Les Harrison, 77, a Black drag performer who entertained Philadelphia LGBT audiences for five decades, died Friday, Aug. 14, of complications from liver cancer and sepsis at Penn Rittenhouse Hospice.
His given name was Albert R. Price. His public persona was Les Harrison, a glitzy show girl and early female impersonator who, starting in 1967, paved the way for others to perform in drag on local stages.
“He was a very gentle, unassuming guy and a fabulous performer who viewed himself as a parent to a whole generation of drag performers,” said Chris Bartlett, executive director of the William Way Community Center. “He taught them not only how to perform, but how to survive. He maintained those relationships for decades.”
Mr. Harrison was one of the first Black drag queens to integrate nightclubs in Philadelphia, a scene that had been segregated for years. He did so at a time when top police officials in the city objected to the races mixing in nightclubs and bars.
One of the venues Mr. Harrison played was the New Forrest Lounge at 206 S. Quince St. Others were Miss P’s at 18th and Lombard Streets; OZ, the gay disco bar at Camac and St. James Streets; and the 5 O’Clock Club on Frankford Avenue.
Mr. Harrison made his reputation as a Shirley Bassey impersonator. In fact, he was promoted as “Philly’s own Shirley Bassey.”
“He was always so polished,” said Henri David, an impresario in Philadelphia who produces large events. “He studied and studied and worked very hard to make it real. He looked like her and his moves were amazing. That generation who knew who she was — they were just floored.”
Bassey, a Welsh singer, stood out for her strong, sultry voice, sequined gowns, and lavish jewelry. A forerunner of the pop divas of the late 20th-century, she recorded the theme songs to the James Bond movies Goldfinger (1964), Diamonds Are Forever (1971), and Moonraker (1979).
According to his former wife, Frances “Franny” Price, he was one of the first Black drag queens and female impersonators in Philadelphia, and the only Black drag queen to have a traveling revue of his own that toured the country from 1973 to 1975. His wife was his driver, and light and sound technician.
The show was called “Viva Les Boys.” The seven-member troupe put on shows up and down the Eastern Seaboard and in Canada.
He also appeared at hundreds of fund-raisers, mostly in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and South Jersey. Before going out on his own, he toured with the group the Fabulous Fakes from 1969 to 1973.
As a sidelight, he designed and sewed all his own costumes. He helped fellow performers with their finery and even helped outfit a Mummers string band.
He stopped performing in January because of declining health.
Born in Vineland, N.J., Mr. Harrison was raised in the mixed-race community near 10th and South Streets. He attended South Philadelphia High School.
He learned his craft by going to the 5 O’Clock Club as a teenager and begging the bartender to put him in the chorus of a revue. Afterward, he was launched, said Price.
Mr. Harrison was very personable. “He always remembered who was in your life and would always ask how each one was doing when he talked to you,” Price said.
“He would come out into the audience after each show and talk to everyone individually in the theater or bar to see how they liked the show,” she said. “His opening line to them was, ‘Not bad for an old showgirl, don’t you think?’”
He closed every show with: “It doesn’t matter who you love or how you love, only that you love.”
In addition to his former wife, he is survived by a son, Les Harrison Price; a sister and a brother; and 14 nieces and nephews. Jackson DeLowrey, his partner of many years, died earlier.