Chavela Vargas

Today’s post comes to you by popular demand — which makes sense because she was very popular, and she also knew what she wanted and demanded it! Well, okay, mostly she just got it herself. She knew exactly who she was from a remarkably young age and never wavered.

Isabel Vargas Lizano was born on April 17, 1919 to Francisco Vargas and Herminia Lizano in San Joaquin de Flores, Costa Rica. As far as I can tell, it was a pretty unremarkable event. She was frequently called “Chavela” by her family. Despite that affectionate nickname, things would take a turn for the worse — her very religious parents were embarrassed by Chavela’s tomboy-ishness, going so far as to hide her when they had visitors to their home. They ultimately divorced, leaving her to be raised by her uncle, and then she contracted polio. Chavela managed to survive the illness relatively unscathed — she and her family credited this to the rituals and talismans of shamans and witches, rather than the scientific medicine of doctors.

By seventeen years old, Chavela was fully aware that she wanted a career in music and — since there weren’t many musical opportunities in Costa Rica — she moved to Mexico. Initially, she sang on the streets — dressed in traditionally masculine clothing, wearing the red poncho (or more specifically a jorongo) that would become a signature part of her performance “look” in her professional years. The look was a conscious decision — Chavela felt she looked “like a transvestite” in women’s clothing and had trouble walking in heels. To fit into the masculine music scene she was attempting to break into, she began smoking cigars, drinking heavily, and making sure to keep a gun on her at all times. During this period of her career, sometime in the mid-1940s, she had an affair with Frida Kahlo — the romance was relatively brief, but intense. Chavela even lived with Frida and her then-husband Diego Rivera for more than a year. And Frida expressed in letters to her friends that she was very attracted to Chavela. (And yet, there are — of course — scholars who are certain they were just good friends.)

In her thirties, she became a professional, becoming known for her own unique take on ranchera — singing solo, with only her guitar as accompaniment instead of a mariachi band, and slowing down the tempo for more dramatic tension or so they could come across as more humorous and, y’know, suggestive. These songs were typically sung from a man’s perspective ( a straight man’s, I should say) and Chavela Vargas refused to change the genders in the songs when she sang them. While her homosexuality certainly would not have been approved of offstage, on stage it was all part of an entertaining act that audiences embraced.

Towards the end of the 1950’s, her reputation began to expand greatly — particularly in artistic circles. She was a popular performer in Acapulco, singing in the champagne room of La Perla, frequently in front of tourists from other parts of the world. She was so well regarded that she was hired to sing at the wedding of Elizabeth Taylor and Mike Todd on February 2, 1957. Chavela would later claim that she slept with Ava Gardner at that wedding — I haven’t found an corroboration of that, nor have I found any other examples of Ava Gardner having dalliances with women, but I suppose we all have to experiment at least once in our lives and if Elizabeth Taylor’s wedding isn’t the time and place to do it, when is? She is known to have had numerous romances after this — including, apparently, with some very famous people, but she would never share their names. A few have stepped forward, including American author Betty-Carol Sellen, but Chavela was very careful to keep these things private (particularly, I assume, because very few if any of them would have been open about their sexuality at the time!)

In 1961, with the help of José Alfredo Jiménez, Chavela’s first album was released: Noche de Bohemia. This was the first of more than 80 albums that she’d release over the course of her career. Later that year she released Con el cuarteto Lara Foster. Rumor has it that although her career was just beginning to take off, Chavela began a short-lived affair with Arabella Árbenz Villanova in 1964 after their paths crossed coincidentally — the problem being that Arabella was also having a torrid romance with Televisa executive Emilio Azcárraga Milmo, also known as “El Tigre.” When El Tigre learned of this affair he was infuriated and tried to destroy her career. Despite his pretty powerful influence in Mexico, he very nearly did. although Chavela Vargas is — as far as I can tell — still banned from appearing on Televisa in any capacity.

Her next album, Hacia la vida was released in 1966. By the time her fourth album Corridos de la revolución came out in 1970, Chavela had become quite popular, though she still wasn’t invited to headline concerts — but as her popularity grew, so did her alcoholism. Despite her struggle with drinking, Chavela managed to release three albums in 1973 and one more in 1975. However, due to her constant battle with addiction and El Tigre’s continuing campaign against her — Chavela was forced to retire and completely disappeared from the public eye.

The details are a little bit sketchy here, but according to Chavela while she was “submerged in an alcoholic haze” — as she would later describe it — she was found and taken in by a family of Native Mexicans who attempted to help nurse her back to health. It would be decades before the public learned any of this, and at the time many assumed she had died. She had very little money at this time, and sometimes only ate when friends invited her to their homes for meals.

On September 2, 1988, at the request of mutual friend Patria Jiminez, lawyer Dr. Alicia Elena Pérez Duarte arrived at Chavela Vargas’ home in order to stop her from drunkenly signing some legal documents. This began an intense romantic relationship, which both Chavela and Alicia would describe as “something greater than love.” Chavela moved in with Alicia and her four kids — but Chavela’s reliance on alcohol, and her great attachment to firearms, put a heavy strain on the relationship. Although Chavela did manage to quit drinking — which she credits to a shamanistic ritual (though Duarte has publicly disagreed with that statement) — it turned out her violent streak and penchant for guns was not dependent upon alcohol at all. Alicia ended the relationship, though she remained Chavela’s legal representation.

In 1989, a couple of Chavela’s albums were rereleased, sparking renewed interest in the singer. When the nightclub El Hábito opened in Mexico City in 1991, they invited her to perform after spotting her in their audience. Eventually, she agreed — though it was her first time performing on a stage since the 70’s and she was 72 years old at the time. It was also her first ever sober performance. This launched a full revival of her career, which involved several more albums and also international fame the likes of which she had not experienced before. She performed not just in Mexico but even performed numerous sold out shows in Spain and France. And finally, she was the headliner of these shows — an honor she had certainly earned.

She also provided music for several films during this period, primarily at the behest of Pedro Almodóvar who was a fan, a friend, and a champion for her career after meeting her in Madrid in 1992. Chavela once described him as “my husband in this world.” He traveled the world with her, pushing greater and greater opportunities towards her. Despite his best efforts, she insisted that she did not want to begin a career as an actress — although she did appear in the 2002 biographical film Frida about her former lover Frida Kahlo, singing her song “La Llorona.”

That was the same year Chavela published her autobiography Y si quieres saber de mi pasado (which translates to And if you want to know about my past). Although her sexuality had been a fairly open secret for decades — her relationships with women were fairly well known rumors, not to mention her refusal to ever change the genders or pronouns in the songs she sang — it was within the pages of her autobiography that she finally, publicly came out as a lesbian.

The following year on September 15, at age 83, Chavela Vargas had her debut performance at Carnegie Hall. The performance was recorded and released as an album creatively entitled Chavela at Carnegie Hall. The performance was considered groundbreaking given her age and sexuality in a musical genre that generally would have denied her for either of those, and in 2019 the album of the recording was named on Mitú’s list of Spanish-language albums that “Changed the Face and Feel of the Music Industry” calling it “the stuff dreams and legends are made of.”

In 2012, just months after releasing her final album Luna grande, the 93-year old Chavela Vargas was hospitalized in Cuernavaca, Mexico for respiratory problems. Several weeks later, on August 5, she passed away. It’s comforting, I think, that when she did pass away she knew it was coming and seemed to have made peace with it. She spent her final days making statements like “My name is Chavela Vargas, don’t let them forget!” Her final words, according to her Facebook page, were “I leave with Mexico in my heart.”

But truthfully, it’s hard to “leave” if your music is as significant as hers remains to this day, and there’s certainly no way to forget her. Aside from the longevity of her own music, she’s received a lot of tributes — Joaquín Sabina’s song “Por el Boulevard de los Sueños Rotos” is dedicated to her, Juan Carlos created a series of portraits of Chavela which were presented at the Centro Cultural de España en México in Mexico City in 2012. One of the characters in Sergio Ramírez Mercado’s novel La Fugitiva is based off of Chavela. And in 2017, the biographical documentary Chavela was released. She’s even had a Google Doodle in her honor! In 2019, she was commemorated on the Rainbow Honor Walk in San Francisco, which is a “walk of fame” type of thing for LGBTQ+ people who have “made significant contributions in their field.” Given that she essentially reinvented ranchero music, opening it up to women performers, I’d call “significant contributions” an understatement. She remains one of, if not the, most celebrated lesbian in Mexican history.

Jackie Shane

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Jackie Shane was an R&B singer who was a sensation in the music scene of Toronto, and was a nationally charting artist in Canada — and broke new ground as an openly queer performer.

Jackie Shane was born in Nashville, Tennessee on May 15, 1940. She would later explain that she began dressing as a girl when she was 5, and that she identified herself as a woman in a man’s body by age 13 — but openly she described herself as gay. Her mother supported her, and Shane would later say she never had any problems in school — at least, not because of her sexuality or gender identity.

As a teenager, she played the drums and was a regular sessions player for gospel and R&B record labels in Nashville. Through this, she met various famous musicians including Jackie Wilson.

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Nevertheless, she was a black queer kid living in the south during the Jim Crow era. In 1959 or 1960, she moved to Montreal — still fully presenting as a man. She was brought by a local saxophonist to see Frank Motley and the Motley Crew perform. Frank Motley invited Shane on stage — and quickly became the band’s lead vocalist. She traveled with them, recording with them in Boston and performing in Los Angeles and Nashville.

Shane moved to Toronto in 1962, where an R&B scene was emerging on Yonge Street, and went solo. Shane’s arrival in Toronto has been described as a “revelation” — her sound was unlike anything else in the city. The way it’s described, she appeared on the scene and instantly became a legend. She was still presenting as a man, though she clothes were becoming more androgynous, and she typically dodged the question of gender altogether when asked. Canada may not have been as oppressive as Tennessee, but they wouldn’t decriminalize homosexuality until 1969 and were decades away from acknowledging transgender identities at all. Her performances had a profound impact on the Toronto Sound and on the queer community and culture that would develop in the city over the next decades.

16jackie-shane1-superjumboFor live performances, Shane was a performer through and through. She would tour with around 20 trunks of outfits, and insert monologues and comedy bits into her songs.

In 1962, Shane released her first solo recording — a cover of the song “Money (That’s What I Want)” with a B-side recording of “I’ve Really Got the Blues.” “Money (That’s What I Want)” was later re-released as the B-side on a recording of “Have You Ever Had the Blues?” The same year, she released her second single — “Any Other Way”, which almost instantly became the #2 hit on Toronto’s CHUM Chart of the top 30 songs being played on local radio stations. It is probably her most famous song.

During live performances of “Any Other Way”, she would add quips that were usually used to underline the subversive subtext of the lyrics “Tell her that I’m happy, tell her that I’m gay.” (Her live album is available on Spotify and on iTunes, so you don’t even have to take my word for it, you can hear it for yourself.)

“Any Other Way” was followed by releasing the single “In my Tenement”, which did not do nearly as well and only charted in upstate New York. She began to focus on performing and touring, and did not make any new recordings for several years.

In 1965, Jackie Shane returned to Nashville, where she performed “Walking the Dog” on Night Train. I don’t know that this was a particularly huge moment in her life, but there’s video that I thought I’d share.

Two years later, “Any Other Way” was re-released and this time it rose to #68 on Canada’s national RPM chart. This seems to have encouraged Shane to return to recording new music, as she released “Standing Up Straight and Tall” later that year. This was followed by a live album. In 1969, she released “Cruel Cruel World” — this would prove to be her last recording. (Although, some tracks from the live album would later be re-released on the Motley Crew album “Honkin’ at Midnight.”)

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Her prominence began to fade in 1970, and in 1971 she moved to Los Angeles to take care of her mother. She turned down an offer to be part of the band Funkadelic and all but disappeared from public consciousness. Her mother passed away around 1996, and Shane moved back to Nashville.

At this point she literally disappeared for years. Rumors persisted that she had committed suicide or been stabbed to death — in truth, she was just living a quiet life at home. Frank Motley managed to connect with her, and relayed the news that she was alive. Some of her musician friends attempted to reconnect, there were discussions about a reunion tour — and then her phone number was reassigned and she disappeared again.

But she was not forgotten. In 2010 CBC Radio released a documentary about her called I Got Mine: The Story of Jackie Shane. The producers had sent a letter to Shane asking if she would participate — but she never responded, leaving question as to whether or not she was even alive. A 2011 documentary called Yonge Street: Toronto Rock & Roll Stories included Shane. These documentaries were very well received, and the media began attempting to contact Shane for interviews but to no avail.

In 2014, a scout for the reissue record label Numero Group finally managed to reach Jackie Shane by phone, very much alive — although none of her staff had ever even see her face. The scout, Douglas Mcgowan, built a friendship with her over the phone and convinced her to allow his label to re-release her recordings. Though Shane was able to retain her privacy, she was no longer hidden from the world.

Her live album was reissued and shortlisted for a Polaris Award in 2015 (and again in 2016 and 2017). In 2017, her influence on Toronto was remembered in an anthology of essays entitled Any Other Way: How Toronto Got Queer. That same year, a compilation album of many of Shane’s recordings was released and called Any Other Way. The album was nominated for “Best Historical Album” at the 2019 Grammy Awards.

In 2019, Jackie Shane finally granted an interview to Elaine Banks. The interview was aired on the CBC Radio program Q on February 8. This would be the first publicly broadcast interview Shane had given in decades — and it would also be her last. In February of 2019, Jackie Shane passed away in her sleep. She was found in her home on February 21. She was 78 years old.

You can listen to that interview here.

Ma Rainey

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It’s been a really great month for queer music — we’ve got a new album from country’s first openly gay singer Steve Grand; a new album from British synthpop band Years & Years, led by the openly gay Olly Alexander; and Panic! at the Disco’s lead singer Brendon Urie came out as pansexual. With all this new news, I — of course — wanted to check out some old queer music history. It’s no surprise that led me to the incomparable Mother of Blues herself: Ma Rainey.

Born Gertrude Pridgett on April 26, 1886 in Georgia or possibly in September of 1882 in Alabama (depending on if you believe Gertrude or the U.S. census — researchers seem generally not to believe her). She was the second of five kids (the other four were pretty definitely born in Alabama — and her parents lived in Alabama. I’m just saying.) At 12 or 14 years old, Gertrude performed at a talent show in Columbus, Georgia and then began performing in black minstrel shows. According to Gertrude, she first heard blues music in 1902. The story goes that she heard a performer singing a blues song at another minstrel show — Gertrude was entranced, committed the song to memory that day, and immediately began using it as an encore to her own performances. Of course, she also claimed to have invented the name of the blues genre (she didn’t) so she’s not always the most reliable source of information. Just sayin’.

Two years later she married William “Pa” Rainey — a traveling comedian and vaudeville performer. Some time shortly after that, she and her husband formed a company called the Alabama Fun Makers Company. The troupe was short-lived, and in 1906 they both joined Pat Chappelle’s Rabbit’s Foot Company where they both performed and became quite popular.

In 1912, the Rabbit’s Foot Company was taken over by F.S. Wolcott. The Raineys stuck with the company for two more years before joining Tolliver’s Circus and Musical Extravaganza — which billed the duo as “Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues”. The name stuck, and the two were soon using it on their own without being part of a troupe of performers. Soon after that, Gertrude was getting bookings all on her own — using the name Madam Gertrude Rainey, or “Ma”.

When Ma took the stage, she was a sight to behold — adorned in a diamond tiara, a necklace made out of $20 pieces, rings on each finger, wearing a golden gown with gold-capped teeth. She carried a gun and an ostrich plume. Audiences were enthralled. In fact, even though she was in the deep south, her shows were peacefully integrated between black people and white people. She was sometimes hired by wealthy white people to play private parties, but after every single one of these she would go out dancing and socializing at the local black café.

The Raineys spent winter in New Orleans, where they met a large number of blues performers — including Louis Armstrong, Pops Foster, and another queer blues singer Bessie Smith. (A story later came about that Ma had kidnapped Bessie, forced her to join the Rabbit’s Foot Company, and made her sing the blues but even Bessie’s family denied the story.) In 1916, Ma separated from her husband, ending both their working and romantic relationships.

Her star continued to rise, and in 1923 Paramount Records asked her to record songs for them. With Paramount, over the next several years, she released more than 100 singles and sold so many of them that she has been credited with saving the company single-handedly. The recordings were very popular — but, you know how some performers are better live than if you’re just listening to them? Ma Rainey was universally considered one of those — and audiences became even more eager to see her, and even more excited at her shows.

Ma was not as open about her sexuality as some of the women of early blues — Gladys Bentley for instance — however, she wasn’t in the closet either. In 1925, neighbors called the police when one of her parties became too raucous. The officers arrived just as things were beginning to get shall we say intimate with the all-female group. Ma Rainey was arrested for “running an indecent party” but was bailed out by Bessie Smith the next day. This may have been one reason Rainey’s guitarist Sam Chatmon thought the two were romantically linked.

This incident may have been part of the inspiration for “Prove It On Me Blues”, which Rainey recorded in 1928. The lyrics are a fairly explicitly about lesbianism and of breaking gender norms. As far as I can tell, this was the first recorded piece of music to celebrate a queer sexuality.

“Went out last night with a crowd of my friends
They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.
It’s true I wear a collar and tie,
Makes the wind blow all the while.”

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Paramount ran an ad for the song — a drawing of Ma Rainey in a three-piece suit (albeit, with a skirt and heels) and a fedora, talking to a group of women with a policeman watching from across the street. The ad said “What’s all this? Scandal? … Don’t fail to get this record from your dealer!”

1928 was Ma Rainey’s last year as a recording artist. Popular music styles were changing, so her contract with Paramount ended. She toured a little bit longer, before settling down back in Columbus, Georgia. It was about this time (1932) that Sterling A. Brown wrote a poem about her called “Ma Rainey”, describing how powerful her performances were. In her later years, she opened a handful of movie theaters — the Lyric, the Airdome, and the Liberty Theatre. On December 22, 1939, she had a heart attack and died but her legacy continues to this day.

Six months after Ma’s death, Memphis Minnie wrote a tribute song called “Ma Rainey”. It was the first such song, but it would not be the last. In 1965, Bob Dylan paired Ma Rainey with Beethoven in his song “Tombstone Blues”. In 1982, August Wilson published a play about her called Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. In 1983, Ma Rainey was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame. In 1994, the U.S. Post Office released a commemorative stamp in her honor. Ten years later, her song “See See Rider Blues” (recorded in 1924 — you can hear it below) was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and was also added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. In 2015, a film about Bessie Smith was released (Bessie) in which Mo’Nique played Ma Rainey, and one year later the First Annual Ma Rainey International Blues Festival was held in Columbus, Georgia. Last year (2017), in the same city, the Rainey-McCullers School of the Arts opened — named after Ma Rainey and Carson McCullers.

In 1952, Langston Hughes released a poem called “Shadow of the Blues”, in which one character proclaims of Ma Rainey: “To tell the truth, if I stop and listen, I can still hear her!” I think we still hear a bit of Ma every time an artist releases a song about queerness — and if that’s the case, I hope we never stop hearing her.