You Can’t Do That to Gladys Bentley!
by Joe Okonkwo
Gladys’s fingers hopscotched across the piano keys, smashing out notes dunked in blues and dripping rhythm. It was her first song in her first set of the night. Her eyes hadn’t yet adjusted to the dark club, the stage lights’ blinding glare. She couldn’t see a thing outside the stage, but her explosive smile blazed as she winked and waved and nodded at folks in the crowd like she could see every face. They were too drunk to know any better. Eight years into this craze called Prohibition and folks still acted like Saturday Night was a bountiful Christmas with the ever-flowing, over-flowing gift of bootleg liquor. Especially at clubs like The Clam House where Gladys Bentley reigned, enthroned at the piano, moaning raunchy, sophisticated bluesy jazz and jazzy blues from 10pm till dawn. Her clothes were as sophisticated as her music. No gowns or feathers or horse hair wigs for her. No, sir. Gladys manned it up—all 250 pounds of her—in sparkling white tux and tails, white shoes, and white shirt and bow tie, all of it crowned with a tall, cock-angled white top hat. Elegant white dressing elegant brown. She was dapper. Dashing. Debonair. At heart, Gladys Alberta Bentley was a gentleman.