Lesbian music in the 50’s and 60’s

I’m having a great time doing the research for my book about women’s music. Many of us know about the scene that began in the 70’s with performers like Meg Christian and Cris Williamson so I’ve got a lot of material about that time period. However, there was an earlier time we don’t know so much about.

Mona’s, a popular San Francisco bar.

Back in the day, lesbian bars were the place to be although you had to be careful not to be caught in frequent police raids. Women had to wear at least three articles of women’s clothing or they’d be thrown in jail. Heck, they could be tossed in jail – and worse – simply because the cops felt like it. In spite of this, women not only came to the bars, they performed in them. In the 50’s, a woman calling herself Lisa Ben (an anagram of “lesbian”) wrote parodies of popular songs and performed them. In 1960, the LA chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis released a 45 of two of her songs. Find out more about her on JD Doyle’s wonderful site Queer Music Heritage.

The Roc-A-Jets were an all-lesbian trio popular in Baltimore in the 50’s. Performing a collection of rockabilly, tangos, cha chas and more, they helped to create a gay scene where there wasn’t one. People used to line up around the block to hear them. When asked if they felt appreciated by women today they expressed doubt and commented, “We had our gay pride long before they were born.” Listen to an interview with two of the members here.

The Rail Runners were another all-women’s band that played the lesbian bars in the 60’s, this time in Kansas City. For ten years they entertained at the Rail Room.

Sandy Rapp sang at Three, a New York City bar, in the late 60’s and into the 70’s. She played original tunes plus popular covers like the Leonard Cohen hit “Suzanne.”

Live music was very important to me when I first came out in the 70’s so it must have been important for earlier lesbians but so far, these are the only musicians I’ve uncovered*. Can you help me find more? Did you go to lesbian bars in the 50’s and 60’s and hear live music? Better yet, were you one of those musicians? I’d love to talk with you.

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*My book will also talk about blues singers like Ma Rainey and jazz/pop performers like Beverly Shaw. They performed in straight clubs and had a much different kind of presentation than the entertainers I’m researching now.

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About jamiebobamie

Musician - teacher - writer - gets bored easily. I write an almost-weekly blog that includes true stories gathered from 20-plus years of touring, how-to articles for musicians and profiles of performers. Also, I love dark chocolate, I can play "Brown Eyed Girl" behind my head, and I twirl the baton badly.
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21 Responses to Lesbian music in the 50’s and 60’s

  1. JD Doyle says:

    good job, and yeah, please, “uncover” some more, I’m all ears…:)

  2. chelsea says:

    Strome Levarie, a friend of mine who if she is still alive is well over 90 years old was a performer with the Jewel Box Revue in the 50’s and 60’s and was still occasionally singing in The Cubby Hole (a Lesbian bar on West 12th St. in Greenwich Village into the 1990’s She lived at the Chelsea Hotel. I hope this helps.

  3. Tiik says:

    Well…do you mean OUT lesbians?? Cuz back then there were plenty of lesbians playing out that weren’t OUT. 🙂 Lesley Gore for one and Meg Christian for two. And I guess you know already all about Billy Tipton http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billy_Tipton

  4. Bonnie Luternow says:

    I don’t think there was a “women’s music” before Chris, Meg, Holly, Margie. Remember earlier generations of women without men had no economic freedom, so not much long-lived nor wide-spread common culture. The seven sisters (Vassar, Wellesley, smith, etc.) always had their own family members, perhaps through those alumnae still living?

    • jamiebobamie says:

      It wasn’t women’s music as we know it but there were lesbian musicians who played in the lesbian bars.

    • Tiik says:

      Yes…Jamie is right. There definitely was women’s music before the Meg, Chris, etc era. In 1970-73, in Los Angeles alone we had all female bands, either all or partly lesbian…Birtha, Fanny, Lizzy Tisch, High Risk, and others…we were all out there playing in the bars, gay bars, and regular clubs like The Bitter End West, The Ashgrove, The Whiskey A GoGo, Blah Blah Cafe and The Troubadour.

  5. Goldie and the Gingerbreads with Genya Ravan, Dusty Springfield.

  6. jo jo from east Baltimore I don’t know if you have ever heard of the jazz singer Chris Connor, who was one of the greats, she died in 2010, and her obit said she left a female partner of over 40 years!

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