Over a generation before hip-hop dancers at DJ Jubilee’s New Orleans gigs were doing the Sissy Boom to bounce songs, or outré gay rappers Katey Red, Big Freedia, and Sissy Nobby turned the bounce scene on its…um…ear with the hyper-driven spin-off that has come to be known as Sissy Bounce, gay and straight denizens of local black nightclubs in the 1960s did a popular dance known variously as the Sissy, the Sophisticated Sissy, or the Sissy Strut.
The dance made its way to metropolitan areas around the country between 1964 and 1970, and more than 15 R&B and funk 45s name-checked it. New Orleans artists had the most Sissy-related records of any one area, with half a dozen. Today, the dance and most of the songs it spawned are nearly forgotten, but the trail of this unusual phenomenon of popular culture is worth following.
After nearly half a century, details of the Sissy’s origins are murky at best. Examples of songs using the term “sissy” can be found in blues recordings of the 1920s and 1930s by Ma Rainey (“Sissy Blues”) and Kokomo Arnold (“Sissy Man Blues”), but let’s just say that the lyrics weren’t about dancing! Members of the African-American community have long called gays “sissies,” and some eyewitnesses to the dance suggest that there was a connection between sissies and The Sissy.
During the 1960s, R&B vocalist and entertainer Willie West performed regularly across the Crescent City. He recalls the Sophisticated Sissy, as he heard it called, being “a dance that the gay guys started where you wave your arms around and switch your booty. I never did it, but saw it in the clubs. It caught on with the straight people. I don’t think the white people knew anything about it. It was mainly the black community imitating the way the gays switched and sashayed around.”
George Porter, Jr. and his wife, Ara laughed when they remembered seeing the dance during 1966 and 1967 at the Nite Cap club on the corner of Louisiana and Carondelet. At the time, the young George, his cousin, Zigaboo Modeliste, and Leo Nocentelli were the new rhythm section in Art Neville and the Neville Sounds, the band that would later become the Meters. While Porter confirmed West’s description of the dance, he wasn’t aware of the orientation of the dancers at the time. His wife Ara added that “everybody did it, gay and straight.”
The Sissy wasn’t strictly a New Orleans phenomenon, though. Funk and jazz guitarist Teddy Royal, who moved from the Big Apple to the Big Easy around 1970 to play in King Floyd’s road band, the Rhythm Masters, encountered the Sissy on the New York City club scene before he came south. He remembers it as “a wild dance, with lots of arm and hip action.”
These recollections from the straight side of the street describe the Sissy and its variations as an edgy but good-natured goof on the exaggerated mannerisms of effeminate gay males. Little about the dance’s origins are clear, but it seems more likely that the first dancers to do the Sissy were gay and celebrating their sexuality than it is that they were straight and mocking it. It’s hard to imagine that the dance would have caught on if the latter were true. The Sissy remained largely an underground phenomenon visible only in the club environment, but the dance became popular enough to inspire a spate of songs, none of which gave away its origins.
What appears to have been the first Sissy dance record came out in 1964 on the very small Chene label in San Francisco, which was probably not a coincidence. The featured side, “The Sissy”, was written and recorded by Bob and Earl, the Los Angeles-based R&B vocal duo best known for “Harlem Shuffle.” “The Cissy” had a syncopated thrust to its groove and innocuously generic dance song lyrics. While it was not a hit by any means, the tune was easy to move to and could have been a popular jukebox choice in certain neighborhoods. Since Bob and Earl surely designed the song to appeal to people already doing the dance, the City by the Bay seems promising as the place where Sissy dancing first took root.
New Orleans dancers must have been fairly early Sissy adopters, as “Do the Sissy”, the second-known song to refer to the dance, was released on the tiny local PJ Records label in 1966. Considering the city’s own sustaining gay culture and hordes of open-minded partiers, it’s easy to see why the dance caught on, though how it made its way to NOLA and beyond is open to speculation. Regardless, the Sissy was already part of the nightlife by the time Ninth Ward soul singer and auto mechanic Charles “Chuck” Simmons and his band, Charley Simmons and the Royal Imperials, featured “Do the Sissy” on their debut 45. The lyrics pretty much consisted of Simmons shouting out “sissy” while the band took a reasonable stab at the highly popular James Brown funk groove of the day. The record didn’t garner significant radio play, but it may have hit a few jukeboxes around town and reached its intended audience.
The next year, recording action on the Sissy moved to Memphis, where the king of novelty and dance tunes, Rufus Thomas, cut “Sophisticated Sissy” for Stax Records. It was a national hit, which music historian Rob Bowman attributes to the dance’s popularity, though a perfectly in the pocket Soulsville groove didn’t hurt. Written by greats on the studio staff, the lyrics had Rufus tell of being taught the dance at a disco, but conveniently neglected to describe how it was done. Then, in 1968, New Orleans tried to pick up where Thomas left off. Curley Moore, former lead vocalist for Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns, sang a wholly different “Sophisticated Sissy”, which appeared as a two-part single on Instant Records. Mid-tempo with a nicely syncopated groove, the song was well-liked, getting local radio play but no national response. The lyrics were a little hard to decipher in spots, but they did suggest that the dance involved shaking hips, backbone slips, and a bit of wiggling around.
Significantly, 1968 was also when Art Neville and the Neville Sounds were hired as house band for Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn’s production company, Sansu Enterprises. They quickly became recording artists in their own right and were rechristened the Meters, when their first ultra-grooving, impromptu, instrumental studio jams were released as singles early in 1969. Because they were untitled, Toussaint named the initial release “Sophisticated Cissy” as a take-off on the Thomas and Moore tunes, setting it apart and maybe even hoping to deflect connotations by spelling “sissy” with a “c.” When that tune quickly became a national hit, he called the follow-up “Cissy Strut”, and it got even higher in the charts. Both songs remain influential funk benchmarks that probably did more to get “Sissy/Cissy” into funk music consciousness than any other records, even though the Meters themselves never intended them to be Sissy songs.
After that, only two other New Orleans records referenced the dance. Barely released at all, “Dance of the Sophisticated Sissy” by the Bobby Williams Group was a strange rock and R&B instrumental hybrid that appeared fleetingly around 1969 on the Seven B label as a very limited edition 45, maybe for DJs. Only a few copies have ever been found. The other was an Eddie Bo production on Scram Records, “Sissy Walk, Pts. 1 & 2”, with Sonny Jones confusingly named as the artist on the label since Bo actually sang and played keyboard on the track with the studio band. Any attention it merited was soon completely overshadowed by Bo’s impressive 1969 funk hit, “Hook and Sling”.
The brief span from 1968 to 1969 produced by far the most Sissy/Cissy songs nationwide, with well over half being released during the period. That big bump can probably be attributed to the Meters’ success, which encouraged more bands to incorporate the dance name on their records. But, by about 1970, the Sissy seems to have run its course. Its impact, though limited, was certainly felt, at least in New Orleans, where the mixing of the gay and straight communities on the dance floors signified that social change was brewing. It really didn’t matter who was gay or straight in a club when everybody was doing the same outrageous dance.
So can the sissy songs and moves that push the envelope in New Orleans today be linked back to those of the original Sissy craze? No one consulted for this piece would go so far as to make that claim. But in a city of deep, cultural complexity and resonance where anything seems musically possible, when it comes to loose- booty dancing, the more you get into the grooves, the easier it is to believe that it’s all connected somehow.