Bentley, Gladys (12 Aug. 1907–18 Jan. 1960), blues singer and pianist


Citation:

Driscoll, Anne K.. "Bentley, Gladys." African American National Biography, edited by Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr.. , edited by and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. . Oxford African American Studies Center, http://www.oxfordaasc.com/article/opr/t0001/e2004 (accessed Tue Jan 27 12:50:10 EST 2015).


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Bentley, Gladys (12 Aug. 1907–18 Jan. 1960), 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, and Ma Rainey. Though Bessie Smith may have been the “Queen of the Blues,” Bentley was known as the “Brown Bomber of Sophisticated Songs.”

In Harlem, Bentley found acceptance among the participants in the “sporting life,” which favored gambling, rent parties, female impersonators, sex shows, drugs, and alcohol. She began performing at the sporting life events, quickly becoming extremely popular. It was not uncommon to find Bentley, a talented pianist, playing and singing all night long at a piano. Writing to Countée Cullen, a friend said of Bentley, “When Gladys sings ‘St. James Infirmary,’ it makes you weep your heart out” (Duberman, 324).

Bentley's first major job was at the Mad House, which later became Barbara's Exclusive Club. Starting at thirty-five dollars a week, Bentley soon received a hundred dollars a week when Carl Van Vechten and others began crowding into the clubs to see her perform. As Bentley's popularity increased, she moved on to clubs such as the Cotton Club, Connie's Inn, and the Clam House. Weighing anywhere from two hundred and fifty to three hundred pounds she dressed in a tuxedo with tails and top hat, and her manly style of dress quickly became a feature of her shows. She was even more famous for her raunchy lyrics, full of sexual innuendos that she interpolated into the popular songs of the day. Bentley was so convincing as a man that the artist Romare Bearden thought that she was a female impersonator. In fact, she did sometimes perform under the name “Bobby Minton.” Bentley was one of the few openly lesbian performers, flirting outrageously with the women in her audiences.

In 1928 Bentley began recording for Okeh Records, eventually making a total of eight records. Some of her more famous songs include “How Long, How Long Blues,” “Worried Blues,” “How Much Can I Stand?” and “Moanful Wailin' Blues.” Bentley was at the height of her popularity during the 1920s and 1930s. In 1931 she was celebrated in Blair Nile's novel Strange Brother, being the basis of the character Sybil. Carl Van Vechten's book Parties and Clement Woods's book Deep River were reported to have characters based on the larger-than-life Gladys Bentley (Faderman, 1991). It was also in the early 1930s that Bentley married her white female lover in a much-publicized civil ceremony in New Jersey.

Advantages of the show business lifestyle for lesbians was the ability to earn a decent living, limit contact with men, and work within a predominantly female social world. During the early 1930s Bentley moved on to the New York jazz scene, performing primarily at the Ubangi Club on Fifty-second Street. By the late 1930s the Depression and Harlem's loss of fashionable status became contributing factors in her decision to move to California. There she lived with and cared for her elderly mother and sang at such gay clubs as Hollywood's Rose Room, Mona's in San Francisco, and Joaquin's El Rancho in Los Angeles. She began experiencing problems with the police while at Joaquin's El Rancho and at Mona's in early 1940. The clubs were required to obtain special permits that allowed Bentley to perform her act in men's clothing instead of women's clothing (Gay and Lesbian Biography, 1997). By the 1950s and the McCarthy era, Bentley was forced to perform in women's clothing and came under the scrutiny of the U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities because of her same-sex marriage in New Jersey.

In 1945 Bentley made five recordings for the Excelsior label, including Thrill Me till I Get My Fill, Find Out What He Likes, and Notoriety Papa. She also worked with the Washboard Serenaders on the Victor label. In a 1952 interview with Ebony magazine, Bentley claimed to have overcome her lesbianism through the ingestion of female hormones and announced that she was happily married to a male newspaper columnist named J.T. Gibson. When interviewed, Gibson denied that a wedding had taken place. Bentley was married for a brief time to a cook named Charles Roberts. Bentley was forty-five and Roberts twenty-nine; on the marriage certificate she stated that she was thirty-five.

During the 1950s Bentley performed twice on Groucho Marx's live television show You Bet Your Life. Bentley also recorded a record for the Flame label. It was at this time that she became an active member in a Hollywood church called the Temple of Love in Christ. In the late 1950s Bentley began to study to become a minister, but she died during an influenza epidemic before she was able to become ordained. In 1992 Rosetta Records, a small feminist label, reissued five of Bentley's songs on a disc titled Mean Mothers: Independent Women Blues, Volume 1. In 2004 Sony Music released a DVD set titled You Bet Your Life: The Best Episodes, which includes a 1958 performance of Bentley singing “Them There Eyes.”

Further Reading

  • Duberman, Martin Bauml. Hidden from the History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past (1989).
  • Faderman, Lillian. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-century America (1991).
  • Rodger, Gillian. GLBTQ: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender & Queer Culture (2002), also available online at http://www.glbtq.com.
  • Tyrkus, Michael, ed. “Gladys Bentley (1907–1960): Classic Blues Singer,” St. James Press Gay and Lesbian Biography (1997).

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