Hear Them Talkin’ To Ya

Written by Elliott Hurwitt

Music Historian

In category: Program Notes

Published December 10, 2019

Program notes for Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do: Songs of Gay Harlem
Thursday, December 12 at Merkin Hall at Kaufman Music Center

“The World’s Most Glamorous Atmosphere. Why, it is just like the Arabian Nights!”—Duke Ellington, on first seeing Harlem in 1923

The idea for tonight’s show came to me a few years ago as I was listening to my favorite music anthology, The Sound of Harlem, with its superb song selection and photographs from the matchless collection of Frank Driggs. Every track in this three-LP set rewards repeated listening, but on that occasion one in particular popped out: “Red Beans and Rice,” sung and played by Gladys Bentley. I knew she was the most famous lesbian entertainer of the Jazz Era. I doubted an entire show could be built around her.  Consulting Brian Rust’s recording compendium Jazz Records, 1897-1942 confirmed that she hadn’t made a lot of recordings, and I doubted there was an archive of her papers or any manuscripts (though she wrote a memoir that has not been found). A lot has been written about her as a historical figure. I was pretty certain that no one had written about her as a creative artist, as opposed to a funny little fat woman dressed up as a man. Truth be told, I had no idea whether or not I could find any evidence of her creative work. But we had those few records, and that was a start.

My next keystone was Porter Grainger. He was one of the most prolific piano accompanists on records in the 1920s. I had written an encyclopedia entry on Grainger and knew he had written (actually partly adapted from folk materials) the 1920s standards “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” and “Dyin’ Crapshooters Blues” (a variant of the more commercially successful “St. James Infirmary”). Also a popular 1920s Jazz instrumental, “In Harlem’s Araby.” He had recorded that one, with its rarely sung lyrics, with co-composer Fats Waller at the piano. Grainger added in a clearly gay verse that is not in the published sheet music. We do two of his three aforementioned pieces in tonight’s show, plus his “He Just Don’t Appeal To Me,” a nice comic song that was recorded by Duke Ellington’s Orchestra in 1929.

Grainger was in Pittsburgh and Chicago in the second decade of the 20th Century, and married a woman named Alies Keith (or Raeth, both names appear, in different documents. He moved to Harlem by 1920, and married singer Ethel Finnie. They had a daughter, Portia, but Porter and Ethel were separated by 1930, and she was living in New Orleans with their child. Grainger remained in New York, very busy making music pursuing his own projects. He was living with one Frederick Johnson in 1925. A more important professional (and probably personal) relationship was with fellow-musician Bob Ricketts, with whom he shared an apartment as well as a music publishing office as of 1924. In 1926, the two published a short book, How to Play and Sing the Blues Like the Phonograph and Stage Artists. It is a wonderful tutorial.

Grainger’s personal life is more reminiscent of the blues women of the era. As the 1920s show dancer Maude Russell Rutherford, nearing 100 recalled, “I guess we were bisexual, that’s what you would call it today.” Another source claimed that all the great show singers were gay or bisexual: Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Ethel Waters, Josephine Baker, all of them. The men in their professional lives, such as producers, were sexually demanding but showed no tenderness, and the showgirls roomed together. They risked being mocked as “bulldaggers,” but lesbianism was so common in that era it was almost accepted: for gay men, it was far, far worse. Some of the blues divas had written very good songs. I added them into the mix, and now I had a near-complete show. All we needed now were some Billy Strayhorn masterworks to add stylistic variety to the show and work in a second male composer to balance the blues women. Steve Blier really knows his Strayhorn; the hard part was selecting only a few of his works. Strayhorn would cover the swing era for us (along with a 1940 Alberta Hunter song). My main task was to cover the Harlem Renaissance.

The Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes claimed, began in 1919 with the return to New York of the 369th Regiment Hell Fighters (with their peerless band led by James Reese Europe) and ended with the full onset of the Great Depression in 1930. That was certainly when the funding diminished for high art creators like Hughes. Commercial enterprises were another matter. In 1920, few would have predicted that Harlem was on its way to becoming the capital of Black America. Other cities saw larger population migrations from the south in the World War I era. Among these was Chicago, to which the Illinois Central Railroad funneled masses of Black people straight north from New Orleans and Mississippi. This fueled a vital jazz scene in Chicago in the early 1920s, with the arrival from New Orleans of such major talents as King Oliver and his protege Louis Armstrong. Early published (“commercial”) blues spread to Chicago from Memphis before New York. But New York had multiple other factors going for it, including the nation’s largest population and its increasing dominance in the theatrical, publishing, and recording industries.

Though today we think of it in terms of jazz, Harlem had a musical community as rich in variety as that of the larger white city to its south. The churches rang with hymns old and new, spirituals, and larger scale anthems and other classical works. The greatest spirituals arranger, Harry Burleigh, was also writing arrangements for the European publishing house of Ricordi, and was much in demand as a baritone soloist in churches and synagogues. (J. P. Morgan specified that Burleigh sing at his funeral.) There were fine Harlem organists such as Melville Charlton and a boy wonder named Fats Waller. Orchestra and chamber music flourished, with prominent violinists such as Allie Ross and cellist Marion Cumbo performing string quartets as well as in the pit bands for the hit show Shuffle Along. There were music conservatories, and the New Amsterdam Musical Association (founded in 1904 and still extant).

More famed were the many clubs, cabarets, and ballrooms in the area. Some admitted only white customers, but there were also numerous “black and tans” and one renowned club, Small’s Paradise, owned and strictly operated by and for black people. There was the Lafayette Theater, high-toned and black-owned and operated, and the New York Age, whose columnists kept their fingers on the pulse of Black community affairs and acted as arbiters of taste. Harlem had its louche side, but was also rich in decent citizens and self-respect. “Big old, good-looking, easy-going, proud-walking Harlem,” as W.C. Handy called it.

In the blues craze of the 1920s, one figure was acknowledged as the great blues progenitor, particularly throughout the south, which was more central to the music’s development than racial identity.  Folklorist/ poet Sterling Brown names two Missouri towns at the beginning of his moving poem about Rainey. Ma claimed she had first heard blues in Missouri in 1902:

When Ma Rainey Comes to Town
Folks from anyplace, miles around
From Cape Girardeau and Poplar Bluff
Flocks in to hear Ma Strut Her Stuff

If she heard blues that early she wasn’t performing them. In her young years her repertoire, and Bessie Smith’s, consisted of the most popular vocal style of the day, “coon songs,” with old minstrel stereotypes set to up-to-date ragtime. Blues may not predate around 1907; there are very few surviving references to blues prior to W.C. Handy’s issuing his “Memphis Blues” in 1912. It can’t be proved that either Rainey or Smith sang blues before 1914.

Ma Rainey was born Gertrude Pridgett in 1886. She was on the stage at 14, and at 18 married William “Pa” Rainey, a comedian, singer and dancer. The pair were constantly in motion across a broad territory in the south and up into West Virginia for small-town off-season tours in the summers. By1906, they were traveling in vaudeville as a double act, with such leading New Orleans-based shows as Tolliver’s Circus. By 1915, Rainey and Rainey were being billed as the “assassinators of the blues,” though only Ma was singing this new music. The Raineys’ marriage was primarily a business arrangement: little is known about Pa, but Ma was a lesbian whose lovers included the younger Bessie Smith. She would chase away men who made advances to Smith. Pa Rainey was often too sick to perform, and he died in 1919.

Ma Rainey had an intense rapport with her audiences, comparable only to that of such top comedians as Butler “String Beans” May and Jackie “Moms” Mabley. All three engaged in outrageous material, in Ma’s case including a scatological routine; in one of her songs she brags of killing three women before the police found out. Rappers of recent decades like to pose as tough guys; Ma Rainey would have picked her teeth with them. The record companies were wary of her, though they fell all over themselves trying to sign up “blues” singers following the success of Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” in 1920: Ethel Waters, Lucille Hegamin, Alberta Hunter, Katie Crippen, Clara Smith, Edith Wilson, and a slew of others went into the studios. Some of these women were pretty, and most were in their early 20s—I knew one of them, Isabel Washington Powell, when she was in her 90s. She was 14 when Black Swan recorded her, and they sang negligible pop songs. What little blues the “blues divas” had they owed in part to Rainey and Bessie Smith, the two greatest exponents of the blues. Smith was finally recorded at the beginning of 1923; Ma Rainey had to wait till the end of the year, by which time she was 37. As she told a young admirer, “I thought they forgot about this old lady.”

Rainey was in her heyday primarily an itinerant performer in black vaudeville, working the “chitlin’ circuit” through much of the south and Midwest up to Chicago. Some sources claim she only visited New York once, but she actually appeared there repeatedly, generally at the capacious Lincoln Theatre. She probably also played less-publicized Harlem venues when she recorded in New York in 1924 and 1925, with Louis Armstrong and Don Redman, among other giants of Jazz. By 1926, she was riding high. Her stage show included five lovely chorines. Her six-piece band was a who’s who of Jazz: Big Charlie Green, trombone; Buster Bailey, clarinet; Coleman Hawkins, the greatest tenor sax man in Jazz, doubled on bass sax; Fletcher Henderson, a founder of the big band genre, was at the piano. Also in the show was Ma’s adoptive son Danny, whose routines included female impersonation.

Rainey’s career sank at the end of the 1920s, along with those of all of the “classic blues singers” even Bessie Smith, who had been the biggest star Columbia Records had. Ma’s old fans never forgot the short, squat woman in her 50 pounds of beaded dress, diamonds in her teeth, who came to town, sometimes with Thomas “Long Boy” Dorsey at the piano, and they whomped those blues like nobody else:

O Ma Rainey,
Li’l an’ low;
Sing us ’bout de hard luck
Roun’ our do’;
Sing us ’bout de lonesome road
We mus’ go. . . .

I talked to a fellow, an’ the fellow say,
She jes’ catch hold of us, somekindaway. . .

Rainey’s songs were remarkably explicit about her personal life, as we hear tonight in “Prove It On Me” and “Sissy Man Blues”: her audience loved her candor. But in 1928, her recording contract was terminated; a Paramount Records executive later claimed that her style of rough blues had simply gone out of fashion.

Bessie Smith was born sometime between 1892 and 1895. She first gained press notice in 1909 and worked briefly with the Raineys the following year. Though she has been described as a protege of Ma Rainey’s, the two were close contemporaries and there is nothing to support the claim that Smith learned her stuff from Rainey. Smith was already celebrated by 1910. The cliched image of Smith as a lugubrious singer of mournful blues is only part of the story. Her contemporary Perry “Mule” Bradford recalled her as a fine “flatfoot dancer.” Her pretty composition “It Makes My Love Come Down” dates from 1929, near the end of her heyday. It is but one of many surviving testaments to her creative power and the great range of her work.

The recording industry had, even before the Great Depression, gone through multiple downturns, including one in 1928. This was a bad moment for the 1920s blues divas: they were going out of fashion by 1933, when Bessie Smith was called into the studios one final time to record with an up-to-date band including clarinetist Benny Goodman.

Four years later Smith was killed in a car smash-up outside the Mississippi Delta town of Clarksdale. The impresario John Hammond puffed up her death into a sermon on racism, fooling, among others, Edward Albee (who later based a short play on the episode). Smith was treated at the accident scene by a good local white doctor. Her injuries would have killed her today, let alone in 1937: while the doctor performed first aid till the ambulance came, another car plowed into the accident scene on that dark country road. Smith’s demise was part of a larger generational die-off: Ma Rainey died in obscurity in 1939, listed on her death certificate as a housekeeper. The great trumpeter King Oliver, mentor to Louis Armstrong, died in 1938, an attendant at a pool hall. Had they lived till 1945, they would have been swept up in a tremendous wave of nostalgia for early jazz.

Porter Grainger was still in some demand in this period: he contributed material used in Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s revues at Harlem’s Apollo Theater and at Robinson’s Mimo Club, and he had a studio as a teacher and vocal coach in the theater district. He was engaged as a pianist and organist on recordings as late as 1945, but his era was over; when he died in 1949 he was living in obscurity in Pittsburgh, in a hotel managed by his uncle.

Two outliers get their own moments in the sun on tonight’s program. Tony Jackson was the king of New Orleans brothel pianists in the early twentieth century and a good composer of ragtime as well as pop songs. He was openly gay and some of his songs supposedly had lyrics specifically alluding to his longtime lover, but the original lyrics are unfortunately lost. He is best remembered for his pop song “Pretty Baby,” a perennial hit and the title of a famous Louis Malle film. According to his fan Jelly Roll Morton, Jackson ultimately found it too hard to live as a gay man in New Orleans and moved to Chicago. But the historical Negro press shows him repeatedly moving between the Crescent City and the north.

J. Berni Barbour straddled the worlds of classical and popular music for decades. Early in his career he had a music publishing house with the brass bandleader and educator N. Clark Smith and was a virtuoso classical pianist. Barbour migrated to New York from Chicago, along with much of the Midwest center’s black artistic population, around 1919 (the year of an awful race riot in Chicago). He became a demonstration pianist in the offices of Pace and Handy in Times Square. Flo Ziegfeld employed him to select the Black cast members for the original production of Show Boat in 1927. In addition to pop music, he wrote in longer forms, including an opera Ethiopia, but these more ambitious works are lost. His most famous composition is “My Daddy Rocks Me With One Steady Roll,” which was a hit in the early Jazz era. It has as many verses as there are singers, and some of the unpublished ones are delightfully explicit.

Changes in taste explain some of the decline of the 1920s blues stars: with the onset of the Swing Era in the 1930s mere sidemen like Benny Goodman were becoming stars, along with young singers like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Bebop emerged in the early-mid 1940s, and even the traditional jazz revival of the period did not help the classic blues singers: only the few that were still living in the 1960s enjoyed the interest of a new crop of young people.

Gladys Bentley was the most renowned gay entertainer of the 1920s. Little is known of her life in Harlem prior to 1928, though she claimed to have moved there from her native Philadelphia in 1923 (she was 16 that year). She hit the big time in Harlem in 1928 and soon was the star attraction at a club called the Clam House, then also at the Mad House and other venues. She quickly adopted her signature outfit of white tuxedo, hair slicked back, and sang in a husky low tenor. Her recordings of this period, such as her composition “Ground Hog Blues” and Bob Fuller’s “Red Beans and Rice,” were standard blues of the period, and they contained no explicit lesbian content. Later in the 1920s, as the blues fad began to wane, she increasingly added ordinary pop songs to her repertoire, but laced them with double entendres, then outright smut; I won’t reprint an example here, as it would burn your eyeballs. In 1931, she claimed to have married a white woman, a fellow singer, in a civil ceremony in New Jersey. Her career was nearing its peak: she was appearing at a midtown Manhattan club called the King’s Terrace, and owned her own club in Harlem. She was in demand at exclusive parties, including ones held by New York mayor Jimmy Walker, and she moved into a fine Park Avenue apartment with servants.

Then it all came down. The repeal of Prohibition in 1933 brought the Roaring ‘20s to a halt. Bentley moved her act back to Harlem, but soon had to go on the road, playing further and further west, finally settling in Hollywood. The gay club scene on the West Coast was more tenacious than in the east, and she found work at such lesbian establishments as Mona’s 400 Club in San Francisco. But her star had fallen, as clubs now segregated by proclivity replaced those for mixed patrons. The latter would lose their liquor licenses, even be padlocked, if a single gay person could be identified in them. And Bentley was now under the basilisk eye of the House Unamerican Activities Committee, which viewed interracial marriage, let alone same-sex marriage, as subversive. Though Bentley continued to perform, the HUAC persecution took its toll, and she took drastic actions to support herself and her mother. A 1952 issue of Ebony magazine included a feature article entitled “I Am a Woman Again,” in which Bentley wrote of her rehabilitation as a heterosexual woman, thanks to hormone treatments and the gentle attentions of a man identified only as Don. By the time the article came out she had married a theater columnist named J.T. Gipson, who soon shuffled off this mortal coil. Her final marriage was to Los Angeles cook Charles Robert. They broke up fairly quickly, and he denied ever having married her. She then went back to her “sinner” life while living with and caring for her mother. Bentley made one final mainstream appearance, on Groucho Marx’s wonderful TV show You Bet Your Life. Dressed as a woman, Bentley sings and plays the pop song “Them There Eyes.”  Catch this on YouTube: Bentley is terrific.

Bentley’s afterlife was largely in her fan’s recollections. Eventually a buildup of historical attention began, first with general histories of Harlem. With the rise of gay studies Bentley has become an object of fascination. In January 2019, she was featured in the New York Times’s “Overlooked”obituary series, in a profile by Giovanni Russonello. By the time I finished my Harlem research for this concert, an immense photo of Bentley was visible from the 125th Street 6 Train platform, fluttering over the sidewalk. In September 2019, avant-garde Jazz musician Allen Lowe released a recording entitled “Poor Pilgrim of Sorrow Suite/I Am a Woman Again (Gladys Bentley Suite)”: the Bentley suite is in 17 movements. Wherever she is, she must be enjoying all the attention.

The Harlem of the 1920s is falling victim to demolition, especially the old theaters: the Lafayette Theatre and the Renaissance Casino, to name just two recently lost. But behind the garish façade of the Metropolitan Baptist Church on 135th Street is the virtually intact interior of the 1915 Lincoln Theatre, one of the great Harlem Renaissance showplaces. This was Ma Rainey’s Harlem venue of choice. It was also graced by Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, the legendary showgirl Florence Mills, heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, Duke Ellington, and the comedy team of Butterbeans and Susie. If you sit in the beautiful wood balconies and close your eyes, you might even hear a Harlem teenager named Fats Waller start up the pipe organ as a silent film begins to unspool under the great proscenium arch.

Two texts were particularly helpful in this study: Moira Mahoney Church’s unpublished masters thesis “If This Be Sin: Gladys Bentley And the Performance of Identity” and David Freeland’s “Automats, Taxi Dances and Vaudeville.”

Three Magi also attended on the show’s birth: Wayne Shirley of the Library of Congress Music Division (retired) opened the magic box of government copyright deposits in offsite storage; James Wintle of the same library’s Music Division rendered similar assistance; and pianist/scholar/collector Alex Hassan was also very helpful. God bless them, every one.

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New York-based music historian Elliott Hurwitt specializes in early Blues and Jazz and also writes about 20th-century classical music.  He has written numerous encyclopedia articles and other short pieces, and a much-cited extended essay.  Elliott won the Barry Brook Dissertation Award for his thesis on W.C. Handy, and edited the revised edition of Handy’s seminal 1926 Blues, An Anthology. Elliott is active in historic preservation, and succeeded in placing the original Tin Pan Alley on the “Place Matters” registry (the street is now under consideration by the Historic Landmarks Commission).  Elliott was a featured speaker at the dedication ceremonies for the historic marker on the home of Ethel Waters in Brooklyn.  He lives in Little Italy with his wife Elizabeth Ellis Hurwitt, Development Director of Music From Copland House.


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