Cherchez Les Femmes

Christine Chatman and band at the Rose Room in Dallas, 1943, photo courtesy Dan Kochakian

Women worked every angle of the circuit, as performers, club owners, and agency executives, and did so with every bit of gusto the men mustered. Memphis musician Emerson Able recalled Sunbeam Mitchell’s wife and business partner Ernestine as a person not be trifled with. “She was as bad as he was,” Able said, and Sunbeam had once shot the sheriff of Tipton County, Tennessee.

Female performers played the circuit from its earliest days, projecting much of the same no-nonsense attitude from the stage that Ernestine Mitchell did behind the curtain. Lil Green toured for Denver Ferguson, singing praises of foreplay “(Romance) In the Dark,” masturbation, “Just Rockin’,” and marijuana, “Knockin’ Myself Out.”

The International Sweethearts of Rhythm were just as varied and colorful as their name suggested, including a racially-integrated line-up of women from Hawaii, Mexico, China, and Mississippi, a trombone player known as Rabbit, and a 300-pound, proud lesbian called Tiny.

Also in the Ferguson agency stable, the “Boogie Woogie Piano and Accordion Queen,” Christine Chatman, was hot on the circuit during World War II. Chatman carried her own opening act, who was known at first as the “Hey Lawdy Mama,” but better remembered as Big Maybelle.

Club owners like “Red” Ruby Edwards and, later, Mary Shepard, both active in the Mississippi Delta, operated first-class nightclubs with panache, authority—and all the extras.

The two top black-owned talent agencies, Ferguson Bros., and Don Robey’s Buffalo Booking, boasted high-ranking ladies. As Sax Kari, a Denver Ferguson protégé, recalled, the woman behind the Ferguson Agency’s success was neither Lil Green nor one of the International Sweethearts, but an executive named Twyla Mayfield. “Aside from [Denver’s] gabbing,” Kari said, “she was really the one who handled all the booking.”

The situation parallels that of the Buffalo Booking Agency in Houston, Texas, which was under the ownership of the noticeable Don Robey. But the patent leather pumps that pushed the likes of B.B. King, Little Richard, Johnny Ace, and Ike and Tina Turner from joint to joint belonged to Evelyn Johnson. She ran the booking agency, handling calls and contracts for Buffalo’s hot group of artists. She taught some rough young people how to carry themselves in public. She interceded in some classic battles between Little Richard and Big Mama Thornton. She developed strategies for breaking new artists, and dealing with fly-by-night promoters.

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