Texas Music

Cutout Bin: Rae Bourbon, Let Me Tell You About My Operation

[Ed. Note: In our humble opinion, this is the best post we've ever had on Rocks Off. Period.]

Rae Bourbon

Let Me Tell You About My Operation (UTC Records, 1954)

One of the most jaw-dropping album covers in history is courtesy of one of the 20th century's oddest, most interesting, yet least-known characters. Of course he was from Texas.

Born under the name Hal Wadell on a ranch in 1892, Ray/Rae Bourbon was one of the most celebrated performers on the "pansy club" circuit in the 1930s. He first came to notoriety in the early '20s when he submitted a photo to a Paramount Pictures contest looking for the next Hollywood starlet - and won. Lost to the sands of time: the exact reaction of studio bosses when their contest winner showed up... and was a man.

Nevertheless, Bourbon was soon appearing in bit roles in silent films alongside the likes of Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson, often playing the part of a woman. Soon he was touring the country with his own drag comedy/variety show, capitalizing on a little-known, underground craze for gay and female-impersonation themed clubs in pre-WWII America.

Eventually Bourbon had his own club on Sunset Strip in L.A., where he hobnobbed with Hollywood elite such as Bob Hope and Mae West. He released dozens of comedy and bawdy-song records on several labels, including his own, UTC (Under The Counter, where one often found the risqué records in a shop).

By the 1950s, the pansy clubs were gone and Bourbon's career was on the wane. Then in 1956 the news broke in no less a publication than Variety. "Rae-Rae Bourbon's Switch in Sex Allegiance; He's Now A She - A Mexican Standoff," trumpeted the headline. Ray (now Rae) claimed to have had sex-change surgery in Mexico - the first such operation in North America and only the third in the world.

He soon released this LP, "Let Me Tell You About My Operation." Most assume it was just a publicity stunt, that he never really received a sex change. The renewed notoriety did lead to more performances and night club gigs, but Bourbon's brand of bawdy was all a bit dated by the 1960s. Nevertheless, his final act of notoriety was yet to come.

In 1967, on a trip to a gig in Juarez, Mexico, the near-penniless Rae's junker car broke down outside of Big Spring. The car and accompanying trailer supposedly carried upwards of 70 dogs - part of Bourbon's latest act which involved brightly-dyed canines who urinated on cue. Leaving his brood at a local kennel, he left town to raise money to get his dogs back.

By February 1968, the kennel owner had given up and donated the animals to a medical research facility. Rae was furious. He sent a couple of acquaintances to Texas to find the kennel owner and get the dogs back. Stories differ about what happened next, but A.D. Blount, the kennel owner, wound up dead.

In 1970, Ray Bourbon was convicted of Accomplice to Murder with Malice - in other words, hiring two men to kill Blount - and was given a life sentence. He was 78 years old. He became a bit of a celebrity in the small town, did some interviews for the local paper and died in jail in July 1971. His obituary was printed in the New York Times.

The life and work of Ray Bourbon, with audio clips.

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Nick DiFonzo