“It seems I was born different. At least, I always thought I was.” – Gladys Bentley
Gladys Bentley certainly was different, but not for the reasons you’d think.
She was the oldest of four children and her relationship with her mother growing up wasn’t all sunshine and roses. Bentley always felt rejected and unwanted given her mother’s desire to have a boy. “When they told my mother she had given birth to a girl, she refused to touch me. She wouldn’t even nurse me and my grandmother had to raise me for 6 months on a bottle before they could persuade my mother to take care of her own baby,” she recalled in an Ebony column. “For many years, I lived in a personal hell,” she wrote. “Like a great number of lost souls, I inhabited that half-shadow no man’s land which exists between the boundaries of the two sexes.”
Her upbringing shaped who she would become. As she got older, she repelled men, never wanting one to come near her. She also remembers being jealous and resenting her brothers for being men and having a crush on one of her female teachers.
Living in Harlem at 16, she got her first gig as a pianist at Clam House, one of the city’s most notorious gay speakeasies This would be the first step in what would be her very (at the time) unique music career. While The Clam House were looking for a male, she convinced them to give her a shot, and she nailed it. She recalls one night after finishing her first song, a white customer walked up to the stage and handed her a $5 bill, requesting her to play something else. Her boss would grant her permission to play as long as she’d like, and later would make her an offer for $35 a week. She accepted and began working regularly. Her success at Clam House opened doors to playing other clubs in the area and making some real money.
Bentley’s ascension happened during the days of the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural resurgence of African American music and other arts in Manhattan during the 1920s and 1930s.
As she began touring, she would start wearing men’s attire on stage, full of white dress shirts, stiff collars, small bow ties, oxfords, short Eton jackets, and hair cut straight back. This wouldn’t just be her stage look. It was who she was as a human being.
Besides her personal image, her musical style was also distinctive. She was known for altering the lyrics to popular songs and making them filthy. For example, she took songs like “Alice Blue Brown” and “Georgia Brown” and combined them into a song about intercourse on her live shows. During this era, this was unheard of. As Jim Wilson, author of the book Bulldaggers, Pansies, and Chocolate Babies: Performance, Race, and Sexuality in the Harlem Renaissance would put it, she was “pushing the boundaries of public taste in a way that would have been much more suitable for a man to do.”
Event promoters would often advertise her as a male impersonator. As a singer, she had a deep, growling voice that was very distinct but could also sing in a low range or nigh notes when needed. She truly had the musical energy needed to stand out. One of her signature traits during her performances was pounding her feet on the floor while her fingers pounded the keyboard. She filled venues with her raucous performances and would flirt with women in the audience.
In 1937, she moved to Los Angeles. In California, she faced challenges performing on stage in men’s clothing due to the state’s anti-cross-dressing laws. In some instances, Bentley was completely banned from performing.
The post-World War II era was very conservative, even more so than the earlier part of the 20th century, especially regarding gender and sexuality. She had no choice but to surrender to societal norms. Bentley started wearing dresses and doing the opposite of everything she had previously done in hopes to hold on to her music career. She would continue to perform in nightclubs until her death.
In 1960, still living in California, she was waiting to be ordained as a minister after becoming a devotee of The Temple of Love in Christ, Inc. Unfortunately, at this time she passed away as a result of complications from influenza. She was 52.
Though her sexual orientation helped her stand out during that era, her legacy goes beyond that, even if it was the spark. Her singing, her look, her devotion and her performances were all part of the Gladys Bentley package and inspiring for many Jazz and Blues artists that came after her – Janis Joplin, Luther Vandross, Albert Collins, BB King, and more recently, Charlotte Day Wilson. Her legacy can’t be overlooked. She was a gender outlaw, but she always stuck to her guns and did what she felt was right and most importantly, what was HER. She broke barriers and took heat from record executives all in the name of being herself, thus being an inspiration to some of the artists mentioned. With the LGBTQ community more accepted than ever today, it’s hard to ignore the sacrifices and shame those of yesteryear had to endure to get us to this point.