Audacity, 50s Style: Part 3

(Final installment, continued from Parts 1 and 2)

Jo dons “gender-appropriate clothing,” dressing as Dolly Parton for Halloween gigs. (Photo: courtesy Jo Kellum)

“There’s a certain section of the population that thinks if you’re gay, you’re a pervert,” Carla Mandley informed me. I was speaking with her and Jo Kellum. The two women, both in their 70s, are the surviving members of Baltimore’s original all-girl band, the Roc-A-Jets. “If it’s so accepted as an ordinary way of life now, why is it so shocking?” she asked. “I’m very sensitive to it because of the abuse I’ve taken and the fear I’ve lived with all my life.”

For Carla, the band’s recent exposure has been uncomfortable. Carla played drums for the ground-breaking group, which entertained Baltimore clubgoers from the late 1950s through the mid-1990s. She feels that The Signal’s recent radio profile focused too much on the fact that they were gay.

I grew up in the 1970s after New York City’s Stonewall Riots sparked the gay rights movement. Homophobia existed when I was a kid, especially in suburban high schools, but before the Civil Rights movement extended to gays, there was no “out.” Then I caught the documentary Stonewall Uprising on PBS’s American Experience. The film gave me a sense of how deeply ingrained anti-gay culture was when the Roc-A-Jets started playing.

Public service announcements aimed at adolescents equated homosexuality with pedophilia and mental illness. If teens were caught in a homosexual act, they could expect to be treated like criminals. One film shows an older man, a pedophile, grooming a teenage victim. When the boy tells his parents what’s going on, they take him to the police, who arrest his abuser but also put the child on probation.

Both women vividly recall this climate of discrimination, symbolized by Baltimore City’s vice squad. Carla said that the police, in the band’s early days, physically beat them and their audience because they were gay. “They’d try anything to bring you down,” she said, including closing down the bars and clubs where the Roc-A-Jets played. The band and its audience dressed in shirts and slacks, so the vice squad tried to enforce a “gender-appropriate clothing” rule, a law that also existed in New York City. Sometimes, the police tore open the women’s dressshirts to check whether they were wearing bras.

Often, the Roc-A-Jets fought back with humor. Once, Carla’s version of gender-appropriate clothing was a ragged dress, a moth-eaten stole and ripped nylons borrowed from her mother. Everyone at the Pepper Hill Club howled at the joke, but Carla still had on the required three pieces of women’s clothing.

The 1969 Stonewall Riots were an uprising, but that wasn’t the Roc-A-Jets style. The band and their fans wore down their detractors. No matter how many punches were thrown, no matter how many times their gigs were raided, the Roc-A-Jets kept playing and having a good time. Eventually, the vice squad “became good friends with us,” Jo said, “and so did the police…They saw that we were just a bunch of young people having a good time and nobody was doing wrong things. And they liked us.”

Longtime friend, performer Buddy Love said, “They went out there, they were a show. They sounded good. They knew how to perform in front of people. They weren’t just anybody. They were special people.”

Because of the band’s popularity, I wondered whether lead singer Jan Morrison and Jo had ever been approached about a recording contract. It wasn’t surprising to learn that Jack Parr had invited Jan to be on his late-night show, as had Jimmie Dean, who hosted a country music TV program.

Even in the early days, before they were an all-girl trio, Jo remembers being approached by a music-industry scout. “This woman come in. We were singing “Bye Bye Love.” She said that she had heard about us and wanted to set us up to go to the Grand Ole Opry.” The band was skeptical, but the woman from the Opry was the real deal. Still, Jan and Jo turned her down. Jo said, “We both had children. And to pick up and leave…We weren’t going to do that, leave our kids.”

Jo began telling me about 50s- and 60s-era performers who were blacklisted because they were gay. The Roc-A-Jets must have been reluctant to trade their slacks and ties for beehives and dresses, the price of working with image-conscious music and television industries. The band was happy to stay in Baltimore, doing their own thing with the fans who knew them and loved them as is.

For Rahne Alexander, who leads the modern-day Baltimore band The Degenerettes, those fears resonate. “Here we are fifty years later and it’s still a novelty to be an all-female band,” she said. “There are queer musicians, obviously, but it’s still this uphill battle.” Alexander, who is transsexual, said being gay is not her band’s primary issue, “but it does flavor everything. It’s hard for us to find each other and it’s hard for us to support each other and it’s hard for us to be out and about.”

For that reason, Alexander understands why the Roc-A-Jets never pursued a career beyond Baltimore. “I know, because of work that I do [as a musician], that I’m going to be scrutinized by people in a way I don’t expect. You’ve really got to steel yourself for that. That’s huge. A lot of people just want to live their lives. Maybe they just wanted to be in a band and not be in a famous band.”

Jo agreed that the idea of putting on a skirt and growing long hair wasn’t appealing, despite the opportunities the Roc-A-Jets had to make it big. But she and Carla both believe that Jan, who died in 2007, could have been a star. Carla said, “I never heard anybody who could hold a note like [Jan] sang…and then go right back into the release. I would have needed oxygen. She was phenomenal, she really was. If there was anyone of the four of us who [could have] made it in Nashville, it was her.”

Since their interview on The Signal, the Roc-A-Jets have been raised to hero status by some in the local gay community and music scene. Alexander said that when she listened to the Roc-A-Jets piece, “I listened to it like twice in a row…Suddenly my Facebook [page] and my email was full of people saying, ‘Oh my God. Have you heard this?’”

Alexander wrote a tribute song, a portrait from the point of view of a 1950s era “Saturday night butch” looking forward to a night out. “The Roc-A-Jets make this woman feel good, and that’s all that the song needs to be about,” she said. The song, “The Roc-A-Jets,” opens with the lines, “Shirley, Shirley, let’s ditch the poodle skirt,” a nod to the classic–some would say closeted–sitcom roommates Laverne and Shirley.

Alexander and I spoke on the phone about similarities between her band and the Roc-A-Jets. She and her partner, Kristen Anchor, are the core of the Degenerettes. She said that the two of them are “still fighting some of the same battles that the Roc-A-Jets were, but still trying to create an atmosphere of fun and enjoyment…rebellion and sexuality and all the sorts of thing rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to give people.”

Over the last six months, Jo and Carla have caught two Degenerettes shows, where they’ve heard some current Baltimore bands. The women brought several of their friends, many of whom started out as Roc-A-Jets customers, to one of the shows. “We played the song and both Carla and Jo came to the stage,” Alexander said. “I just really wanted them to be able to soak up a lot of credit for making it possible for us to do what we do. They really did break a lot of ground.”

The Roc-A-Jets were also recognized recently by their friend Love, who inducted them into his Maryland Country Legends Music Hall of Fame last fall. “These girls earned the respect to be in the Hall of Fame…They were rock ‘n’ roll stars.”

Love said he never witnessed any of the abuse the Roc-A-Jets went through in their early years but pointed out, “They earned the respect of everybody. When you’ve got great people, dressed people doing a show–what they done, they created that image. I never heard anybody say anything bad about them. You can’t argue with class.”

I’ve visited Jo a few times since our first interview. Once, while Jo and I were talking, her friends Cass Drevillian and Donna Kasch came by. Drevillian has known Jo since the 1950s, when both women worked at Eastern Venetian Blind Company. Kasch, Drevillian’s partner, was an early fan.“I used to go down to Pepper Hill…the bar was always packed,” Kasch said. They talked about those in their circle who are ill or have passed away. They bemoaned the “lost” clubs and venues where they used to hang out. Kasch told me that the scene for gay women isn’t as supportive today as it was when the Roc-A-Jets played. She thinks that’s because openly gay women and men can go to any club or bar.

Although the Roc-A-Jets are history, the relationships Jo and Carla developed through the band are strong. Now, their extended group of friends meets weekly at Bobby B’s Palace for dinner and oldies music. Jo continues reaching out, sharing her story with people like me, Alexander and Henkin, who views Jo as a pioneer.

Henkin said the Roc-A-Jets “didn’t know quite who they were when they started out. I don’t suspect they intended to become the epicenter of a whole revolutionary sexual identity movement. But they found courage with each other. They ended up, intended to or not, being heroes and leaders to a whole generation of women just like them.”

Recently, I stopped by Jo’s to go through photographs of the band. Jo’s partner had coffee and donuts ready. Their friend Audrey Anderson was there, and I’d brought my daughter, since school was out. We sat around the dining room table, looking at pictures and chatting. Carla stopped by, too.

Anderson had us all laughing. She was there when the Roc-A-Jets played one of Divine’s birthday parties–the band was a favorite of filmmaker John Waters, who they still see from time to time. At the party, Audrey found herself in line for the bathroom behind a sword swallower. She remembered thinking that if the cops came to break up the party, “What was I gonna tell my mother?”

It would be easy to tell the Roc-A-Jets story as a version of Behind the Music. The band has all the makings of a rockumentary: humble beginnings in working class Baltimore, fans who lined up for blocks to see a show, police busts and broken bones, all of the things that make other acts crack and grow apart. But for every story that ends with the band in a police paddy wagon or hospital, there’s another about raiding a local thrift store for $1 dresses to wear on the dance floor. “We sit around now,” said Anderson, talking about “the fun we had making fools of ourselves and having a good time.”

It was mutual love of music that helped these women find each other, but a sense of community keeps them together still. “Four women. Forty years,” Jo said. “You know women don’t get along with each other that long.” The band had tiffs, but they were usually about their set list or Jan putting the moves on Jo’s girlfriends. Carla said, “But the nitty gritty was it was one for all and all for one.” And in the community of women the Roc-A-Jets built, it has stayed that way for fifty years.

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2 thoughts on “Audacity, 50s Style: Part 3

  1. Fantastic article–thank you so much for sharing. I’ve never listened to these amazing ladies before, but I’m dedicating my weekend to changing that in a big way.

    Like

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