blues singer and pianist, was born Gladys Alberta Bentley in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the eldest of four children of George L. Bentley and Mary C. Mote, a native of Trinidad. The Bentley family was very poor. Later a lesbian, Bentley acknowledged that even as a child she felt more comfortable in boys' clothing than in girls' clothing; however, it was when Bentley developed a long-term crush on one of her female schoolteachers that her classmates began to ridicule her and her parents began to take Bentley from doctor to doctor in an effort to “fix” her. Finally at age sixteen Bentley left Philadelphia and traveled to Harlem, New York, where she quickly became immersed in the Harlem Renaissance and its “don't ask, don't tell” attitude about sexuality. Bentley became just one of many homosexual or bisexual celebrities, joining the likes of Langston Hughes, Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith ...
Anne K. Driscoll
Mary Krane Derr
singer, actor, and comedian, was born Nell Ruth Hardy in Birmingham, Alabama, one of nine children. Nell's parents were Edna Mae Humphrey, a homemaker, and her second husband Horace Hardy, an Army sergeant. At age two, Nell witnessed his accidental electrocution death. Deeply affected by Dinah Washington, B. B. King, and Elvis Presley records, Nell began singing in her church choir, on a local radio show called the “Y-Teens,” and on the gospel circuit. She never grew taller than four feet eleven inches but had a large, commanding voice and presence. Her show business ambitions made her a “weirdo” in a social environment where “most kids wanted to be teachers or nurses” (CNN.com, Entertainment, 23 Jan. 2003). At age 13, the Presbyterian-raised Nell discovered that one of her grandfathers probably had Jewish ancestry. Although not converting until 1983 she started ...
Ondra Krouse Dismukes
poet, performance artist, and novelist, was born Ramona Lofton at Fort Ord military base near Monterey, California, one of four children. Sapphire and her family lived on and off army bases in California and Texas for the first twelve years of her life. She suffered sexual abuse from her father as early as age three. When Sapphire was thirteen, her father retired from the army and moved to Europe. Following her parents’ separation, Sapphire and her siblings moved with their mother to South Philadelphia, her mother's hometown. Soon after their move her mother abandoned the family, and Sapphire moved back to California with her siblings, to Los Angeles.
At age twenty-one Sapphire hitchhiked to San Francisco, where she attempted to reconstruct her life after bearing the burden of being guardian to her two siblings. In 1973 she enrolled in San Francisco City College as a premed ...
Camille A. Collins
singer of blues, pop, R&B, and rock n' roll, was born in Jackson, Tennessee, to Frank and Alice Smith. Smith began her musical training as a child, singing gospel at church. Even at a tender age she was clearly possessed of a notable talent, as evidenced by her first-place win at a talent contest in Memphis at the age of eight and her discovery, at age twelve, by band leader Dave Clark. Clark's tutelage prepared Smith for a touring spot with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm swing band, America's first integrated, all-female music group. Smith later performed boogie woogie with pianist Christine Chatman's orchestra, with whom she made her first recording on the Decca label in 1944.
With a rich barreling thoroughbred s voice Smith s was a vocal instrument made for the blues Yet she came of age at a time when the era of ...
Mary Krane Derr
gay drag performer and musician, was born Sylvester James Jr. in Los Angeles, California, the firstborn son of Sylvester “Sweet” James Sr., whose occupation is unknown, and Letha Weaver James, a domestic and later a dietitian. After having two more sons, John Wesley in 1948 and Larry in 1950, Sylvester's parents divorced. While single, his mother had twin daughters Bernadette and Bernadine in 1956, and another son, Alonzo, in 1959. In 1962 she married aerospace worker Robert “Sonny” Hurd. She later fostered and adopted three children with him: Angelica, Charles, and Tammy. Letha's mother (really her aunt who raised her), the blues singer Julia Morgan, helped to raise Sylvester and his siblings.
Until young adulthood he was known by his nickname Dooni Even as a preschooler he enjoyed and sometimes wore the flamboyant elegant clothing his mother and grandmother ...