"If you're looking for quiet, soothing music that will lull you to sleep, put a record on your phonograph and spend the evening at home. But if you want to hear singing that will make the blood pound in your pulse, listen to the brown bomber of sophisticated song at Mona's Club 440. Her name is Gladys Bentley and she's as gifted with the piano keys as with her vocal cords."
That's how San Francisco Life described Gladys Bentley, a transplant from Harlem, in 1943. Bentley had made a name for herself in the Harlem club scene in the 1920s and 30s. Openly gay, Bentley pushed the envelope both on stage and in the streets, where she donned men's clothing (a white tux was her signature outfit), wore her hair short and closely cropped, and flirted with women bar patrons while tackling the piano.
Born in 1907, Gladys Bentley was the oldest of four siblings and grew up in Philadelphia, leaving for New York City before she reached twenty.
In 1929, Okeh Records signed Bentley and she recorded eight somber songs, about women done wrong by their man. In contrast, her live performances were bawdy instead of bluesy, with Bentley playing up her butchness and making the audience blush with her boldness.
It wasn't just Bentley's talent on the piano and growling voice that captured audiences. Part of her act including taking popular songs of the day and turning them into dirty parodies. James Wilson, author of Bulldaggers, Pansies, and Chocolate Babies, wrote that Bentley "simultaneously mock[ed] 'high' class imagery with 'low' class humor, she applied aspects of the sexually charged 'black' blues to demure, romantic 'white' ballads, creating a culture clash between these two musical forms." Wilson notes that none of these songs were recorded, "most likely because they far exceeded the bounds of decency and also because to record them would violate copyright laws." (I like picturing Bentley's dirty songs breaking the recording needle in the studio).
Bentley's fame grew as the 1930s began, and she headlined shows and did musical acts—pretty good for a solo female performer in an industry usually dominated by men. Through her performances, Wilson writes Bentley "gave the impression of an independent, self-assured, and sexually empowered individual. Her multiple personae teased the boundaries between male and female; homosexual and heterosexual; aristocrat and working class; and white and black."
The repeal of prohibition , the Great Depression, and political riots all contributed to the decline of Harlem's happening night scene. Bentley relocated to California with her mother, where she found success on the stage again, performing in lesbian bars in the Bay Area and billed "America's Greatest Sepia Piano player." Things weren't as loose as they were in New York, though: In Los Angeles, she played at Joaquin's El Rancho on Vine Street until the local authorities prohibited her from wearing trousers during her act.
Nan Alamilla Boyd notes in Wide-Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965, bars like the ones Bentley performed in were frequented for race and sex "tourism," but the queer performers were still subversive in their acts. "Through double entendre and the coded display of queer culture, lesbian and transgender entertainers modeled queer representations for the bar's queer clientele."
Later in life, Bentley would join the "Temple of Love in Christ," and pen a memoir-ish piece for Ebony in 1952 called "I Am Woman Now," where she wrote about her return to heterosexuality and femininity through taking hormones. It might seem tempting today to cast judgment on Bentley, but it's important to consider the role of race, sexuality, society, and science at the time. Bentley's performances were sometimes so "obscene" they'd have the club raided by the police, but the 1950s brought an entirely new brand of intolerance, and society's expectations of a financially independent black woman were stringent.
You can see a later-in-life Gladys on YouTube when she makes an appearance on the Groucho Marx show You Bet Your Life. She and the other guest endure some patronizing banter from Marx, but when Bentley sits down at the piano for an on-the-spot version of "Them There Eyes," you can get a glimmer of her stage presence and talent. You can find some of her blues recordings on YouTube, or by seeking out Document Records which has some of her recordings as well.
Just a few of the books that shed some light on Bentley and the social and historical contexts of her life include Bulldaggers, Pansies, and Chocolate Babies: Performance, Race, and Sexuality in the Harlem Renaissance by James F. Wilson, Replaceable You: Engineering the body in postwar America by David Harley Serlin, and Wide-Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965 by Nan Alamilla Boyd. A documentary, T'Ain't Nobody's Bizness: Queer Blues Divas of the 1920s is playing a variety of festival circuits in the United States, and talks about Bentley with other queer performers of the era. Though Gladys Bentley passed away in 1960, there are still lots of ways to learn about her and celebrate her important legacy.