When women weren’t even allowed in Sydney’s pubs, Small was there singing the blues, dressed in a masculine suit. But her remarkable life was marred by racism and bigotry
Nellie Small knew how to rock a suit. There’s a photo of her, taken in 1954, standing on a small mobile stage in Sydney’s Castlereagh hotel, dressed in an immaculate bow tie and sporting close-cropped hair, singing her heart out to a room full of men, their middy glasses lined up in half-drunk rows. There are no women in the audience because they were not allowed in the public bar back then, or allowed to get a chequebook or apply for a mortgage. But here was a Black woman, of West Indian/Australian heritage, a verifiable star of the entertainment firmament, tearing up the room with her deep, growling voice full of honey and cinnamon, the piano accordion a sparkling accompaniment to her song.
Born in 1900, Small was a cross-dressing, jazz- and blues-singing, third-generation Australian entertainer, known by the now creaky sobriquet “male impersonator”. Her career began in the 1920s and flowered in the 30s and 40s. She was at the height of her glory in the 50s before her career trailed off in the 60s until she died of a lung disease in 1968.
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