One of the most bizarre gigs I have ever played would have to be a 1977 Halloween party I worked with Lovie Lee and the Sensationals. Little did I know what was in store when I signed on for this one.
I had heard about Lovie Lee for a couple years before actually running up on him at a club one night. He called soon after, and I found myself drumming for him. Lovie was Carey Bell's unofficial stepfather, the one who originally brought Carey to Chicago from Mississippi in the '50s. Later in life, after he had retired from his job as an upholsterer, he took the gig with Muddy Waters and played with him until Muddy died.
We always had a pretty good band, usually Lee Jackson, Brewer Phillips, Byther Smith or Lurrie Bell on guitar; sometimes we would get lucky and he'd drag Carey along on harp, almost always Jessie Hawkins on sax, and whomever he could find from the neighborhood on bass, but quite frequently it was Nolan Struck.
I had no reason to believe this particular gig would be that different from any other date I had played with Lovie -- at least not until we arrived. It was on the West Side, in a Masonic Temple in the 5300 block of West Lake Street. The placard at the door read:
Sheba and the Lion J presents a Masquerade Ball and Dance
Music by Lovie Lee, his piano and his band the Sensationals
-- starring Byther "Smitty" Smith, a real artist on guitar
Crowning of King and Queen
You certainly couldn't tell at first glance from the poster that anything unusual was going on. Lovie, Smitty, Carey, Carey's wife Dorothy and I all arrived around the same time. As we were loading our equipment in, I began to notice that a large portion of the men were very effeminate, and that several were dancing with each other.
It was at this point I became suspicious that this just might not be your typical blues gig.
We set our equipment on stage, and I grabbed a drink and joined the rest of the band at the table with Dorothy. Soon a lot of women began arriving, and man, were they decked out; I never saw so many flashy outfits in all my life! I really wasn't paying a whole lot of attention until Dorothy pointed out that a lot of the women appeared to be men, in drag. Then it dawned on me -- Crowning of King and Queen, Unspeakable the Fox Terrier -- that Lovie had unknowingly booked us at a transvestite Halloween party!
We got through the gig with no problems; they even crowned the king and queen -- although, other than Dorothy, I don't believe there were actually any women there -- but that is not where the story ends.
Several months later we were playing at Morgan's Lounge on 61st and Prairie streets. Lovie announced that he had hired a stripper to entertain that night. I remember asking him where he had found the stripper, and he replied that she was one of the girls from the Halloween party.
Now Lovie's eyesight wasn't that good, and he had never realized that the girls were actually guys that night.
Well, I wasn't gonna be the one to spoil his fun, so I didn't say anything to him about it.
About halfway through the second set Lovie announced to the audience that we had a treat coming up on the final show of the night and that everyone should stay and see the shakedancer. About two songs into the final set we began playing the Rinky Dinks' "Hot Potato" (the traditional song for shakedancers on the South Side at that time). Midway through "Hot Potato" Lovie called up our special guest for the evening, and, just as I suspected, it was a guy.
Not only was it a guy -- it was one of the ugliest guys I had ever seen.
Man, this cat must have had size 14 feet and was wearing gold lamé high-heeled shoes with one of the skimpiest bikinis this side of the Riviera. To top it all off he was bowlegged, and his entire body was covered with some kind of nasty looking sores that were oozing goo all over the place. As if that weren't enough, he had covered his entire body in vegetable oil.
It was all I could do to contain my laughter and keep a straight face for the remainder of the "show." At the end of the night Lovie told me that he thought she had really done a nice job and the people had really seemed to enjoy her. I never had the heart to tell him; I just said, "Yeah, that was a show all right."