Gladys Bentley – Singing the Hokum Blues

Gladys Bentley was an outrageous, cross-dressing lesbian blues singer and piano player. Wearing her tuxedo and top hat, she sang hokum blues in the New York gay club scene in the late 1920’s and 1930’s. Openly exploiting her lesbian identity, her lewd lyrics and sexual innuendo became a hallmark of the hokum blues style. She wowed audiences with her powerful voice and obscene parodies of popular songs while flirting with the women in the audience.

gladys bentley

“This masculine lady would play piano all night without stopping, as her feet pounded the floor while her fingers pounded the keyboard”.

Born in Philadelphia in 1907, Bentley left Pennsylvania at 16 to be part of the Harlem Renaissance, where African-Americans were making music, art and literature in an explosion of creativity in New York. Bentley soon became an in-demand singer and pianist at Harlem nightspots. She was known as the “Brown Bomber of Sophisticated Songs” and headlined at popular speakeasies and nightclubs. She created her own musical review with a chorus of eight male dancers in drag, the primary attraction of the well-known Ubangi Club in Harlem.

Bentley’s fame peaked in the late 1920s and early 1930s, boosted by a series of 78s on OKeh Records, and a short-run weekly radio show. On neither her records nor her radio show was she as raunchy or as open about her sexuality as in her stage persona.

In the late 1930’s, the Harlem Renaissance waned. The repeal of prohibition, the Great Depression and political riots contributed to the decline of Harlem’s night scene. Bentley relocated to California where she found success on stage again, performing in lesbian bars. In Los Angeles though, the local authorities prohibited her from wearing trousers during her act. Bentley’s performances were sometimes so “obscene” that clubs were raided by police.

gladys bentleyIn the 1950’s the limited tolerance for homosexuals collapsed and the “witch hunts” were viscous. Bentley, who had been open about her sexuality, was a sitting duck. She started wearing dresses and fabricated an article for Ebony entitled “I am Woman Again” where she claimed to be cured of her lesbianism and return to heterosexuality and femininity through taking hormones.

During this time, there was a clear shift in Bentley’s gender performance. Instead of her usual men’s attire, she performed in a dress with flowers in her hair on the TV variety show “You Bet Your Life”. Gladys Bentley on “You Bet Your Life” – YouTube She performed a version of “Them There Eyes” dressed as a glamours women.

Aside from her musical talent, Gladys Bentley was a significant and inspiring for the LGBT community. She was a powerful figure for African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance.

Gladys was about to become an ordained minister when she died of a flu epidemic in 1960 at the age of 53. She gained her place as a Hokum blues singer, and a pioneer of those vintage days.

By Diane Dienstman