(Continued from “Audacity, 50s Style: Part 1”)
I met Jo Kellum of the Roc-A-Jets, Baltimore’s first all-girl band, in January. The Ravens still had hopes of going to the Super Bowl, and Jo’s East Baltimore neighborhood was festooned with purple and black. Jo and Carla Mandley, Roc-A-Jets’ drummer, sat down with me over tea. Although the band had retired in 1996 and two band members, lead singer Jan Morrison and original drummer Edie Lippincott, had died several years ago, Jo and Carla remain close friends.
Jo is straightforward and serious, revealing a bawdy sense of humor once she gets to know you. Carla is quick to laugh and stylish. She wears mascara, and a gold necklace brightens her all-black outfit. Both women occasionally stopped to ask, “You know we’re gay, right?” They were giving me an out as though they couldn’t believe I’d want to hang out, reminiscing about their band. What Jo and Carla expressed above all else was a desire to be treated as human beings. Jo said, “We’re just people. We like a nice home. We like family things. We’re no different from everybody else except we don’t want to sleep with men.”
Jo was 74 when WYPR producer Aaron Henkin profiled the Roc-A-Jets on the public radio show The Signal. She is now 77, her guitar packed away in the row house she shares with her longtime partner. Henkin had told me it baffles them that people outside of their community are interested in the humanity of their story.
When Jo was 14, she adopted her uncle’s old guitar. Though it was missing some strings, she taught herself to play by ear. She wanted to study piano, but there was no money for lessons. She was good enough to be in a band throughout the remainder of her teens, playing at school dances. Athletic and outgoing, she was popular in high school. Girls developed crushes on her, but they never went anywhere. Jo was too busy with sports, music and her duties as senior class president. I asked what it was like having to wear the feminine clothes of the day–full skirts and dresses–and she replied it wasn’t an issue. However, she did institute Dungaree Fridays when she was class president. “I was making sure I was doing something for myself there,” she laughed.
In 1950s Baltimore, it wasn’t unusual for teens to marry before finishing high school, as Jo did. She left the marriage after just a few weeks, returning to school and working at Eastern Venetian Blind Company (the first such producer in the nation) after graduation. There, Jo heard about Jan Morrison, a co-worker who played guitar. Jan was already doing gigs in Baltimore clubs. She approached Jo about starting a group. Jo said that soon after she started playing with Jan in 1956, they became one person. “We never had to say, ‘I’m going to play such and such a song.’ I would hit a note and she’d be there.”
Even though both women played guitar, they hired a male lead. A female lead just wasn’t done. There was no thought of forming a girl band until 1959, when Edie Lippincott joined on drums. Jo took over lead guitar, learning on the fly. She told Jan, “I’ll try it if you get that girl Edie to play drums so she can drown out any mistakes I make.” Carla joined the band later, switching off as drummer with Edie. “Having an all-girl band seemed to be pretty nice,” Jo said. “It was definitely an exclusive thing. There were none around…We [had] liked all the guys that worked with us [but] when you had all girls you felt, I guess, a camaraderie. We had no idea we were making any kind of history.”
There were never any rehearsals since the women couldn’t read music. Jo said, “Elvis would bring out a song in the morning and [by the evening] I would have it.” She opened a case filled with music to show me. Not sheet music but notepads and loose pages with guitar chords and lyrics she had written out by hand. The Roc-A-Jets spent most of their gigs playing requests. “We did it all,” Carla said, referring to everything from the Top 40 and rockabilly to cha-cha-chás and polkas.
Jan sang and served as the tough front woman of the band. “She would get in fights frequently. She wouldn’t back away from a fight,” Jo said. “We were playing at Cicero’s and some guy would come up with a remark of some sort. She would say something back, and before you knew it they’d be fighting.” Tough as she was, Carla said that everyone–especially women–loved Jan. “She got an attitude that she was something special…She had a great personality. She had a terrific style. And what a showman.”
Since there were no female bands to serve as models, the Roc-A-Jets dressed the same way that the male musical acts did. The trio thought that they looked sharp in black pants, white button-down shirts and ties. Their audiences followed suit. On The Signal, Jo and Carla described housewives stashing men’s clothing behind a fence so they could return to change for a show without their husbands’ knowledge. This was one of Henkin’s favorite parts. “This moment of transformation, when they duck out with their jeans and T-shirts and Brylcreem hidden in their handbag and it was this total super hero moment,” he said. “They would emerge as this totally empowered version of themselves.”
Jo saw some truth in Henkin’s view. “When the band started playing is when everybody started coming out,” she said. According to Baltimore Sounds, Jo Vaccarino’s encyclopedia of Charm City music, “As a gay group, the girls created social scenes for gay women, and while doing so were subject to harassment from straight patrons and occasional visits from the police force.”
The band never made professional recordings, but fans brought in hand-held tape recorders. In Henkin’s piece, every audio clip has an added layer of meaning because of the women’s outsider status. When Jan sings, “Dreaming, in all my dreams I dream / That someday I’d find someone like you” from the Kitty Wells song, there is a deep sense of longing. Rahne Alexander, a rocker involved in Baltimore’s current music scene, said of the piece, “The thing that stunned me the most was the recordings…the voice is so amazing…If you really think about this song in a queer context, it’s a devastating song…you’re thinking about the closetedness that people were having to perform.”
In 1960s Baltimore, when being a lesbian meant hiding who you were, the Roc-A-Jets were audaciously out–as a band, if not in their daily lives. They made it easier for gay women to find someone like them. Older friends took teenaged Carla to a Roc-A-Jets show, and Carla became a regular. One night when Edie was sick, Carla filled in. “I must have got up…and just played the cocktail drums,” she said. “Next thing I know, here I am getting paid.” Edie was often ill, so Carla and Edie alternated even though Carla was underage. When cops showed up, Carla was hidden behind the stage or in the bathroom.
Carla had married right out of high school. When the marriage failed, she had to juggle a full-time day job, caring for a young child and playing gigs at night. “We just didn’t do it for the love of music. We were both single mothers raising a child,” she said. Being in the band was an income-booster, but it wasn’t that much. The band worked six nights and a matinée every week in addition to the day jobs. “It was hard,” Jo said about being away from home so much. “My daughter followed me around [at home]. My daughter totally loved me,” she said. “She was proud of me no matter what I did.”
Jo kept quiet about her love life. “As far as the rest of my family, they had to know,” she said. “But it was never discussed.” Carla concurred. “We don’t talk openly about gay sexuality.” She feels that because she had a child and accepted responsibility her family didn’t give her a hard time. “Being gay was not a happy thing for me,” she stressed. She had to deal with “things people would say to my child because of how they perceived me…In those days, children were taken away from you if they could prove you were gay.”
Despite the prejudice against gay women, Jo said no clubs ever turned the group away. “Wherever we played, we were going to draw a crowd. Who wouldn’t want somebody…who would increase their business?” she asked. After playing a variety of bars and lounges, the Roc-A-Jets settled in at the Pepper Hill Show Bar Lounge on Gay Street during 1963, where they stayed for four years.
Baltimore Sounds devotes a page to the Roc-A-Jets in their heyday, noting:
In 1964 at the height of the British Invasion the group was described by Bernie Lit in his weekly ‘Playboy’ entertainment guide as “Baltimore’s answer to the Beatles–the only all-girlie ladybugs in Baltimore’s nightlife.” The Rock-A-Jets played regularly at Hart’s Tavern off Furnace Branch Road during the summer of 1967, and were a house band at the Satellite Lounge in 1968-69.
Audrey Anderson first saw the Roc-A-Jets in 1963. “Just by dumb luck [we] went by this bar and saw something advertised about this all-girl band and I said, ‘Let’s go in there,’” she said. “When I walked in, I didn’t know I was going to meet one of my best friends for life.” She joked that she sang with the Roc-A-Jets so many times that she should have been made an official member. “No matter where they were, we followed them. They played great music, and we had a really good time.”
The band’s fan base went with them even when they worked clubs on The Block, where Jo remembers prostitutes scamming men with endless bottles of champagne. But the Roc-A-Jets had grown up as straight-laced, blue-collar kids and would remain so throughout the band’s 40-year career. “We were square,” Carla said.
Defending themselves was the only real trouble they caused. “A lot of straight women would come in and have a fascination,” Carla said. “They [wanted] to go back to their friends and say, ‘You know that girl, I slept with her.’” Carla would say, “Excuse me, I’m just trying to make a couple of bucks here to feed my kid.” She found their attitude degrading. Jo said that straight couples would come in, and the men would get upset. Their dates “were after us something fierce. They were coming underneath the doors in the bathroom to get to us.” There were also men who’d ask gay women to dance. “As macho as we were,” Jo said, “we’d say, ‘Leave them alone.’ BAM. We’d get smacked around.” A fight would start, sometimes violent. Jo once witnessed a group of men push Jan up against a car and beat her, breaking her ribs.
Jo and Carla both still bristle at the term “lesbian.” They remember being called “lezzies,” “lizzies” or “lizards.” Those slurs, Jo explained to me, “were meant to be a nasty thing and we weren’t nasty people.” Openly gay performers such as Ellen DeGeneres and k.d. lang and television shows such as The L Word have shifted public opinion toward gay women. But it only takes one stranger shouting “Watch where you’re driving, you fuckin’ lesbian” to get Jo’s guard up. “They use it as a slam against you,” she said.
(To be continued in “Audacity, 50s Style: Part 3”)