Feather boas, music, a few tears – and plenty of laughter – marked the Sept. 17 memorial service for Atlanta icon Diamond Lil at the Spiritual Living Center of Atlanta.
More than 100 people packed into the center on Northeast Expressway, the church Diamond Lil attended, to share memories and remember the life of the drag superstar whose career began in Savannah before she moved to Atlanta in the 1960s. She died on Aug. 9 at age 80 after a cancer battle.
Rev. Joyce Rennolds said Diamond Lil would often ask her about her dress and makeup.
“She would ask me, ‘Is this too much?’ and I would say, ‘Yes, it is,’ and she would answer, ‘That’s good!’” Rennolds said to laughter.
Many speaking at the service recalled Diamond Lil’s strength of character, of being fearless in a time when wearing women’s clothes often got you tossed in jail.
After being arrested numerous times in Savannah for performing in drag, Diamond Lil made her way to Atlanta where she performed at such venues as Mrs. P’s, Sweet Gumhead and the short-lived Club Centaur.
“To see somebody so free and colorful and over-the-top … I thought, wow, you can be this way. It can be great to be openly gay,” said Atlanta LGBT historian Dave Hayward.
Diamond Lil forged her own path in Atlanta’s drag scene, for singing and writing her own songs and also for singing in her own voice rather than lip-syncing. She put out several albums and was known for popular songs, “Silver Grill Blues,” an ode to the now-closed dive restaurant on Monroe Drive, and “Cabbagetown Katie.”
And music was a major theme throughout the service. Friend Alan Sugar sang “Diamond’s Song,” a song he wrote for Diamond Lil years ago.
After he told her he wrote a song about her, Sugar said Diamond Lil became insistent on hearing it.
“She started stalking me. But it was the best kind of stalking – fishnet stocking,” he said with a smile.
David Reeb accompanied Mark Denton, another dear friend, on piano to sing the song, “Lil Joe,” a song Diamond Lil wrote the lyrics and music for.
Manning Harris, a close friend who would drive Diamond Lil to church, said he was always “tickled and thrilled” to see her as she descended the steps at her home to get into his car.
“It was a joy to be in her presence,” he said.
Harris said he first saw her perform in the 1970s and was “knocked out” by her performance. He came to know her in the 1980s and 1990s and said Diamond Lil was the ultimate professional entertainer as well as a charmer.
“She charmed everyone,” Harris said.
Ashley Robinson, a former opera singer, performed a rousing rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “Carousel.”
Jennifer Fenn, a second cousin to Diamond Lil, credited the drag legend for inspiring her to take up singing again. She sang “Alice Sweet Alice,” another Diamond Lil original. The lyrics:
Alice sweet Alice, you’ve gone to your wonder-land
How I miss your soulful brown eyes and your loving hand
Your girlish smile your stature petite
Heaven lent us a gal so sweet
The tender moments that both of us shared
The funny places we’d go
Your clever wit and your look beguile
There was never a time when you couldn’t stay a while
Alice sweet Alice you’ve gone to your wonder-land
As the meaning of life slowly disappears
I just don’t understand
But I’ll see you again in the heavenly sky
When the clouds roll on by
A reception after the service included chicken for everyone to memorialize Diamond Lil’s tradition of passing out chicken when singing her classic, “Silver Grill Blues.”
[Photos by Dyana Bagby]