Back when a drag number was a signature

Published 31, Aug, 2015

DJ Relentless aka Jade Elektra (or before that, Ebony) on the early days of his drag career

Back when a drag number was a signature

I want to take you back to Tampa, Florida in the year 1987. It’s a hot August Monday night. The place is a popular gay bar known as Rene’s Lounge on Kennedy Boulevard.

Rene’s was the home of many Miss Florida pageant winners. Some of the top female impersonators got their start at Rene’s, and Monday nights were amateur night hosted by a future Miss Florida, Lakesha Lucky. That stage was graced by the likes of such legends as Tiffany Arieagus, Tiffani Middlesex, Peter Fernandez, Mahogany, Chena Kelly,Chena Black, Mena Darnell, Patti Cakes, Sable Star, Heather Fontaine, Renee Evans, Roxanne Russell, Esme Russell, Kim Ross, Dana Douglas, Bobbi Lake and even Gilda Golden.

An advertisement for Rene's featuring Tiffany Arieagus

My drag days started in 1985 under the previous Monday night talent show host, Tony Rose (who I credit with being my very first drag mother). Two years in and I had talent show following. In those days, we worked the talent show. There were three major winners in this competition.....LaTonya Rogers, Virgil and a very young queen named Ebony.

This talent competition welcomed everyone and all types of talents. That meant you could be sure that three of the weeks of each month already had a winner. If you showed up to compete on a week that LaTonya, Virgil or Ebony you were just there to practice your craft.

Back then the talent show competitors worked the talent show for a portion of their rent. If you timed it just right you could count on that win as a suppliment to your income. So, some months you had that one week that anyone could win. And then there were the months with five Mondays. So, that meant there were two weeks where anyone could win. But every few months all three major competitors would show up on one Monday and the audience was in for a real treat.

Miss Ebony performing in the Monday Night Talent Show.

Virgil was known for lip syncing to Lenny Williams’ “Cause I Love You”. Ebony was known for her Millie Jackson numbers. And LaTonya Rogers was legendary for this rare recording of “I Who Have Nothing”. I have searched for many years for this version. Ms. Rogers always carried her music on a simple cassette tape with her name written inSharpie.

I believe the trusted brand of tape back then was TDK. Memorex for some reason was not a gyrl’s best friend for drag. I can remember a few mishaps during a performance where the tape got eaten by the machine or the audio was muffled. So, we spent the extra dollar to ensure our music was protected.

The gyrls of today have no idea how important it was to have a good cassette tape to store your music for shows. It was not advisable to take your actual records to a show. Those were your masters and you left them at home to protect them.

Syreeta Monteal competing on a Monday night for the talent show.

Now, there were a cast of characters who entered that show on Mondays. Some that come to mind are Clearwater Tootsie (who was the first drag queen I saw who loved Marilyn Monroe but refused to shave his mustache), Monique LaBelle, Regina Rheal, Crystal Clear, Simplicity Hart, Donna White (who was also a major contender with her Patti LaBelle numbers), Miss Maya, Tamika Love, Michelle Holiday, Apollonia, Maurice(who was known for his Prince impersonations), Syreeta Monteal (who for a short time was my roommate and taught me the basics of make up) and even another future Miss Florida, Natasha Richards (who came up from Miami and was infamous for Ella Fitzgerald’s “Air Mail Special”).

This was a really great competition and a smart place to learn how to perform, mainly because the audience was perdominantly black and a really rough crowd. I had seen many performers run off the stage after being heckled. I guess that’s why when they howled with laughter at me during my first performance I refused to leave the stage. I knew if I ran off that I would not be able to show my face at Rene’s ever again. So, I just sat there on the steps of the stage with my props for Stepahnie Mills’ version of “How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore?”

In case you hadn’t figured it out (or had not read any of my previous blogs about my early days), my first drag name was “Ebony” (long before I changed it to Jade Elektra). It would later become “Ebony Fashions”....not because I had a sickening wardrobe but because when I first started I only had two outfits. So, the name was actually a read from the audience. See....i told you they were rough. One of the biggest mouths in the crowd was Sally Mae Sasquach.

Miss Ebony servin' up her best Millie Jackson performance.

Although Millie Jackson records were quite easy to get, most queens were too lazy to learn the monologues. That became my strong point for my lip sync. Howeverm .LaTonya had this version of “I Who Have Nothing” and no one knew who recorded it... except her!

Because this was way before the internet, the only way you could have found some of these classic recordings was if the queen herself gave you a copy or you worked in a record store. I actually did work in a record store and I still couldn’t find out who did this version. But because I worked in a store I had access to some gems myself. For example....I used to do this version of “Natural Woman” by a girl named Michelle Goulett. She had a very minor hit called “Stop & Think” (which sounded like a knock off of Madonna meets Regina). Lakesha Lucky used to close the show often with a song called “Let’s Spend The Night” (which most assumed was a Stephanie Mills recording but was really by an underrated vocalist named Janice McClain).

Another sought after classic was “Everything I Feel” (better known as “In My Eyes” because of the chorus) by D’atra Hicks.There were a all kinds of Southern Drag Classics that were never commercial hits but were very popular with performers in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas. I believe Tifanni Middlesex (Rene’s legendary show director and former Miss Florida) had aPatti LaBelle Edit that consisted of “I Think About You” and “You Are My Friend” that made the rounds after her tape turned up missing after a show. And if you really wanted to punish a queen....make copies of her talent mix and give them out to everyone before the pageant.

Esme Russell on one of the pool tables in the back room of Rene's.

I know this must sound ridiculous to the young performers today, but I actually believe the exclusivity of obtaining songs made stronger performers. As a DJ I created some of the most eloborate signature mixes that won pageants and competitions from Florida to Chicago. I remember spending a couple of weeks working on Esme Russell’s “Vogue” talent in 1990. It was so important that she actually got permission from the management at Tracks in Tampa for me to work on the mix in their main DJ booth to get the best sound quality. When the queens paid their good money to have a mix done there was an unspoken code that you as the DJ did not give out the mix and you and the performer took a certain pride in the work you had done. Legends were made....both the performer and the DJ.

I wasn’t the only DJ from Tampa who known for his pageant mixes. Walter Winston (who I consider my mentor) and my adopted brother Anthony Evans also served up some legendary work as well at Rene’s. You were representing your town....your state. That doesn’t seem to happen today. With all the computer programs that edit sound today, the queens think they can do anything. But without the knowledge and history of a music library I don’t feel the same about the performances that I see these days. Everything is so disposable. Drag performances have been reduced to sound bites and themeless edits.

Chena Kelly after winning Miss Florida at Rene's. Since this is an up shot, Syreeta Monteal & Simplicity Hart are really not flattering. my husband actually found LaTonya’s version of “I Who Have Nothing”. There’s only a handful of the gyrls from the old talent show at Rene’s who are left. For those of us who wanted that number so badly back then (not that we could have given it any justice compared to Ms. Roger’s epic performance of it) this would be a major find. And most definitely with all the popular songs and styles of today upon the kids should they happen to look up from their smart phones and Grindr long enough to pay attention to such a masterpiece of a drag number.

I heard that LaTonya passed a while ago back in the 90s. But don’t worry my sister.....Miss Ebony will take your secret with her to her grave. My husband wants me to do the number, but I kinda think I shouldn't. Maybe if I was booked in Tampa again I might as tribute to LaTonya. For now., I'm just glad that I found this treasure and that I was there to witness these slices of history that will never happen again.

Renee Evans, Bobbi Lake, Chena Kelly & Lakesha Lucky. And if you look carefully you will see me in the DJ booth out of drag.

If you would like to know more about Rene’s, check out these links. This page lists all the former bars and clubs in Tampa and you have to look a little further down the page, but there’s a really good history from the early days in the 70s.

Miss Ebony with a customer (I think it was one of her boyfriends)