Here’s a cool article about lesbian “power” couples of the past, quite a few of whom I have to admit I’d never heard of. Who are your favorites?
Archive for the ‘singers/performers’ Category
Billie Holiday home
219 South Durham Street
Billie Holiday (1915-1959) had a rough childhood. As a young girl named Eleanora Fagan, she cut school so often she was sent to live at the House of the Good Shepherd, a home for “colored girls” run by the Little Sisters of the Poor (Claverton Road and Franklin Street). There, she may have had her first lesbian experiences.
Returned to her mother after a year, the two took up residence at this address, one of dozens they occupied over the years. The house is still standing, but the original brick façade was covered over with Permastone in the 1950s. It was in this house, in 1926, that Eleanora was raped by a neighbor and subsequently sent back to Good Shepherd. But she was a handful, and the sisters refused to keep her for long.
At only 11 years old, Eleanora earned money cleaning for a whorehouse madam. The madam let her listen to the records of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, who had a combined influence on her singing style. Eleanora began singing at various storefront churches, but her first professional gig was at Buddy Love’s, a club located at Orleans and Wayside.
As a young teenager, Eleanora moved to New York with her mother, and pursued a singing career, transforming herself into Billie Holiday. After years of touring with Count Basie, she was offered her first steady job at Café Society in 1938, earning $75 a week. From that, she went on to be featured soloist at clubs all over the country, acquiring the nickname “Lady Day.” Her distinctive voice, which she used like a musical instrument, transformed jazz singing. “I don’t think I’m singing,” she once said of her style. “I feel like I’m playing a horn.”
Holiday had many affairs with both men and women, but was known as a “les” among many of her peers in the music industry. One of her female lovers reported that “Billie even got the name Mister Holiday, because she was seldom seen with fellas.” Holiday once told a colleague, “Sure, I’ve been to bed with women… but I was always the man.”
Sadly, by the 1940s Holiday was addicted to heroin and alcohol, and she was arrested on drug charges several times. Many club owners would no longer take the risk of hiring her because she was often high during performances. Her career went progressively downhill, and she finally died in 1959 of liver cirrhosis and other complications of substance abuse.
A commemorative statue of Holiday stands in Baltimore at 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Ma Rainey home
805 Fifth Avenue
Gertrude Pridgett / Ma Rainey (1886-1939) was born in Columbus to parents who were minstrel performers, and she began her own singing career at the tender age of 14 at the local Springer Opera House. She went on the road in 1902, and two years later married Will Rainey (nicknamed “Pa”), who led a touring company called the Rabbit Foot Minstrels (billed as “The World’s Most Famous Colored Show”).
Although her marriage didn’t last long, Rainey herself enjoyed a 30-year career, and through her live performances and recordings became a nationally recognized blues singer nicknamed “Mother of the Blues.” In 1935, she retired to this house, which she had built for her mother; she is buried in the town’s Porterdale Cemetery. Once endangered and almost demolished by the city, Rainey’s house was saved through an arduous fundraising process. It has been lovingly restored, and is now open to the public.
Besides her own prodigious talents, Ma Rainey also gave the world Bessie Smith, whom she discovered as a young girl on the streets of Chattanooga, and with whom she may have been lovers. Throughout her life, Rainey pursued affairs with women, and in the 1920s was arrested for holding a lesbian orgy in her apartment. Among her gutsy queer blues numbers was “Prove It On Me Blues,” in which she openly defended cross-dressing and lesbianism. An advertisement for the recording showed a woman in full male drag escorting two very feminine flappers. Rainey also wrote about her husband’s sexual relationship with a “queen” named Miss Kate, in a song called “Sissy Blues.”
Went out last night with a crowd of my friends,
They must have been women ’cause I don’t like no men.
They say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me,
They sure got to prove it on me.
–from “Prove It On Me Blues” by Ma Rainey
329 Beale Street
Beale Street Historic District
Before emancipation, Memphis was already home to many freedmen, and after the Civil War, the area around Beale Street became predominantly black. By the late 19th century, Beale Street was the acknowledged capital of African-American Memphis and of the mid-South, also achieving a reputation as a raw, exciting center of music and entertainment. Blues composer W.C. Handy lived on the street and immortalized it in 1912 in his “Beale Street Blues.” His talent drew such great performers as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Alberta Hunter (bisexuals all), who during the 1920s regularly played in the clubs and performances spaces lining the street, such as the Daisy Theater; the theater was restored in the 1980s (it’s pictured above pre- and post-renovation) and is now the Beale Street Blues Museum. In addition, Beale Street is today a national historic district with markers pointing out its significant historic sites.
San Francisco, Calif.
Black Cat Cafe
710 Montgomery Street
Like many early gay bars, the famous Black Cat didn’t start out that way. Just a few blocks from the center of North Beach, the Black Cat was first distinguished as a bohemian hang-out (it billed itself as Bohemia of the Barbary Coast) and provided the backdrop for part of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Following World War II, when gay men and lesbians swarmed San Francisco after service in the Pacific, the Black Cat assumed a “gayer” personality. The poet Allen Ginsburg, who knew it in the ’50s, described it as an enormous bar with a honky-tonk piano that “everyone” went to: “All the gay screaming queens would come, the heterosexual gray flannel suit types, longshoremen. All the poets went there.”
At a time when homophile organizations like the Mattachine Society were largely conciliatory to the police and to city officials, the Black Cat was noteworthy as a site of resistance. Its owner, Sol Stoumen, refused to pay off the police for protection against harassment, and his bar was routinely raided and fined from the 1940s through the early 1960s. During the 1950s, the Black Cat’s flamboyant drag performer, Jose Sarria, sang campy parodies of torch songs, giving them political twists, and finished each set by leading the bar’s patrons in his rendition of “God Save Us Nelly Queens,” even when members of the vice squad were present. His brand of activist theater made him extremely popular among gays, and in 1961 Sarria decided to campaign for city supervisor, knowing that he had no chance of winning. Though he received only a few thousand votes, Sarria said later that his intention had been to show his peers that a gay man had the right to run, whether he won or lost.
The Black Cat was closed in 1963. Said the attorney for the club, “That place is like an institution. This is like closing the cable cars or the Golden Gate Bridge.” There is now an upscale tapas and wine bar called Bocadillos on the site.