It is extremely common for blues scholars to mistake one obscure female classic blues vocalist for another, especially if they are singing an itchy old number such as "Mean Old Bed Bug Blues". For said "female" vocal to have actually been done by a man is quite a rare occurence, but it has been known to happen if a fellow by the name of Billy Banks was lurking around. The aforementioned bed bug song was an early '30s side that for years was thought to feature the vocal efforts of a Fats Waller protege named Una Mae Carlisle. But it was actually Banks, a vocalist and bandleader marginally involved in some excellent jazz sessions from this period who was also an extremely succesful female impersonator. The more squeamish jazz biographers tend to just describe him as "eccentric."
A case could be made that Banks' knack for passing as the opposite sex may have been his greatest talent. On the jazz scene, his name shows up basically because of some 1932 sessions at which he was a nominal bandleader, meaning he had very little to do with the actual music. Not that anyone there really needed any help from Banks: the line-up, representing one of the earliest multi-racial groups, featured players such as trumpeter Henry "Red"Allen, clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, trombonist Tommy Dorsey, pianist Jess Stacy, drummer Zutty Singleton and the incompareable Fats Waller, who needed a vocalist like a gopher needs someone to help dig a hole. It was a great combination of players, basically throwing together some members of the Luis Russell band with some white musicians that had been recruited by producer and publisher Irving Mills. His record company claimed these sides were the "hottest jazz records ever made", and it is a corny advertising pitch that a listener may feel quite sympathetic to after exposure to these romping, stomping sides, complete with Banks' high-pitched vocals.
His style, which tends to bring forth measured compliments such as "unique", "interesting" and "curious", had not made much of an impact prior to these sessions. Banks had been working with the Russell band at the Lafayette Theater, doing as much a showman turn as a vocal act. Several years later he performed in the band of Noble Sissle. In the late '30s he moved to a cabaret spot at Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe, staying there nearly a decade. He then did cabaret in New York, touring Europe in the '50s as well as Australia and the Far East. The latter part of the world appealed to him particularly, and in the late '50s he settled in Japan, staying there until he died in the late '60s. One of his last recordings is a 1954 date with Cy Laurie's New Orleans Septet, recorded in Aarhus, Denmark, at which he pays a return visit to "Margie", one of the best numbers from the 1932 sessions. ~ Eugene Chadbourne~ Rovi