Assembling a discography of recordings by Ray Bourbon has been a formidable task: Bourbon himself arranged for the pressing and issue of his own material and no master recordings or orderly archival records of his releases remain in a record company archives.
That one fact — Bourbon’s own control of his recorded work — is the most interesting aspect of Ray’s recordings for historians and a new generation of fans. While some Gay historians have dismissed the so-called “Pansy” performers of the late 1920s and early 30s — perhaps because of embarrassment with comparisons to depictions of other minorities in films, recordings, and on radio during the period — Ray’s work stands today as both a glimpse of Gay culture of the period and a look at satires of heterosexual culture. The material certainly leaves the listener with no sense of “Uncle Tom”-ism today, since Ray, for the most part, was performing for an appreciative Gay audience.
That the recorded history of Ray’s career extended over thirty years says something about his popularity and longevity. Dr. Don Romesburg, who is researched Ray’s life and work for his thesis at the University of Colorado, noted Bourbon’s geographic reach as well — he performed extensively in urban cultural centers like New York or San Francisco, but was also a regular in smaller towns and cities all over the United States throughout his career. It is likely that most Gay men “coming out” during that time had a chance to see Ray perform at one time or another in their area and, for most of his career, Ray offered copies of his records for sale at these live shows. Indeed, through Internet auction outlets such as eBay, Ray’s recordings are a constant presence, turning up from original owners and in garage sales all over the United States and even occasionally in Europe.
Regardless of the historical and cultural context, Ray’s extensive recording career makes for fascinating listening as we see how he grows and changes as a performer through the years. Early routines and songs recorded in the 1930s appear in different forms later, expanded to take advantage of longer recording times provided by the new Long Play record format, with new references for contemporary audiences and new jokes and asides to keep the routines fresh. We hear Ray in the studio alone, with a piano or band as accompaniment; we hear him as a consummate nightclub performer, and finally in impromptu routines at a private party.
Ray’s unique talents shine brightly even today. One wonders what Ray could have accomplished if he had been less controversial and had been able to play into the mainstream entertainment industry. At the same time, one marvels at the niche Ray manage to carve for his unique talents as a performer.
In the mid-1930s, the first known official releases appear by Ray on the Western Record Company Bourbana label, pressed by the Lyric Sales Company, 742 Market Street in San Francisco. Most, perhaps all of the sides feature Bart Howard who would later compose “In Other Words” (aka “Fly Me to the Moon”). The tracks were recorded in Hollywood around 1936 and many would eventually be re-released or pirated on several small labels throughout the late 30s and into the 40s.
In these early efforts, Ray has already established the style he would use throughout his career, but there are a few false starts. A version of “Gigolo”, for example, doesn’t quite work with the piano accompaniment. “Low Brow Bourbon” is a curious entry in the discography, with Ray performing a fairly straightforward ballad in a style similar to crooners like Bing Crosby. Unique is his recording of “Forbidden Broadcast”, a funny routine that is even funnier for fans who may be familiar with the style of early radio programs; it is regrettable that he did not re-work the routine on a 78 or LP later on.
“Spanish” is quite similar to a recording by Pansy performer Jean Malin. Malin’s “I’d Rather Be Spanish” was recorded for Columbia during this time. “I’d Rather be Spanish than Mannish,” Malin sings in his own version, perhaps using a catch-phrase heard among the Gay nightclub set. The phrase may have originated with the perceived effeminacy of “Latin-lover types” in films of the late silent period; rumors circulated through Hollywood at the time that Rudolf Valentino was Gay.
Ray worked two sessions for the Liberty Music Shop label, whose roster included other risqué nightclub artists of the era such as Nan Blackstone, Bruz Fletcher, Beatrice Lillie, and Dwight Fiske. (In versions of “Bourbon to the Cleaners” Ray refers to many of these artists.) The first session was produced in 1936 at the Decca Studios in New York, with accompaniment by Bart Howard; sessions in 1940 with Jack (Jackson) Burke were recorded at Reeves Sound Studios in New York. These recordings are quite similar to the earlier Western Record Company Bourbana releases, but add the wonderfully manic “Spanish Opera” and “Oriental Opera” to the reportraire. Ray would later return to opera parody in extended routines on his One on the Aisle lp, produced in the mid-1950s.
Bourbon returned to the West Coast the following year to record sides released on the Imperial label, a Bourbon concern and unrelated to the later rhythm and blues label. The only non-Bourbon release located has been by Ava Williams, a comedienne that worked at Bourbon’s club the Rendezvous in the late 30s and early 40s. The recordings were done in Hollywood and some appear to be related to Bourbon’s early 1940s Hollywood revue, Don’t Call Me Madam. Highlights of these sessions include “Take a Lei”, again similar to a recording by another Pansy artist. (In this case, “Lei From Hawaii”, recorded by Bruz Fletcher for Liberty Music Shop.) “Hollywood Appendicitis” is notable not only for its subtle wit, but also for broaching the subject of abortions among motion-picture actors. At a time when abortions were illegal — even inconceivable to many people — and during a period when women who “enjoy indoor sports” were strongly frowned upon this bit of satire is quite remarkable and daring.
The mid-1940s saw the emergence of another label, New Bourbon Records, again recorded in Hollywood California. Releases numbered 101 through 103 were packaged in the Hilarity from Hollywood album set. Ray was hitting his stride as a performer, appearing in Mae West’s Catherine Was Great during this period. The track “Strong, Solid, and Sensational” was featured in that show. The material from these sessions feature Ray with a variety of accompaniments — piano, a small band, and even a solo harp!
One of the more curious tracks in this series is “Bourbon to the Cleaners” (later re-recorded for his LP, Hollywood Expose in the 1950s) where Ray says that he plans to “go clean”, referring to a particular vice committee that had condemned him and several other performers.
The New Bourbon sessions included a spirited version of “Give, Sister, Give” that includes backing and support by a number of unknown performers as well as “Mr. Wong”, a ditty also recorded by several other artists including Larry Vincent’s Pearl Trio. Historically, “I Had a Piece”, which refers to food shortages (?!?) during the War, and “We’ve Got to Have a Union”, hold interest as period satire pieces.
Possibly recorded in the same sessions, but released on the Party Record label instead, are the tracks “Air Raid Warden” and “When Knighthood Was in Flower”. “Air Raid Warden” is a particular treat — again with a wartime theme, the track gives the listener explicit directions on what to do in case of an air raid. It is unknown if the routine originated with Ray, but it is the type of piece that could be enjoyed by both straight and Gay listeners at the time.
Ray’s first lp recording is titled Yes, It is Ray Bourbon released on the New Bourbon lp label. This unusual release, quite rare today, was pressed on a ten-inch record made of red vinyl and includes two live performances by Ray at Coffee Dan’s in San Francisco and was possibly produced in limited quantities as a vanity item or for promotional purposes. Included are versions of “Gigolo”, “New Neighbor”, “Horse Opera” and “Ugh!” in fast-paced performances that showcase Ray in top form. With this live recording, we can get an idea of Ray’s talents as improviser and see how he connects jokes, songs, and longer routines for a nightclub audience. The female voice that introduces Ray is unknown, but it may be the same person briefly heard on “Give, Sister, Give”, released on the New Bourbon Records 78 a few years before.
The bulk of Ray’s surviving records consist of a number of tracks released on Ray’s UTC “Under the Counter”) label throughout the 1950s. The UTC lp’s, many of which were released in 12″ and shorter 10″ versions, are the most commonly found recordings by Bourbon. Warren Allen Smith and Fernando Vargas operated the Variety Recording Studios in New York from the 1950s through 1989.
Smith recalled that Ray was a regular customer at the studios (and he may have earlier patronized the Audiosonic Studios, the equipment of which Smith and Vargas bought upon its bankruptcy). Ray would bring in recorded material and Vargas would cut an acetate master for the releases. The records were pressed in fairly small quantities — perhaps as few as a hundred or as many as a thousand — and distributed by MMO (Music Minus One) in New York. The albums were sold at Ray’s live performances, to “discriminating” record dealers, and via mail order. (Music Minus One was famous for its releases of accompaniment discs for student musicians, which included jazz or classical tracks “minus” an instrument and appropriate sheet music for the missing instrument.)
Ray re-recorded a number of his “classic” songs and routines for the albums, but also produced extended versions of routines such as “Bedtime Story”, “Cafeteria”, and others. Some of the lp’s are loosely based around themes — Don’t Call Me Madam concentrates on routines that feature Ray as a loud, domineering housewife, “A Girl of the Golden West” compiles tracks such as “To Hell With the Range”, “Ugh!”, and “Horse Opera”, while Around the World in 80 Ways features songs and routines with international themes (“Russian Refugee”, “Spanish”).
The most infamous UTC release, of course, is Let Me Tell You About My Operation, which includes the title track related to Bourbon’s supposed sex-change operation in the mid-1950s. The back cover of that lp includes reproductions of articles from Variety and the New York Journal American about the “operation”. The LP includes a number of Ray’s best lp-era recordings, including “Oh! Doctor” and “The Piano Teacher”.
Around 1957, Ray recorded a half-dozen singles for 45 release on the Lasses label. The sessions in New Orleans included backing by a Dixieland-style jazz band. Perhaps striving for something a bit more contemporary or for a kind of “New Orleans” sound, Ray seems a bit out of his element here — the band and Ray are often out of synch and the records include awkwardly spliced-on beginnings and endings by the band.
The sides do have their moments, particularly Ray’s last recorded version of “New Woman” and a spirited rendering of “Native” that seems to work well in the setting. The last two sides, “The Party” and “Barbary Coast”, have a meandering, almost surreal quality as Ray is heard seemingly circulating at a party as he cracks jokes and banters with people in the crowd.
In the testimony of his trial, Ray referred to a “Miss Carmelita Mass”, who produced his records in New Orleans, noting that he was never adequately compensated for his efforts — these are likely the records he referred to at the trial.
In October, 1961, Ray was booked at the Talk of the Town, a well-known nightclub in Chicago. The owner of the club, D.W. Summers, arranged to record five of Ray’s performances for release on Summers record label, Roslyn. T.C. Jones was also booked at the club just after Ray, under the same arrangement. Shortly after the recordings were made, Summers broke the infamous “Payola” scandal in a radio interview. He was profiled in “Time” magazine and eventually testified before Congress. Unfortunately, his record label went under and the recordings by Ray and T.C. Jones remained unreleased. Summers discussed making arrangements to release the performances for the first time in 2002 on CD, but they have never officially turned up.
Ray recorded his second released live album at the Jewel Box in Kansas City, Missouri around 1964. As we approach the end of Ray’s career, we can see how he is not quite as frantic as his earlier live recording, produced ten years before. Bourbon was almost seventy at the time this album was produced, but he still manages to pull off a number of references to political figures and stars of the day, including Yul Brenner and President Johnson, along with his take on US history and a performance of “Three Girls at a Matinee”. A highlight of this performance, heard in “The First Show”, is an improvised bit with a heckler in the audience (“iron men can’t blow”). The shows include a number of quick jokes targeted at Texans and Texas; Ray always seemed to be comfortable taking pot-shots at his home state and himself as a Texan.
The final documented recording by Ray was informally made by Jack D. Nelson at a party in New Orleans in 1965. In a 1995 letter to Charles C. Cage, who provided the recording for my research, Nelson recalled, “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 plays to the audience here, using the address of the party they are attending in “The Neighbor’s Party”, and manages to throw in a few jokes about himself into the routine. It is unknown if Ray performed the “Peeping Tom Couple” routine on-stage or exclusively in more relaxed settings such as this. (Of course, with Ray’s talent for improvisation, he could have conceivably made up the bit right on the spot!) The tape represents Ray’s last known recorded performance.