Her albums were likely tucked away in your parents’ record cabinet, hidden behind the Supremes and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. With titles such as “Songs for Sinners,” “Sinsational,” “Banned in Boston,” and, of course, “Knockers Up!,” Rusty Warren was a lascivious comedian who was as adept at playing the piano and writing songs as she was at making her audiences laugh and blush at the same time.
“Connie Francis likes to sing of teenage romance,” Warren belted out on her 1964 album “Sex-X-Ponent.” “But to sing about the sack, and the mattress at your back, that’s why Rusty was born.”
The 1960s queen of risqué pillow talk died of natural causes on May 25 at 91, and while some in the comedy world have acknowledged her contributions, Warren was never able to break into the mainstream like her contemporary, Phyllis Diller, because her material went well beyond housewife jokes. Warren’s brand of blue comedy sauntered straight to the bedroom and climbed under the sheets. By today’s standards it’s tame, but when she debuted in the 1950s, she was downright avant-garde. Although not everyone was a fan.
“In short, she is just another dirty comedian who deprives sex of all its grace and sophistication while she claims to be helping inhibited females enjoy themselves,” Time magazine wrote in 1963. But that didn’t stop busloads of women from coming to her shows and buying her albums.
Long before Helen Gurley Brown arrived with “Sex and the Single Girl,” Warren was singing about the pill and cheekily dispensing no-nonsense advice about sex from the stage. She didn’t peddle jokes with punchlines, she told stories, such as the one about a group of women who came to watch her perform, clutched their pearls, and acted offended by Warren’s advice.
“They talk about me, and they whisper about me, and then they go home and try it all out,” she joked on her hit 1960 album “Knockers Up!,” which sold millions. The record was so successful that Warren referred to her home in Arizona as “the house that ‘Knockers’ built.”
“I was one of the first loudmouth women to admit that we liked sex,” Warren said in a 1987 interview. “I guess I said it long before women ever talked that way. Rusty, onstage, was a lady. I was very elegant. I wore the diamonds and the jewels because if I looked that way, I could get away with a lot.”
The woman behind the jewels and fashionable evening dresses grew up in Milton as Ilene Goldman. She appeared at the annual Tanglewood Music Festival under the direction of Arthur Fiedler when she was 19. She attended the New England Conservatory of Music before launching her career in Boston cocktail lounges. Warren, who was a lesbian, said her comedy developed from banter with patrons at the bars, which grew more popular than her piano sets.
More than 60 years later, many of her “party albums,” as they were called in the day, sound quite wholesome. However it’s easy to imagine that her husky-voiced exuberance would have been a revelation to a country that was living in an age of sugary, repressed pop culture.
She proudly stated in interviews that she never used four-letter words in her sets, instead relying on her wit and charm to entertain. Even without swears, her albums bore labels that read “adults only,” which kept her from appearing on television at the time. Even without spots on Johnny Carson, Warren still made an impact.
More than a decade before Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” call to arms, Warren offered her protofeminist, anthem “Knockers Up!” In the song, she tells women to throw their shoulders back and lift their chests. Her bosom-forward approach was not offered as a means to entice men, it was a military-like show of female power. It became her most popular song; she was subsequently always introduced as “That knockers-up gal, Rusty Warren.”
She played Vegas residencies, toured the country, and her albums landed in the Billboard charts. But Warren’s waning success by the end of the 1960s had nothing to do with her material, which remained gently acerbic and as observationally keen as ever. It was that the world finally caught up with her. Talk of sex in the age of “Hair” and “The Graduate” was no longer the stuff of party albums that needed to be hidden behind the Supremes’ LPs. By 1968, she said she felt she had “become a nun in my own business.”
Instead of a nun, maybe the best way to remember Warren is to think of her as the bouffant-wearing patron saint of raunchy female comics. With shoulders back and knockers held high, Warren kicked open the door for the likes of Nikki Glaser, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Whitney Cummings, and Amy Schumer.
“I was touching all of those ladies who were out there [in the audience], who were married with three kids,” Warren said in a 2017 podcast. “I got them marching.”
Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther and Instagram @chris_muther.