One of my research interests is the largely forgotten history of transgendered performers in American popular music. I thank Ray Astbury for bringing Petite Swanson to my attention, a blues singer in Chicago who recorded four sides for the Sunbeam record company in 1947 (Billboard reported her signing by Sunbeam in March 1947). At the time, Swanson was a member of Valda Gray’s troupe of female impersonators, who were the main attraction at Joe’s Deluxe Club in Chicago. She recorded four sides in 1947 for the Sunbeam label. These were not novelty recordings; they featured mainstream jazz musicians, mostly local journeymen but two of Swanson’s sides for Sunbeam (“I’m Sorry” and “Did You Ever Feel Lucky”) included legendary tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons. The Petite Swanson page of Queer Music Heritage includes a collection of press articles that describe drag entertainment for mainstream audiences in Chicago during the 1940s that is quite similar to the Sissy Bounce phenomenon in New Orleans for the last decade (see Sissy Bounce — an anomaly or just another transgendered musical tradition).
A history of the Sunbeam label by Robert L. Campbell, Armin Büttner, and Robert Pruter includes this fascinating portrait of Pettite Swanson and the scene at Joe’s Deluxe Clug (thanks Ray):
…soon thereafter, Marl Young recorded with his own trio behind vocalist Petite Swanson. Petite Swanson was a member of Valda Gray’s troupe of female impersonators, who for much of the 1940s were the main attraction at Joe’s Deluxe Club in Chicago; Marl Young had led the band there in 1943. Some of the entertainment at Joe’s Deluxe is preserved on the recordings made by two of the house band leaders: Dallas Bartley’s session for Cosmo and his three soundies from 1945, and Bill Martin’s 1946 sessions for Hy-Tone (although Martin used a studio lineup instead of the musicians he was appearing with nightly). But the Swanson session includes the only surviving performances by a member of the Gray troupe. Referring to him as a “fem impersonator,” Billboard announced in its March 22, 1947 issue that Swanson had just been signed to the label. The way indie labels usually did their business, we infer from this that Swanson had already recorded. In his article on the label in Blues & Rhythm, Bo Sandell gives La Swanson’s real name as Alphonso Horsley. In its March 1948 issue, Ebony magazine ran an article on the female impersonators at Joe’s Deluxe Club. Petite Swanson is mentioned as a regular performer there; Ebony spells Alphonso’s last name as “Hersley” and states that he was 40 years old at the time, a former school teacher who “attends Catholic church quite regularly.” According to the Ebony writer, he was a “topnotch blues singer but favorite song is Schubert’s ‘Serenade’.”
Not everyone appeared to understand Petite Swanson’s act. In 1945, a young Marshall Stearns, in from New York, decided to take in Dallas Bartley’s six-piece group at Joe’s Deluxe Club, and wrote a rave review of Bartley’s band–which then included Bartley on bass, Mac Easton on alto sax, Reese Thomas on tenor, and Bob Hall on trumpet (the other two were unnamed)–hailing their music as “real jazz.” He was also thrilled by Swanson, writing, “Highlight of the floor show is a blues singer named Petite Swanson, whose idols are Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. When Petite backs away from the mike and lets go with ‘Evil Gal Blues,’ put up on what she’s putting down! She has the power and tone of the old-time, great blues singers and she knows the style by instinct.” Nothing in Stearns’ report indicates that he was watching a female impersonator floor show, or that the source of Ms. Swanson’s power and tone included some testosterone! In any case, he knew the jazz was real. See M. W. Stearns, “Dallas Bartley Pleases Those in Search of Jazz,” Down Beat, 15 September 1945, p. 2. (http://hubcap.clemson.edu/~campber/sunbeam.html) [The Ebony article is included full text on the Petite Swanson page of Queer Music Heritage website -- more fascinating stuff].
For more interesting history, check out Queering Pop Music Studies.