The young woman stood in the spotlight, her song reaching its crescendo. In the darkness of the jazz club, two figures watched her, making notes: a balding, paunchy man with a massive cigar, and a peroxide blonde woman with voluptuous curves. It was a stuffy May afternoon in 1961, and the prestigious Saturn Club of Soho was auditioning for new singers. The woman sat on the edge of her seat, muscles tensed ready for the end of the song. The singer had a sweet voice and flashing brown eyes, the plaintive Gershwin ballad had been well-chosen, but she had a definite naivety about her. The woman found this charming, but her colleague’s slumped shoulders and increased smoke production led her to infer that he did not share her opinion.
“Thank you, Miss Samuels,” he said, his Cockney rasp reverberating across the club auditorium. “You’re good, but you’re not what I’m looking for. You’re too Doris Day. I want a bad boy, a gunslinger, someone from the wrong side of the tracks. Someone who’ll bounce off Annie here.” He gestured to the blonde woman.
Up on the stage, Rita Samuels squinted into the smoky darkness.
“Er, I can be more raunchy if you want, Mr Goldsmith,” she bleated.
“Trust me, darling, you can’t.” He signalled for Annie to fetch Rita’s coat. “Good day to you.”
Rita watched him go, her tear ducts prickling with anger. She felt a reassuring hand on her shoulder.
“Ignore Tony,” Annie said, helping her into her coat. “I thought you were great.”
Trudging home via Old Compton Street, Rita wanted to wring the slimy old geezer’s neck. This gig had been the last chance saloon for her. It was bad enough that her main source of income was now polishing floors in South Kensington, but to say that she was too Doris Day? That took the biscuit! She might as well go home to Whitby and open up a chippy!
Then she saw something that made her stop: a poster for a drag act, a man dolled up like Peggy Lee.
And a thought struck her:
If a man can pass as a woman, maybe a woman could pass as a man?
Not in a Vesta Tilly sailor-suit and breeches kind of way, but as an actual swaggering James Dean or Marlon Brando, or even manly, like Rock Hudson?
She hurried home, briefly stopping at the second-hand shop and the theatrical suppliers. If Tony Goldsmith wanted a bad boy, then she would definitely give him one.
At the club, Tony and Annie were about to break for tea. Annie maintained that Rita had been the best act they’d seen, but Tony insisted that they needed a man.
“We can’t give you too much temptation, can we?” he leered. “Not after last time.”
They were interrupted by a small figure bouncing onto the stage. A young man in a dark suit. His massive quiff gleamed with pomade, and his dark sideburns appeared to be taking over his face. His flashing brown eyes and mischievous grin gave the effect of a cross between Elvis and a friendly werewolf. He adjusted the microphone.
Annie checked her list of auditionees. “Your name’s not on my list, Mr -”
“Black. Danny Black.” The voice was slightly higher than anticipated, but what the singer lacked in gruffness, he made up for in swagger. His accent veered somewhere on the train line between Edinburgh and Glasgow. “There must be some mistake, my agent phoned my details over yesterday. I hear you’re looking for a bad boy. Well. Here I am. Here to rock your world.”
Annie and Tony exchanged shrugs, then Tony waved for the newcomer to proceed. Immediately he launched into a sultry rendition of “Somewhere Beyond The Sea”, making eye contact with them before sauntering down the stairs to floor level during the instrumental section and taking hold of Annie’s hand, inviting her to dance with him, then twirling her round, bending her backwards over his knee like the most snake-hipped of Lotharios. Annie felt as if she was ready to faint, then as he eased her back to her seat and bounded back up the stairs to the stage, she slowly regained her composure. He finished the song and Tony leapt to his feet, applauding ferociously.
“How old are you, boy?” Tony asked.
“Old enough to be the Saturn Club’s newest star! You start tonight. By the way, if anyone asks, you’re just turned twenty-one, alright?”
Rita couldn’t believe her luck. For a while her glued-on sideburns were in danger of coming unstuck during the dancing, but at least for the moment, she had convinced them. She was Danny Black. She followed Annie through the backstage labyrinth to a little dressing room with two shelves and a clothes rail.
“Make yourself comfortable,” Annie said.
Rita saw that there were ladies’ dresses on the clothes rack.
“Who am I sharing with?” she asked.
“Well, me, of course.”
“But- you’re a woman!”
“You could change with the band if you prefer.”
“Eh, no, I’ll be fine right here.” Her voice was wobbling all over the place. She adopted a more rebellious pose and flashed her best vulpine grin.
Annie felt herself blushing. The new singer had a certain something about him; she couldn’t quite put her finger on it.
“You look familiar,” she said. “Where would I have seen you?”
Rita had to think on her feet.
“You might recognise me from my famous tea parties at the zoo,” she said. “I’m the third chimp from the left.”
Annie laughed, but she knew a distraction technique when she saw one. Never mind, she thought; she would find out in due course.
When she returned from her break, she found Danny Black combing his quiff, patting down his sideburns before settling down with a newspaper. She was surprised to find that he hadn’t changed his suit.
He hadn’t been expecting to start so soon, he said. He hadn’t expected to start at all. She helped him powder his nose, and once again Annie found herself gazing into his eyes, noticing his neat little features.
“I, uh, I need to change,” she murmured.
“Oh, sure, go ahead.” He went back to reading the paper.
“I’d rather not give you a floor show, Mr Black.”
Rita suddenly remembered that she was supposed to be a man. She grinned. “Aw, I’d been looking forward to that. I’ll see you out there. And by the way, it’s Danny. Mr Black’s my dad.”
Annie nodded as her handsome new colleague strode past her and sighed. She had a good feeling about this one.
Rita stood in the wings, straightening her tie. The house was packed. An age seemed to go by before a spotlight appeared and the compère announced:
“Ladies and Gentlemen! The Saturn Club is proud to present: Scotland’s very own Mr Moonshine, Danny Black!”
She stepped on-stage to modest applause. The band started up: (Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame. A bit of Elvis to shake up the jazz babies in the house. Rita gave it her all, along with plenty of pelvis.
The crowd loved Danny Black, “a little bag of swagger”, as one reviewer called him; “a sizzling jazz eunuch”, another said. But most of all, they adored his duets with Annie Hendry. Their voices blended, they had a natural rapport, they gave each other schtick between the songs. Their dance routines during the instrumental sections bordered on the pornographic. After three weeks, Danny Black had been signed by a major label and Danny and Annie found themselves singing on the BBC Light Programme. Mr Moonshine, as his fans called him, was now greeted by screaming teenage fans wherever he went.
As far as Annie was concerned, she had never had such a wonderful partner. Danny always walked her home after the last show of the night, and when she invited him in for coffee, he had only wanted coffee. This had been a relief for Annie at first, but six months down the line, now they were topping the charts, it had grown frustrating. He wasn’t her type. He was a man, for starters. But he was the only man to whom she had ever wanted to give more than coffee. She felt stupid, like a giggling schoolgirl, a stupid grin spreading over her face whenever he gave her that cheeky little wink of his, or held her in insinuating dance moves.
It was the night before Danny was due to perform at the Royal Variety Performance. He took Annie to the pictures, and in the darkness of the cinema, she dared to put her hand on top of his. She expected him to snatch his hand away, but instead he put his arm around her and cuddled her for the rest of the film. It just felt right. That night, when he came round to her flat for his usual nightcap, she took the plunge and kissed him. To her surprise, he reciprocated. His lips were soft, like a girl’s. She undressed in front of him and invited him to stay the night, but as soon as she tried to unbutton his shirt, he pushed her aside and made his excuses. She tried to stop him from leaving, but he said:
“I’m really sorry, Annie. I do love you, but I’m not what you’re looking for, believe me.”
She protested that he was.
“You’ll see,” he said. “You’ll see tomorrow night.”
She went to see him backstage at the Palladium. The red carpet was already in place. She told him to knock ’em dead. She thought he was about to cry. He was in a black leather jacket and leather trousers. She had never seen him looking so handsome, she told him. Even his crazy sideburns had been slicked down. She held him extra tightly then took her place in the audience.
He bounced onto the stage as usual. The teenage girls screamed and reached out for him as they always had done. Then he gave his trademark grin along with an insinuating bow to the Royal Box. The song began: “The Great Pretender”. The screams grew louder. Annie watched him wind up the crowd with his usual strutting, pouting and posing. He caressed the microphone stand as he sang. Annie thought her eardrums would burst with all the screaming.
When he reached the final verse, he moved his hand to his cheek as he sang and pulled off one of his sideburns, throwing it into the crowd. Then he removed the other one. Finally, as the song ended, he ripped off his jacket and trousers. Underneath the outfit he was wearing a luscious blue dress. With a flourish, he threw away his wig –
“It’s a girl!” someone cried.
The teenage girls were sobbing with confusion.
Rita stood in the spotlight and said: “Your Majesty, ladies and gentlemen, my name is Rita Samuels, and I was Danny Black all along.”
Annie ran out of the auditorium, the doors banging loudly behind her.
Rita gave a polite curtsey and left, the Royal Variety audience gawping at her.
She stood outside the theatre, looking for the best escape route. It was starting to snow and she had no coat. She felt a hand land on her shoulder.
“Ignore them,” Annie said. “I thought you were great.”
Ruth Gregson asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work