Hungarian glamour puss Zsa Zsa Gabor, at the height of her plastic surgery-enhanced pulchritude in the 1950s. Now a 94-year old bed-bound recluse and married to a seriously dodgy ersatz Euro-trash “prince”, Gabor’s life these days is a welter of lawsuits, health problems and accusations of abuse, neglect and exploitation - like something out of Sunset Boulevard or Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?Vanity Fair memorably explored the whole macabre and sordid story in 2007. It’s gotten even weirder since then.
Another great (sold-out!) night for Dr Sketchy at The Royal Vauxhall Tavern, this time featuring vampirically elegant emcee Dusty Limits and two seriously impressive new models / performers, Hotcake Kitty and Rose Thorne.
I’m pretty voluble about The RVT being officially my favourite venue to DJ at: the sound is thunderously loud (which is good, because the music is punctuated on a regular basis by police sirens screeching past outside. Vauxhall must be one dangerous neighbourhood!), and as an added bonus there is a big pump-top bottle of hand sanitizer gel in the DJ booth. I’m a pretty obsessive-compulsive hand washer and having this bottle of hand washing gel there is almost orgasmic for me. (I think I probably scrub my hands between changing each CD. If the management wonders about the rate of this bottle being decimated, now they know!).
For her performance the brunette Kitty (or should that be “Hotcake”?) wore an orange chiffon harem girl ensemble with Siouxsie Sioux/Cleopatra eye make-up and Bettie Page bangs. Music-wise, this raised a whole realm of possibilities. It was a fun opportunity to delve into Eastern belly dancer exotica kitsch and I really seized it. Eartha Kitt’s campy Turkish delight “Uska Dara” obviously seemed de rigueur. Every time I play Les Baxer’s apocalyptic, sex-wracked "Lust", everyone understandably assumes the astonishing multi-octave female voice wordlessly growling, grunting and screaming is Yma Sumac. Instead it belongs to the deeply obscure operatic chanteuse Bas Sheva (as in “Bathsheba”). “Lust” comes from Baxter’s 1954 album The Passions, on which he and Bas Sheva dramatically explore a different emotion on each song (the other titles include “Despair”, “Ecstasy”, “Hate”, “Terror”, “Jealousy” and “Joy”). Unfortunately, The Passions was a flop, Bas Sheva never recorded again and would die aged only 34 from diabetes-related causes. Tragic – as judging by this, she was the equal of Yma Sumac. Anyway, every time I play "Lust", I like to think Bas Sheva lives again! Even after Kitty's pose, I continued the exotica vibe into the break with a bossa nova version of "Misirlou" and Yma Sumac's delirious mambo, "Taki Rari."
Hotcake Kitty. Photo by Andrew Hickinbottom
I've posted this before, but hell, it's a good excuse to post it again: Eartha Kitt slithering her serpentine way through "Uska Dara" in a 1967 TV special
Rose Thorne’s act, meanwhile, saw her costumed as an Indian squaw (complete with black braided wig and Adam Ant white stripe painted across her nose) -- think Pocahontas with massive knockers! Thematically, this posed more of a challenge than Kitty’s outfit – but I did play “Commanche” by The Revels! If only I had “Apache” by The Shadows! Otherwise, I tried to evoke a sinister atmosphere for the rest of her poses with songs that could maybe the soundtrack to a Santeria or Candomblé voodoo ritual: think of Esquerita’s wailing and knuckle-dragging piano, unearthly Theremin (“Sinner” by Freddie and The Hitchhikers), a deranged version of "She is My Witch" (The Earls of Suave), Edith Piaf’s vibrato at full-throttle (“Jezabel”).
Rose Thorne. Photo by Andrew Hickinbottom
Elsewhere, I went heavy on the grinding tittyshakers and frantic rhythm and blues – both of which are always rowdy/sleazy crowd-pleasers. I always say that even if the audience don’t know who, say, Big Maybelle, LaVerne Baker or Ruth Brown is, they instinctively respond to the gritty earth mother warmth, sex appeal and soulfulness of the great female black American rhythm and blues voices.
That definitely applies to Etta James. I’ve meant to write something about the former Jamesetta Hawkins ever since her death on 20 January 2012 (just short of her 74th birthday). I’ll come straight out and admit am not a massive fan of James’s best-known music (“At Last”, “I Just Wanna Make Love to You”, forever tarred by association with that awful Diet Coke ad). The only album of hers I ever owned was her 1968 classic Tell Mama, which I had when I was still a university student, and I either sold or gave it away long ago. I’m just not keen on polished 1960s soul music as a whole – I’m more of a desperate 1950s rhythm and blues man. But I can’t fail to be moved by James’s belting heartbreaker voice and her hard-bitten, tough-as-nails, heroin-ravaged life story fascinates me (I need to snap up a used copy of Rage to Survive, her 1995 autobiography on Amazon at some point). Obviously I need to delve deeper into James’s discography as she had a long career and there are inevitably gems I’m missing out on. I do regularly play her raunchy 1955 breakthrough hit “Roll with Me, Henry” at Dr Sketchy. (I also like to play Ann-Margret’s poppy, cotton candy-fluffy cover version “Dance with Me, Henry” – it’s enough to horrify any rhythm and blues purist!).
Justifiably, there have been some glowing appraisals of James’s career since her death. The two best, most heartfelt obituaries I’ve read were in London’s The Guardian and New York’s The Village Voice. The Guardian’s Garth Cartwright nicely summarizes James’s life and career thus:
“Her approach to both singing and life was throughout one of wild, often desperate engagement that included violence, drug addiction, armed robbery and highly capricious behaviour. James sang with unmatched emotional hunger and a pain that can chill the listener. The ferocity of her voice documents a neglected child, a woman constantly entering into bad relationships and an artist raging against an industry and a society that had routinely discriminated against her.”
He also astutely notes that perhaps the reason James never enjoyed much mainstream commercial success was because “perhaps her voice, so raw and emotionally expressive, was too fierce for the general public. Indeed, hurt, anger and self-destructive behavior boiled beneath the surface of her vocals. Once asked to describe her style, she responded that singing allowed her to vent "all this bitch shit inside of me"”. “All this bitch shit inside of me” – how succinct and beautiful is that? I expect that angst was also what motivated the likes of Nina Simone and Lydia Lunch, similarly volatile and turbulent artists.
In The Village Voice, Carol Cooper’s account of the very young James, at the start of her career, being advised by the doomed Billie Holiday (from “fatherless wild child to fatherless wild child”) when her life and career were circling the drain, gives me goose bumps. Cooper is also great on nailing what an “intimidating package of jailbait mojo” the gutsy and talented mixed race teenager must have been when she was discovered by visionary R&B kingpin Johnny Otis aged just 14. (James lied to Otis, telling him she was 18. Her own mother, Dorothy Hawkins, had given birth to Etta when she herself was only 14. When she was still just 16, James dated BB King and she later believed she was the inspiration for his song “Sweet Sixteen”).
Cooper argues that with the timing of the sassy “Roll with Me Henry”, “Otis coincidentally established James as a rock and roll rebel alongside the likes of Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis.” Reading this passage in particular brought a tear to my eye:
“Sexually active long before cutting her first single, James had both the pipes and the real-life experience to play a bad girl with a heart of gold on record. No aspect of street life was a mystery to her; her entourage often included drag queens, gangsters, gang chicks and prostitutes. Married to the same man since 1969, and a supportive mother to her two adult sons, Etta was also a student of bourgeois propriety and understood the thin line between sin and salvation better than most. She adored Little Richard, with whom she did her first national tour and who she respected for having "the guts to be a king and queen all at the same time.""
Can you imagine what it must have been like hanging out with Etta James and Little Richard backstage in the 1950s – the debauchery?! And James also never mellowed: even as a 60-something blues mama pensioner when her health was shot and she used crutches to walk, she continued to do stripper squats and grab her crotch onstage. What a woman. It’s wrenching to think that for her last album (2011’s The Dreamer), James pulled herself together while suffering from both the leukaemia that would kill her and dementia to make one powerful final statement worthy of her reputation. Performers this tough and durable simply don’t exist anymore.
But I’m also deeply superficial, so I also love Etta James for her signature 1960s look. The artifice of the blonde bouffant wigs, the wild black eyeliner and weird eyebrows and the feather boas were deliberately trashy, almost drag queen-y and punk before its time. She was also frankly, defiantly fat (which makes the idea of Beyonce portraying her in the 2008 film Cadillac Records so risible. At one point James weighed 300 pounds. Much later in life -- once she'd finally kicked her heroin addiction -- she had a gastric band operation and slimmed down dramatically). In short, Etta James had freak appeal: she looked like a character from a John Waters film. Obviously Waters cast Ruth Brown as Motormouth Maybelle in Hairspray, but Etta James could just have easily played the role.
A blonde-wigged Etta James ripping it up on TV in the 1960s. A nice way to remember her
(The original video I posted here was better, but got deleted from Youtube! Here's a replacement that fits!)
I Just Don't Understand - Ann-Margret Unchain My Heart - Florence Joelle's Kiss of Fire Oui je veux - Johnny Hallyday Little Ole Wine Drinker Me - Robert Mitchum Good Grief - The Revels Oo Ba La Baby - Mamie Van Doren Woman Love - Gene Vincent Iced Tea - The Capers Last Night - Lula Reed Yogi - The Bill Black Combo Tidal Wave - Sonny Gee & The Standels Here Comes the Bug - The Rumblers He's The One - Ike and Tina Turner The Sneak - Jimmy Oliver Pass the Hatchet - Roger and The Gypsies The Flirt - Shirley and Lee Greasy Chicken - Andre Williams Wino - Jack McVea No More, No Less - Carmen Taylor Sweetie Pie - Eddie Cochran I Was Born to Cry - Johnny Thunders and Patti Paladin Tear Drops from My Eyes - Ruth Brown I'll Drown in My Own Tears - Lula Reed Directly from My Heart - Little Richard Fool I Am - Pat Ferguson Night Scene - The Rumblers Mexican - The Fentones La Bamba - Eartha Kitt Peter Gunn Twist - The Jesters Catwalk - Jack Constanzo Uska Dara - Eartha Kitt Caravan - John Buzon Trio I Love How You ... Lydia Lunch Shangri-La - Spike Jones New Band Monkey Bird - The Revels The Maharajah of Megador - The Blue Echoes Lust - Les Baxter Misirlou - Laurindo Almeida and The Bossa Nova All-Stars Taki Rari - Yma Sumac La Javanaise - Serge Gainsbourg Love for Sale - Hildegard Knef Drums A Go-Go - The Hollywood Persuaders La Java - Juliette Greco Commanche - The Revels Esquerita and the Voola - Esquerita She's My Witch - The Earls of Suave Jezabel - Edith Piaf Boss - The Rumblers Sinner - Freddie and the Hitchikers Boots - Nero and The Gladiators Crawlin' - The Untouchables Black Tarantula - Jody Reynolds Drummin' Up a Storm - Sandy Nelson Hulla Hulla Lulu - Beecher Hickman When Love Goes Wrong - Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell The Beast - Milt Buckner Hand Clapping Time - The Fabulous Raiders Roll with Me, Henry - Etta James Beat Party - Ritchie and The Squires Tornado - Dale Hawkins Begin the Beguine - Billy Fury Tall Cool One - The Wailers You Can't Stop Her - Bobby Marchan The Girl Can't Help It - Little Richard Fever - Timi Yuro
(When Marilyn met Marlene: Monroe and Dietrich photographed circa the mid-1950s. Dietrich (born in 1901) could have comfortably been Monroe’s mother (Marilyn was born in 1926; Dietrich’s own daughter, Maria Riva, was born in 1924), not that you’d know it judging by this photo. Dietrich, of course, was a “joyous(ly) bisexual Good Time Charlene” (description courtesy of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon). I forget the source now, but I remember reading an account of Dietrich being at a Hollywood party when Marilyn arrived late and already tipsy. Monroe was wearing a white fur coat, and there was a smear of her bright red lipstick on the collar. Dietrich told a friend afterwards that she found it “maddeningly erotic.” I’ve always remembered that expression: maddeningly erotic).
For this relaxed, enjoyable (and sold-out!) afternoon Dr Sketchy at The Old Queen’s Head, the performers / models were burlesque starlets Slinky Sparkles and Emerald Fontaine, with the raucous Ophelia Bitz (the Tallulah Bankhead du nos jours) on emcee duties. “Release the repressed sexual urges you’ve been holding back all week ...” Ophelia urged the audience, only to later accuse them of “leering and touching yourselves under the table.”
Ms Bitz and I. I'd been sweating to the oldies behind the DJ booth. Ophelia is placing her hand to cover my arm pit sweat patch. What a woman! Photo by Clare Marie
Emerald and Slinky certainly facilitated the leering and self-touching. I’d never worked with raven-haired, bullet-bra'd, pencil skirted and hardboiled bad girl Emerald before. Her act was very much a tribute to the cinema of trash auteurJohn Waters (Ophelia introduced her as “John Waters’ wet dream”), which obviously won my instant approval. The music for her burlesque number was “Jungle Drums” by Earl Bostick (from the Cry-baby soundtrack); it started with a lollipop-sucking Emerald as a hitchhiking runaway trying to thumb a ride, holding a sign emblazoned “Baltimore” (think teenaged delinquent Dawn Davenport in Female Trouble running away from home, or sulky Traci Lords in Cry-baby). For her poses, I happily wallowed in songs from John Waters’ soundtracks (his sleazy musical selections have always been a huge inspiration for me anyway) from films like Pink Flamingos, Cry-baby and A Dirty Shame, as well as tracks that sound like they could be from a John Waters film.
She's got it, ooh baby she's got it: Emerald Fontaine photographed by Andrew Hickinbottom (all photos from the day are by him unless indicated)
Later, platinum blonde Marilyn Monroe lookalike Slinky Sparkles did a spectacular fan dance routine. For her poses, I raised the tone a bit with twinkly cocktail music cooed by sex kittens like Marilyn Monroe (playing at least a few tracks by Marilyn is de rigueur when Slinky models), Julie London, Ann-Margret, Diana Dors and Jayne Mansfield.
Series of photos of Ophelia Bitz and I ogling Slinky Sparkles in action. Photos by Andrew Hickinbottom
Otherwise, a loose “chicken”-related theme cropped up (remember the scene in Pink Flamingos where Cookie and Crackers have sex and a live chicken gets involved in the action? I’m sure you’re still as traumatised by it as I am. Anyway, the song used in that sequence is “Chicken Grabber” by The Nite Hawks) and also a Latino / Mexican theme (which perhaps climaxed with Eartha Kitt’s berserk version of “La Bamba”, from her Eartha canta en Espanol album). As is my wont, I also went on a gynaecological musical journey to the centre of a girl with a series of single-entendre "pussy" songs (from Faye Richmonde's "My Pussy Belongs to Daddy" to "Can Your Pussy Do the Dog?" by The Cramps).
Emerald Fontaine and Slinky Sparkles together. Photo by Leigh Van Der Byl
Not to get nostalgic on your asses, but I know both Slinky and Clare Marie (Dr Sketchy’s imperturbable promoter / stage manager) in the first place because we all worked together at deluxe faux vintage lingerie emporium What Katie Did when its London boutique first opened in 2007. (They worked there full-time; I was just the occasional “Saturday boy” who worked the till, ran to the post office, climbed ladders and yes, occasionally, when necessary strapped semi-naked women into a corset with trembling hands). None of us work there now (although Slinky still regularly models for What Katie Did), but if it hadn’t been for my brief but fun stint there, I would never have met Clare Marie, who went on to promote Dr Sketchy and helped instigate my DJ’ing career (now you know who to blame! The reason I got my Saturday boy position is because way back in the 1990s, Katie Halford, What Katie Did’s founder and boss lady, and I used to work together for a fetish mail order company – but that’s a whole other sordid can of worms).
Anyway, What Katie Did continues to go from strength to strength, and recently even opened a “sister” boutique in Los Angeles. On Sunday 4 March 2012, What Katie Did held an in-store party and fashion show to launch their Spring/Summer 2012 range. It was all very chi chi and frou frou: gin cocktails served in vintage tea cups, chocolate cupcakes branded with the WKD logo, etc. The party was a blast. Here’s just a handful of pics (by me, except for the one I’m in, which I swiped from Facebook!).
Surrounded by bullet bras and suspender belts – my natural habitat! Left to right: Therese (Swedish rockabilly, my George & Dragon drinking buddy – we enable each other!), me, Katie Halford herself (the founder of What Katie Did), and Katie’s adorable daughter Poppy. Expert bartender Poppy poured out the drinks into vintage tea cups without spilling a drop. I drink gin out of a tea cup so daintily.
This photo is a bit of who's who of burlesque / cabaret starlets on the rise: Sophia St Villier (who'd actually modelled in the What Katie Did lingerie fashion show earlier), Ava Iscariot (both Sophia and Ava are frequent Dr Sketchy models and performers) and Luna DeLovely.
Kayee and Therese having a cigarette break outside
See more photos from the party (and the actual lingerie in the fashion show) here
Finally: speaking of Sophia St Villier, she recently did a smouldering photo session inspired by the paintings of Tamara De Lempicka, which is well worth checking out here. NSFW alert!
Make the World Go Away - Timi Yuro Torture - Kris Jensen Stop and Listen - Mickey and Ludella The Fire of Love - Jody Reynolds Riding By - The Majestics Oop Shoop - Big John and The Buzzards Matilda, Matilda - Robert Mitchum When I Get Low, I Get High - Florence Joelle and Her Kiss of Fire I Put A Spell on You - Screamin' Jay Hawkins Give Me Your Lov - Ike and Tina Turner Rock It - The Rockin' Brothers Screwdriver - Luchi Chicken Boogie - Ralph Marterie Kiss Me Honey Honey - The Delmonas Souvenir, Souvenir - Johnny Hallyday Salamander - Mamie Van Doren Blockade - The Rumblers Ring of Fire - The Earls of Suave La Bamba - Eartha Kitt The Mexican - The Fentones Surfin' Snow Matador - Jan Davis Eso - Conjunto TNT Chihuahua - Mina Besame Mucho - Betty Reilly Chicken Talk - Yma Sumac Love Potion # 9 - Nancy Sit The Girls in Paris - Lee Hazlewood Night Scene - The Rumblers I Would if I Could - Ruth Brown A Cruise to the Moon - Lydia Lunch Sweetie Pie - Eddie Cochran Boss - The Rumblers I'm a Bad, Bad Girl - Little Esther Save It - Mel Robbins Hand Clapping Time - The Fabulous Raiders Drummin' Up A Storm - Sandy Nelson Cry-baby - The Honey Sisters Let's Go Sexin' - James Intveld Chicken Hawk - The Nite Hawks No Good Lover - Mickey and Sylvia Uptown to Harlem - Johnny Thunders and Patti Paladin The Flirt - Shirley and Lee Roll with Me Henry - Etta James Jim Dandy - LaVerne Baker Lucille - Little Richard Maybe Baby - Esquerita Kruschev Twist - Melvin Gayle 8 Ball - The Hustlers Fever - Nancy Sit Wiped-Out - The Escorts La valse des si - Juliette Greco Mondo Moodo - The Earls of Suave Harlem Nocturne - The Viscounts Kiss - Marilyn Monroe A Kiss and a Cuddle - Diana Dors Love Me or Leave Me - Lena Horne Go Slow - Julie London Slowly - Ann-Margret Little Things Mean a Lot - Jayne Mansfield Two Little Girls from Little Rock - Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell Bikini with No Top on the Top - Mamie Van Doren and June Wilkinson My Pussy Belongs to Daddy - Faye Richmonde Sweet Little Pussycat - Andre Williams The Pussycat Song - Connie Vannett Can Your Pussy Do the Dog? The Cramps Boots - Nero and The Gladiators Beat Party - Ritchie and The Squires Wondrous Place - Billy Fury Witchcraft - Elvis Presley Early Every Morning - Dinah Washington Love Me or Leave Me - Nina Simone Let's Get Lost - Chet Baker