People who talk to me about Ray, getting familiar with his voluminous recorded output, sometimes ask me what my favorite recording is by Ray or the one I find most interesting.
It’s difficult to choose. I have a fondness for “The Wedding” and “The Raid“, outrageous stories about 1920s gay life told as only Ray could tell them and likely based on true events. They were my first exposure to Ray many years ago, when I found a copy of UTC-1, An Evening in Copenhagen.
But the one recording I keep returning to is Ray’s last, done on the spur of the moment at a private party in New Orleans, circa 1965.
- Ray Bourbon – Untitled 1965 Private Recording at archive.org
I obtained the a dub of the tape in the 1990s from Charles C. Cage. Cage has a letter from the person who recorded the tape, Jack D. Nelson. Nelson said, “I remember the evening clearly, including the fact that we almost didn’t do it at all. When it was established that we were going to do it, I had to run home, get the recorder and get back to the party before the mood was lost. As it was we only had time for a brief effort, about 15 minutes, because Rae had a show to do and had to leave.”
Ray spent a lot of time in New Orleans during those years. In the previous decade, he had recorded the Lasses 45 set in the city and had been arrested for impersonating a female twice, in 1956 and 1959.
By 1965, Ray’s career was on a decline. He was appearing in smaller venues and had problems with alcohol. In a few months, he was almost get his chance at a show on Broadway – in October, 1966, his show Daddy Was a Lady, which has played on the road in Colorado and Kansas City, was ready to open on Broadway, but the show fell apart after the producer got into disagreements with Ray.
Although Ray’s style of comedy was going out of fashion with the emerging changes in gay identity that were beginning to fall into place just a few years before Stonewall, Ray still had devoted fans who show their appreciation for him at the party.
There are several aspects about the tape that are fascinating. It’s the only recording we have that captures Ray just in casual conversation as he prepares to entertain at the party, not “on”, performing onstage or before a microphone in a studio. We hear him ask for a ballon and a piece of cloth to use as he performs; he probably did this performance in street clothes before he left to go to the club to get in makeup and costume and prepare for his performance that evening.
At 6:40, we hear Ray state that the recording was done at a house warming. “And when this is played several years from now,” Ray says, “all of you can sit around and say, ‘Mary we were ten years younger, weren’t we?’ And of course you won’t be at all.”
The first routine that Ray performs is one that isn’t heard anywhere else in his recorded output about a “peeping Tom” couple. Perhaps it was an old routine he never got around to recording or something new he was trying out at the club. With what I’ve heard about Ray’s talent for improvisation, it might have been something bubbling in his head that he just pulled out and improvised on the spot. He does make one small mistake in the routine, giving one of the lines to the wife instead of the husband.
The second routine on the tape is an old chestnut that Ray recorded a couple of times, first on 78 rpm records as “The Gossips” and later for a UTC lp as “The Neighbor’s Party“. This is probably the best performance of the routine, with Ray skillfully playing to a small, appreciative audience that had probably heard it many times before.
That’s when Ray gives us a little surprise, using the address of the party where the tape was recorded – 906 Royal Street, Apartment B – as the location of the wild party the gossip is reporting to the police. (He even works in some cracks about himself, saying he hopes they pick up “Ray Bourbon”, a “messy old queen” who is “going around with her balls cut off”.)
The address today doesn’t look like it’s changed much in the past fifty years – it’s one of those old buildings in the French Quarter containing apartments and business. Today, in addition to the apartments, there’s a salon and an artist’s gallery.
After a round of applause, someone begs Ray to do one more routine, but he gives his regrets, saying he has to get to the club to do his show and has a cab waiting outside. Then, the tape is over, almost as quickly as it began.
I’m left wishing more impromptu recordings made at small gay gatherings like that survived today. It whisks us back to a different time when, despite all the problems of being out and gay at a time when society and the law were more restrictive, we’re reminded how communities of gay men survived and thrived and created their own spaces to just be themselves.
You can listen to the complete recording at archive.org. I’ve done a new transfer of the tape, using an archival quality deck, for the restoration of Ray’s recordings that has improved sound that will eventually be released along with the other newly transferred and restored Bourbon recordings.