I have a feeling drag’s rather unfashionable at present. With public awareness of transgender people increasing, the parody and pantomime of gender for entertainment are starting to look passé. Mind you, drag’s always made people uncomfortable. Today they feel uncomfortable because it may not be PC; fifty years ago they felt uncomfortable because of the subversion of gender norms that were deemed immutable. Which is where Ray Bourbon comes in.
I’ve been fond of Ray (or Rae) Bourbon for a couple of years now. His chequered history would make an interesting biopic: a pioneering drag artist from the 1920s onwards, he claimed in the mid ’50s (probably as a publicity stunt, capitalising on the fame of Christine Jorgensen) to have had a ‘sex change’ operation in Mexico (hence the public feminisation of his name from Ray to Rae, though he remained Ray in private), and died in prison just short of his 79th birthday following his implication in a murder. Colourful and all, but I don’t think I’d be as fascinated by Ray if it weren’t for the fact that so much of his act has been preserved in the albums he released of himself in cabaret, now available on the Internet Archive.
Let’s have a look at Ray’s back catalogue. The records that survive were produced on his own Under the Counter record label and distributed at his shows. Because of the necessary circumvention of mainstream media (who would have taken him on?) he’s able to get away with much ruder material than you’d expect of the 1950s. Although there’s a smattering of songs, most of the numbers are comical poems or monologues spoken above a piano accompaniment. He must have had a regular pianist, as there are certain quirks, mainly involving second-inversion triads, that recur across several albums.
The title track of Let Me Tell You About My Operation is a good place to start, containing as it does many of his hallmarks. In fact it’s better put together than most, as Ray’s occasional excursions into song mean that the piano/voice relationship has to be tight and disciplined. There’s the sense of confidentiality and scandal, the risqué (coarse, you might say) content (‘For the change I went south of the border / It took me just days to pack / I arrived there with excess baggage / But I had a lot less coming back’), and a fine sample of his tremendous repertoire of laughs — the high-pitched hee-hee giggle, the hoot, the raucous bark. Most of all, though, his personality. Even when the material’s not up to much (as here), Ray’s vivacity saves the day.
Ray’s default persona is that of a gossipy queen, telling innuendo-laden stories with occasional asides to his/her friend — ‘When I caught him kissing Tab Hunter’s picture / That’s when I said no to Joe — and meant it, Mary’ — and many of the character pieces share common elements, like the simile that aspires to wit but doesn’t quite make it: ‘The Piano Teacher’ (‘it sounded like Paderewski on a binge’); or ‘Three Girls at a Matinee’ (‘Get the puss on that mess, it looks like an antiquated lesbian — what a face, good heavens’); or ‘The Neighbor’s Party’ (‘Walking around the house naked … you look like a broken-down eunuch … you may as well be one for the good it does me’). Actually this one’s rather good as it tells a story, albeit a simple one, with Ray as a nosy housewife who, bitter at not being invited to her neighbour’s wild party, phones the police to get it stopped (‘I hope they cave her skull in like a fedora hat’) and finds her own husband arrested for exposing himself at the bathroom window.
Also on the album Don’t Call Me Madam is a trio of monologues that rewards closer scrutiny, with Ray as the mother of a nuclear family. She’s pushy and overbearing (to the children: ‘Your father’s a jerk!’), her conversation mired in mundanity, but along the way she has a lot of fun queering the pitch. ‘Mrs Smith!’ she cries at the sight of an acquaintance; then, ‘Oh, it’s Mr Smith. You can’t tell who’s the wife in that family anymore.’ Later, she tells her children a bedtime story: ‘Jack and his Beanstalk, it’s a fairy tale … no dear, it’s not about your father.’ It’s not like any fairy story I’ve encountered before. Jack: ‘Just look at the size of my stalk: today I am a man.’
I find myself increasingly in love with ‘Toga Saga’, the opening track of One on the Aisle, Ray’s ‘intimate view of grand opera’, perhaps because it shows a different side of his personality — gentler, less raucous, and even, when he finishes with a charming song to Jason (in the persona of Medea), kittenish, tenderly pleading with him to ‘keep it gay’ and vowing ‘You’re the only Greek column I want.’ Although ostensibly an album about opera, the music of the operas is mostly ignored (which may be where Katherine Jenkins got the idea), but the altered reality of opera gives Ray licence to flout sexual convention. ‘In the opera you can seduce anybody and nobody really cares, as long as you sing about it,’ he observes. As a lesbian Brünnhilde: ‘That’s when I discovered my father was really my mother and the whole family was a fruity piece of juice.’ His version of Carmen (featuring a lover called Juan Dildo) is inspired by a man taken for a woman by the composer George Bassett: ‘They had ’em in Spain before they had ’em in Denmark.’
I’ve forgotten why I started to write this post, but it’s probably because, whether it’s to your personal taste or not, this is a part of our shared queer culture and deserves to be more widely known about and celebrated. Hooray for Ray! If you want to investigate further, there’s some marvellous biographical detail on this website.