Imagine walking into the Dew Drop Inn in Central City when giants like Fats Domino and Chris Kenner were regularly performing. The host of the affair would be Patsy Vidalia, born Irving Ale, and the show opener just might be Bobby Marchan born Oscar James Gibson.
A few more transvestites or drag show performers are certainly scattered amongst the partygoers enjoying the bonhomie of one of the most liberal cities in the US.
I can remember going to a drag show when I was a teenager sneaking into bars on the then-dangerous Northside of Birmingham. There was a late-nite joint called The French Quarter, and they routinely brought in performers from New Orleans to give our little backwater a taste of some big city glamour.
Occasionally one of the artistes would also be a prostitute and the line of men attempting to curry her favor would be a half-block long. Back then these otherwise-straight black men would refer to their same-sex hook ups as keeping it on the down low.
Bobby Marchan had to be bored out of his mind in Squaresville aka mid-20th century Youngstown, Ohio. Youngstown was not exactly small with a population of nearly 170,000 people when Bobby was a teen, but compared to the big city lights of New Orleans it would’ve been hopelessly drab.
Teenage Bobby got his start in the business as a standup comedian, emcee, and drag show renegade. Then-mayor Ralph W. O’Neill was a bon vivant and integrationist who routinely looked the other way so the wild side of life could be enjoyed under his watch.
The Club Lido was the place to be with one local newspaper columnist describing it thusly: (the club offers) “…something different and something enjoyable” in its acts with “3 of the country’s top male mannequins of female fashion,” then a centerfold advertisement appears with a large photo of Sunny West, Gene Darling, and Joe Dayre. Max Brown and his Hi Hatters provided the musical entertainment..
Meanwhile at Club 77, Bobby was becoming a regular act as a female impersonator singer but you know he was getting his nose opened up when the big time troupes were rolling through with lusty tales of life from the road. Marchan had formed a small collective of like-minded souls that he called the Powder Box Revue, and after saving up their money they decided to trek down to New Orleans, a city that the big-timers favored and reveled in namedropping.
“We worked some clubs on North Claiborne and also the Tiajuana where I also met Huey Smith, that had to be around ’54 or ’55.”
That’s Bobby talking about a meeting that would be a life changing event for both Huey and Bobby as the two would form an alliance that shook the early roots of what would become rock n roll. Bobby would get an apartment above the Dewdrop Inn, and eventually front Huey’s powerhouse outfit The Clowns.
This is the era when Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Guitar Slim, and Little Richard were playing in nightclubs all over New Orleans and regularly taking the stage at the Dewdrop.
A night at the Inn for men like Aladdin president Eddie Mesner was just another day at the office so it’s no surprise that that’s how Marchan got noticed, and coaxed into Cosimo Matasa’s studio in February of ’53 to record his debut Have Mercy backed with Just A Little Walk.
Next Marchan did a one-off with Randy Wood’s Dot Records, Just a Little Ol Wine backed with You Made a Fool of Me.
Young Bobby is not setting the woods on fire with sales but he does catch the eye of Johnny Vincent of ACE Records in Jackson, Mississippi. Vincent, thinking he’s signing a female, inks Marchand to a record deal and releases Give A Helping Hand backed with Pity Poor Me (1955) Due to contractual obligations this cut drops under the name Bobby Fields.
Johnny said he liked my singing and wanted to record me. He gave me $200 and I signed his contract
ACE gets the contractual kinks worked out and Bobby’s next one, the Huey Smith-penned Chickee Wah-Wah is released under the Marchan marque in January of 1957, and Vincent finally sees some sales traction on his signee. A few months later Huey and his band are playing in Baltimore where Bobby is living the good life as a drag show queen, and going to concerts as a fan.
The two old friends run into one another, and set out a plan for Bobby to front Huey’s backing band, The Clowns, and tour their way back to New Orleans.
“I could make more money leading The Clowns than working in drag….The Clowns had some big hits and we traveled all over America”
Oddly, Huey liked to stay home while his band hit the road. He had Little James Booker murdering it on the piano and Bobby fronting the outfit while he stayed at the house in New Orleans.
“People thought I was Huey Smith! I had to tell them I was Bobby Marchan, then they thought Booker was Huey Smith.”
I hired Geri Hall, she sang with the Raelettes for a while. A boy named John (“Scarface” John,) he’s dead now, he could sing and clown a lot. I had Eugene, he couldn’t sing but he sure could clown. He dyed his hair reddish green. I had Roosevelt Wright, who was one of the best bass singers in the country.
Big horny hustler Rudy Ray Moore was the band’s driver, and responsible for one of their biggest hits via his catchphrase “Don’t ya just know it” which the group wrote a song about, and took to number nine on the Pop charts in 1958.
In spite of all this success, Marchan was getting restless, and would leave the Clowns to join Bobby Robinson’s Fire Records imprint in 1960. After a couple misfires, Marchan cut a cover of Big Jay McNeely’s There Is Something On Your Mind which would go to number one on the R&B charts and number 31 Pop.
Unfortunately, Bobby was still under contract at ACE; Johnny Vincent sued Bobby Robinson, and Robinson had to make a payoff of $12,500 to keep the record on the Fire label.
Marchan would go on to record more singles, including four sides on Stax Volt, as well as an LP but would never duplicate the success he had with the Big Jay song. While his own recordings languished he did manage to write Get Down With It for the Dial label which British powerhouse Slade later turned into a million seller.
I’m glad they did it, ’cause I started getting them big royalty checks! I got more money from that than on my own records
By the late seventies Bobby had returned from a sojourn working the drag scene in Florida, and could be found at the Alhambra on Claiborne Avenue. Advertisements from the era call him “the hostess with the mostest.” Ever the showman Bobby works the crowd in evening gowns while giving as good as he gets. Like as not, the crowd was on the receiving end of many a tart response.
Bobby Marchan stayed busy over the next couple decades working with local funk band Higher Ground, and branching off into promoting rap and bounce concerts where he was known as Mister Sister.
Bobby did a lot for New Orleans. Every bounce artist that went through Bobby made money and became something. Bobby booked shows, hooked artists up on shows, got you on the radio—Bobby did it all. Bobby was the greatest empowerer of black artists New Orleans ever had. I don’t think anyone will ever replace him because he was a hustler and known all over.
That’s DJ Jubilee giving proper respect to Bobby Marchan who passed away on December 5th 1999 following a battle with cancer.
b. April 30, 1930
d. December 5, 1999
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