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04 May 2008

Gladys Bentley (1907 – 1960) Blues singer.

Bentley was born in Trinidad and raised in Philadelphia by a US father and a Trinidadian mother.

She became a Blues singer, mainly famous in the 1930s when she performed by playing piano and singing naughty parodies of blues standards in a deep voice at gay speakeasies in New York. She normally dressed in men’s attire, usually a tuxedo and top hat, and flirted with women in the audience. She appeared at The Clam House on 133rd St and at Harlem’s Ubangi Club, where she was backed by a chorus of men in drag.

After prohibition, she moved to southern California, and was frequently harassed for wearing men’s clothing. She claimed that she had married a white woman in Atlantic City. During the repressive 1950s, she felt obliged to wear dresses, pretended that she had married a man, and, in a fabricated article for Ebony magazine, claimed that female hormones had ‘cured’ her.

She was about to be ordained as a minister when she died of pneumonia at age 54.
Here is a clip of her with Groucho Marx on You Bet Your Life in the late 1950.

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