a scandal. They did muscle poses and all behind me, and everything. It was fabulous!

Diamond Lil - Big Lollipop (1984)

I'd like to ask about some of the other legendary drag performers that you've probably crossed paths with. How about Rae Bourbon?

Oh, Rae Bourbon she was a scandal. She was wonderful. She was highly comedic, and she was real personable, and all that. She chose the right name, because she would order a tumbler full of bourbon…about every twenty minutes she would scream out to the bartender for another glass of bourbon, and it was just straight bourbon. She'd set up there on the stage and do all this comedy, which was really good and it was primarily really for a straight audience. Gays went, of course, but it was primarily for a straight audience

Well, she I'm sure was the most prolific among any of the drag artists who recorded.

Oh yes, she was big, bigger than I remember because I was real young to go to town, and you could hardly get in, you'd sort of have to sneak in. You know, you had to be 21, and if you sort of knew the doorman and winked at him or something he'd say, "oh, go on in." You know, stuff like that, they always had a doorman. And she played, I believe it was six nights a week, she made $600 [a week] which was huge, huge money in that era, but she drank up $600 in liquor. They'd give her a tab for $600 so her salary would be nothing, so she'd cuss out the nightclub owner and she'd say "the hell with you, I want $300 cash, I'm not paying you a $600 bar bill. And she'd get $300, she'd get half of it, and she'd hire a piano player for that too, she always had a piano player. He'd play the piano for her backup. She sang little songs and such and she paid him a little, a small salary, not much. She'd sit up there and she'd drink the bourbon and she didn't fall off the stage or anything

Can you think of any interesting stories about her?

Oh, yes, and she'd go to the parties and all the young stuff at the parties, after the show and all, oh she'd just get them in the bushes and pull out their cocks and give them all blowjobs. She was fabulous that way, left no stones unturned. Of course she was an old piece, and she would talk and say "on my next birthday I can't wait for it, I'll turn 69!" She'd say that on stage a lot, "On my next birthday I'll be 69 years old

How about Charles Pierce?

Charles Pierce, oh, I worked with her out there (in San Francisco) and she turned out to be a horrible bitch, and you'd think she'd be more professional because, I mean, what could anybody do to her, she was already totally established, but the jealousy reigned. You know, if you're a jealous bitch to start with, you remain a jealous bitch, but anyway, back to Miss Pierce, there was this contest out there, and of course she played at this club, Finnochio's, so I entered the contest on a lark, I was brand new in town, they had six or eight contestants and I got out and did my number. And of course Miss Pierce was just taken aback. She was just "oh my God," by the look on her face. What she did, just to be a total bitch, she said, "It looks like we got a tie. Well, one of the lesbian singers, she sang live, and of course I sang live. At that time I had the "Smooth Operator" out on 45. And she said, "It looks like there's a tie, and we're going to have to applaud between…we'll call the lesbian Mary Sue…and Diamond Lil. So she automatically knew that all the dykes in the audience were going to applaud for Mary Sue, because they knew her, as a friend. And I was from out of town. "Well it looks like Mary Sue is the winner." I had actually won it to start with, you know, cause I could tell by the applause. But she pulled that bull so that I wouldn't win.

But then shortly I began working with her and she would tape her face up with tons of adhesive tape, you know, give herself a facelift under the wig. God, she was taped, I never saw so much tape. I made the mistake of going to her dressing room and saying, "Well, Miss Thing, where to you want me on the line-up?" Of course she told me, and some other performer sort of overheard that and said, "Oh my God, you just really put your foot in it," she said, "she detests being called Miss Thing." And I said, "Well, everybody's called Miss Thing. That's just a universal…a universal way to address a drag queen, Miss Thing." But anyway, she didn't do anything further to me. She'd already done what she could do with the contest. When she left that club, they put my name headlining the marquee.

Well I know the Jewel Box Revue toured a lot…

I saw that, it came to town two three times and I tried to make it a point to see it. It was always 25 dolls and one guy, and the one guy was a lesbian in drag, but it was a real good show, real good.

What are your memories of Jayne County in those days?

Oh, Jayne, bless her heart, I gave her inspiration to become a star. I have inspired many. Jayne originally was Wayne. She came to see me early on. I gave her lots and lots of inspiration, and she does mention me in one of her books, I think, that incidentally I have not read, but I understand that there's maybe a paragraph, as to where her inspiration came from Diamond Lil

     {Well, you can read what Jayne said, below, from her 1995 book}

Let's slip in another song. I like "You Can Have My Husband"…that's not one of yours, is
it?

No, that's an old rock & roll song and probably hardly ever heard, and one of the producers came up with that song and told me I should do it.

Oh, it's a good song.

It is a good song, and the really like it in performance, oh, they really do like it. That one is especially good in performance.

Diamond Lil - You Can Have My Husband (1984)

You also have a reputation as a writer, advice columns, stories

Oh, yes, I was very, very famous as a writer, oh, everywhere I went, oh, "Diamond, we love your advice column, it's the most wonderful thing that's ever happened, We love it, we love it, we love it." And it also sold ads in the magazine, because they would say, "Oh, our magazine has the 'Dear Diamond Lil' column

And I heard you're known for writing obituaries

They like that, and that was real difficult to do because I said, "What are you doing with this thing, people were not getting mentioned. They died and people were just forgotten. People never knew they died." So I decided, when three of my friends died and there was no mention, I said to myself, well, you need to write something about them. And that's how that started, and I began to expand on it, and lo and behold, they printed it. And I was shocked, and I expanded and expanded on the story, and they printed it and printed it and printed it, to where it became people whenever I went said, "Oh, I just love your obituaries, I want you to write mine." And lo and behold I wrote several, unfortunately, and they were my good friends. "Oh, Diamond, I want you to write mine…" It was awful, and I said, well, they asked me to do it

I've saved my favorite of your songs to ask about for last. Can you please tell me about the song "Silver Grill Blues"

"Silver Grill Blues," that's a restaurant that's been here since 1945, and on that album I go into this long rap that sort of describes it, you know, being a little white-washed concrete diner, and it's kind of a greasy spoon type thing. So it just dawned on me one day to write a song about it. I was never really a songwriter, so that's how the song developed, and then I had some bands at the time, different ones, and we sort of just developed the song. And I would sing it at all of my live performances, and consequently made the Silver Grill extremely popular, because every time I did the song it would send hoards of people over there to eat their chicken

You have more than one version of that song.

Yes, I do. What happened to that version is that it took so damn long in the studio. The first cut on that album is the original cut. It took so long in the studio to hone it down and to get it done…oh, it was driving me nuts…it was to come out on a 45. It was to be "Silver Grill" on one side, and on the other side was supposed to be "Cabbage Town Catie," and so, after it took so long I began to decide, well, why don't you just put out an LP, so in doing that I thought, you could use another version of "Silver Grill," and include a trucker and a waitress, and make it a little more comedy. So that version came out, and the people like that one a lot, too.

Is that your most popular song?

Oh, yeah, but I would love to become known for another song, because the Silver Grill has not given me a chicken wing, or a gizzard, or a cup of coffee, or a damn thing.

Diamond Lil - Silver Grill Blues (Grease Version) (1984)

Again, that was Diamond Lil with the one of the two versions she recorded of "Silver Grill Blues," and she called that the Grease Version, from her 1984 album, "Queen of Diamonds."

I'm getting to the end of Part 1 of my special two-part show "Those Singing Drag Queens," and I admit it's been one of my more ambitious projects for Queer Music Heritage, trying to do justice to about 80 years of performing drag artists. I knew that in no way could I cover them all even in two radio shows. Fortunately I've got a huge website that allows me to upload extended versions of my show, where my internet listeners can hear more comments by Diamond Lil and many more artists. That of course can be found at www.queermusicheritage.com. And, as always if you have questions or comments about any of the music I've featured, please write to me. For tonight's show I thank you all for listening, and I especially want to thank Diamond Lil for the wonderful interview. And I want to thank her for providing me with a whole slew of memorabilia, which you can see on my site.

Okay, I'm down to the last artist of the show, and the last song, which is a dance song, and in a way it's a preview of Part 2 of "Those Singing Drag Queens," to be heard next month. It's a preview because I'm closing Part 1 in the mid-80s and in the last 20 years performing drag artists have done a LOT of dance music. Closing the show is an artist it's hard to be indifferent about. You either loved his campiness and spirit or were disgusted by his other antics, like the closing scene of his first movie, 1972's "Pink Flamingos." Of course I'm talking about Divine.

This was a very, very unlikely person to become such a celebrity, and he had a lot of success, in a number of movies, like "Polyester," with Tab Hunter, "Lust In The Dust," and one I quite liked, "Hairspray." And he had an inexplicable success doing dance music.

His first single, "Born to Be Cheap," from 1979, did not make much of an impression, but others caught on, like "Shoot Your Shot," "Love Reaction," and "Jungle Jezebel." One from 1984 that made the Billboard charts in several countries was "You Think You're a Man." That one is also perhaps his most lyrically gay song, so this is JD Doyle for Queer Voices on KPFT Houston, closing with "You Think You're a Man," by Divine.

Divine - You Think You're a Man (1984)

Divine