Monday, 27 October 2014

Ruby and Tiny

Back in July I wrote about lgbt drummers and briefly mentioned the jazz drummer Ruby Lucas. It seems appropriate to write more about her today, during Black History Month UK and immediately after my piece about the Harlem Renaissance.

Ruby Lucas was born and raised during the Harlem Renaissance. She grew up in to become a member of a small all-female jazz/swing band and, with the partner Tiny Davis, founded a popular lesbian and gay bar in Chicago.

Much of what we know about Ruby’s life comes from her position as Tiny Davis’s partner. There’s very little information which tells us about Ruby as an individual in her own right. Most of her story is told in relation to her place in Tiny’s life.

Ruby grew up in Kansas City. Whether that is where she was born or not is uncertain. I’ve tried to track her down on the US censuses for 1940 and 1930 without success, so I cannot tell you the year of her birth or her family circumstances. It is almost certain, though, that Ruby was raised in poor surroundings.

Ruby learnt to play the piano as a youngster, and this leads me to suspect that there was music in her family background. Perhaps her parents were musical entertainers of some sort during the Harlem Renaissance years. Ruby’s musical talents were obviously encouraged by someone and she also learnt to play the drums and bass.

As a performer Ruby used the stage name Renei (or Renée) Phelan. I have seen a couple of references which indicate it was the other way rough – Ruby being her stage name and Renée her real name. I have also listened to interviews where Tiny Davis uses the name Renée for Ruby which might be supportive of this. Again, a search of the US census reveals nothing definite.

It was in Kansas City that Ruby met Tiny. Ernestine “Tiny” Davis was a member of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an all-female, inter-racial, jazz/blues/swing band which toured America during World War II. Tiny was in Kansas City performing with the Sweethearts in 1948 and was organising refreshments at the after-show party when she met Ruby. There must have been an instant connection, because shortly afterwards Tiny left her husband and children and lived with Ruby.

Soon after the war the International Sweethearts disbanded and work for female black musicians was difficult to find. Ruby not only became part of Tiny’s personal life after that but also a member of a new all-female band called Tiny Davis and the Hell Divers. This was a smaller band than the Sweethearts, just 3 or 4 members which would find work in many more smaller venues than the dance hall. Tiny was band leader and trumpet player and Ruby played the drums. The Hell Divers undertook small tours of the US and Caribbean.

Ruby and Tiny moved from Kansas City to Chicago shortly after forming the band. Tiny hinted in a 1988 documentary that they left Kansas because of their relationship (they were “thrown out” of Kansas, in Tiny’s words).

In Chicago the Hell Divers performed in clubs and bars, some of them gay and lesbian clubs. But tastes in music were changing. The swing and jazz sounds of the 1930s and 1940s were being replaced at the top of the music charts by rock’n’roll. With tour dates diminishing Ruby and Tiny decided to open their own club in the early 50s, “Tiny and Ruby’s Gay Spot” on Wentworth Avenue in Chicago. It soon became a well-known venue for gays and lesbians to gather and hear Tiny and Ruby perform live.

The Gay Spot could have gone into the 1960s had it not been for the ubiquitous urban redevelopment in many cities. In 1958 Tiny and Ruby’s Gay Spot was demolished to make way for a new road, the Dan Ryan Expressway.

With their own venue gone Ruby and Tiny returned to performing in other venues around Chicago. They had acquired something of a cult following by then. In the end it was the progress of time that stopped them performing. Tiny developed arthritis which prevented her from standing for long periods on stage. Even so, it was 1982 when they last performed professionally – that’s nearly 30 years after Tiny and Ruby’s Gay Spot first opened.

In 1988 Ruby and Tiny were featured in the documentary mentioned above, “Tiny and Ruby: Hell Divin’ Women”, in which they performed together and with Tiny’s family. This documentary is featured on the DVD release of “Before Stonewall”.

Tiny Davis died in 1994. Ruby Lucas survived her. Nothing is recorded of Ruby after this, perhaps someone out there can let me know.

I’ll leave you with this clip from the 1988 documentary.

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