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Tipping the Velvet is a charming collection of 24 camp music hall songs recorded between 1915 and 1938, and inspired by the acclaimed historical novel by Sarah Waters. Among the featured artists are Vesta Tilley, Gwen Farrar, Cicely Courtneidge, Ella Shields, Hetty King, Douglas Byng and Norah Blaney, many of them male impersonators whose artistry nonetheless extends beyond mere novelty and caricature.

Songs include: Masculine Women! Feminine Men!, The Moon is Low, If I Had a Girl Like You, Piccadilly, Give Me a Million Beautiful Girls, I'm a Bird, Ukelele Lady and What Angeline Says, Goes. The CD and digital download was curated by specialist jazz archivist Andrew Simons.

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1. Gwen Farrar and Billy Mayerl - Masculine Women! Feminine Men! (1926)
2. Norah Blaney and Gwen Farrar - They All Fall In Love (1930)
3. Norah Blaney and Gwen Farrar - Ukelele Lady (1925)
4. Norah Blaney and Gwen Farrar - What Angeline Says, Goes (1930)
5. Norah Blaney and Gwen Farrar - The Moon Is Low (1930)
6. Norah Blaney and Gwen Farrar - Maybe I'm Wrong Again (1935)
7. Norah Blaney and Gwen Farrar - Moanin' for You (1930)
8. Gwen Farrar - If I Had A Girl Like You (1931)
9. Cicely Courtneidge - The Moment I Saw You (1933)
10. Cicely Courtneidge - There's Something About A Soldier (1933)
11. Hetty King - Piccadilly (1934)
12. Hetty King - Tell Her the Old, Old Story (1934)
13. Hetty King - Down Beside the Riverside (1934)
14. Fred Barnes - Give Me A Million Beautiful Girls (1922)
15. Douglas Byng - She May Be All That's Wonderful (But She Doesn't Appeal To Me) (1929)
16. Douglas Byng - I'm a Bird (1938)
17. Douglas Byng - The Mayoress of Mould-on-the-Puddle (1938)
18. Douglas Byng - I'm a Mummy (An Old Egyptian Queen) (1935)
19. Randolph Sutton - Oh Georgie! What a Fine How Do You Do (1934)
20. Vesta Tilley - Jolly Good Luck To The Girl Who Loves A Soldier (1915)
21. Ella Shields - If You Knew Susie Like I Know Susie (1925)
22. Ella Shields - Everybody's Singing (1927)
23. Ella Shields - Why Did I Kiss That Girl? (1924)
24. Ella Shields - Burlington Bertie From Bow (1934)

Sleevenote by Andrew Simons:

With the well-received novel Tipping the Velvet Sarah Waters has achieved what the best historian tries to do, stir us into the nougatine past as if it were the demarara-cubed present. But her textural talent aside, there is no substitute for days of knickers-numbing, eye-straining research in, in Waters' case, The British Library. With Velvet as inspiration, it was a quick-step from printed documentation of the early queer show business scene to these artists' recorded legacies.

In the Victorian era, before movies and British variety or American vaudeville, the music hall was the mass entertainment. There Nan King and Kitty Butler were, social prisoners of the era with modern conveniences such as mass media, public transport, show business, and the like, but with none of the enlightenment regarding diversity that we enjoy today. Reverse gender impersonators were no doubt an inspiration to the hidden lesbian and gay community.

As 78rpm shellac discs claimed their corner of the entertainment market in the 1920s, lesbian and gay artists were there to claim their share of the cash too. These recordings thus document the tail end of the music hall era and what was for a generation or two the high-point of the succeeding stage variety years.

Queer women were generally freer than men to sing romantic songs, straight. But while a straight male artist could get away with singing the "I got my man" line in the popular hit I Got Rhythm, an honest gay man's avenue often was to make a novelty of his performance. But no matter how the caricature stings us today, Douglas Byng's comedic turn back then was as courageous as he was talented, for there was still homophobia in theatre management as a residue of Oscar Wilde's earlier notoriety. This same contrived campness has lived on in any number of more recent performers, but Byng, D.L.E. (Dame of the Liverpool Empire) was always on the sophisticated edge of pantomime.

The deep-voiced cellist Gwen Farrar was both the on-and-off-stage partner of the more conventionally singing pianist Norah Blaney. As a parlour-suited cabaret act, their intimate performance benefited from the arrival, in 1925, of electrical recording. The technical advance of the microphone radically changed the roster of record companies, for they no longer solely sought music hall artists such as the male impersonator Vesta Tilley and Fred Barnes, who were capable of thrusting their voices up to the balcony without any amplification. Norah and Gwen made numerous recordings, from the notably novelty to the plainly poignant.

Cicely Courtneidge had a lengthy stage and screen career with her husband and comedic partner Jack Hulbert. Her solo infantryman act, a First World War-inspired piece, endured through the Second World War too when she entertained British forces in North Africa and Italy. Cis' double role in the rather Sapphic 1933 film Soldiers of the King included the moving song The Moment I Saw You, in which she confessed "the fur coat you wore... You were that girl I was meant to adore." The same movie contained the stridently butch hit, There's Something About a Soldier.

The straight but cross-dressing performer Hetty King, a drinking companion to both Courtneidge and Hulbert, was a music hall mainstay with a robust repertoire and no doubt gave moral support to certain women and men. She winked her away through Piccadilly, "the playground of the gay, where the traffic goes one-way", and Tell Her the Old, Old Story, in which she advised the listener to "get your girl all nervy, when her head's all topsy-turvy". And in popular music the cruising canon was surely launched by such a song as Down Beside the Riverside.

Vesta Tilley, later Lady de Frece, had an exceptional career as a male impersonator, lasting over 50 years, despite being burdened with an impressive soprano singing voice. In Jolly Good Luck to the Girl Who Loves a Soldier, she sings: "Girls, if you'd like to love a soldier, you can all love me".

Fred Barnes' gayness was obvious to nearly everyone back in 1922, in part due to his flamboyant dress sense. Although not a cross-dresser, his early inspiration in performing was Vesta Tilley. The amusingly ironic Give Me A Million Beautiful Girls was one of the few records he made in an era when stage success and bookings took precedence over recording artist stature.

Sister cross-dresser Ella Shields, an American ex-patriot, sang "Now's your opportunity, join the gay community", but like all of these artists, not all of her material hinted at gender preference. Her most famous number, Burlington Bertie From Bow, written by her husband, was simply the song of the saddest of street characters and she recorded it several times.

It is hoped that this conurbation of early recorded lesbian and gay and queer-inspiring art, rescued from obscurity, will encourage further research into lesbian and gay history.

Recommended reading:

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters (1996). Available as a Virago paperback from all good bookshops.
Brief Encounters: Lesbians and Gays in British Cinema 1930-1971, by Stephen Bourne (1996)
It's Not Unusual: A History of Lesbian and Gay Britain in the Twentieth Century, by Alkarim Jivani (1997)
The Story of the Music Hall: From Cave of Harmony to Cabaret, by Archibald Haddon (1935)
Three Queer Lives, by Paul Bailey (2001)

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