Though Peoria had a reputation as the “land of the rube and the boob,” it actually had a sophisticated nightlife for a city of its size.
In this photo Richard’s stepmother Ann (second from left) and a friend (far-right) are stepping out on the town, pictured here with two performers: saxophonist Vi Burnside (far-left) and trumpeter Tiny Davis (second from right). Both Burnside and Davis had been members of the pathbreaking big band the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first all-female integrated band in the United States.
Trumpeter Davis, whom Louis Armstrong admired, was a pioneer in multiple senses of the term. Not only was she a crucial member of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, but also she was an openly gay performer at a time when very few gay musicians, much less gay jazz musicians, were open about their sexual identity. With her longtime companion Ruby Lucas Phelan, she operated “Tiny and Ruby’s Gay Spot,” a gay bar in postwar Chicago.
The photograph suggests how, in some of Peoria’s nightclubs, the line between the “gay” world and the “straight” world was not so fiercely policed and was sometimes blurred. Harold’s Club, where Richard Pryor got his first gig as a paid entertainer, was also known as a venue that welcomed and even fostered a broad range of sexual expression.