Willmer “Little Axe” Broadnax: Gospel Singer and Secret Transman

And here’s some history I learned only last year, of the transgender kind. It may remind you of the story of Billy Tipton, a jazz musician who only at his death it was found that he was a woman, passing as a man for decades (see my blog entry and website page). The same secret truth existed for Willmer Broadnax, known as Little Axe. Born and raised in Houston, he started his career young. During the 1940s and 50s he sang with some of the finest groups in gospel music, including the Golden Echoes, the Fairfield Four and the Blind Boys of Mississippi. By the 1960s the popularity of the gospel quartets was fading and he retired to Philadelphia, though he did perform once in a while during the 70s and 80s. He met a violent death at age 75 in 1994 when he was stabbed by his girlfriend. It was only then discovered that he was a transman.

I believe racism plays a hand when you compare the Tipton and Broadnax stories. Tipton’s death received a lot of publicity, a big article in People magazine, and a book on him was written, despite him being almost unknown as a musician when alive. Tipton released only two albums, on a budget label. Broadnax, in his genre of gospel, performed in several very prominent groups, recorded for decades, and died five years after Tipton. Little publicity, no book…but then he was black.

Read the LP Liner Notes
I learned about Willmer Broadnax from Transgriot, the wonderful blog
of Monica Roberts. Check out her much more detailed telling of his story.