Clarence “Little Red” Tenpenny was a fixture of the African American music scene in the East Bay area of Northern California for almost two decades (late 1940s-mid 1960s).1 His revue, the Dukes of Rhythm, performed regularly in local nightclubs and at dances held by African American fraternal organizations. For about five years, the Dukes of Rhythm featured Jean LaRue, a singer whose specialty was slow numbers-torch songs and jazz ballads. Little Red and I spoke at length several times about his musical career and Jean LaRue’s name came up early in our conversations. However, Little Red failed to mention that Jean LaRue was a female impersonator.2 When Little Red did mention it, it was as an interesting, but not important, piece of information that he had forgotten to include. I was surprised that a blues revue had a female impersonator as a vocalist and I immediately assumed that the performance options for female impersonators had been limited. Little Red
assured me that had not been the case. Jean LaRue was a popular local entertainer and often made his own deals with club owners. Little Red also said that Jean LaRue was not the only female impersonator he had used; he was just the best. My confusion heightened when I asked Little Red about other female impersonators who sang blues, and he mentioned Willie Mae “Big Momma” Thornton alongside another female impersonator who had sung for his revue. Big Momma Thornton, a well-known female performer of the Urban Blues from the 1940s to the late 1960s, had regularly appeared on-and offstage in male attire, but I had never considered her as someone who crossed gender lines.