This essay uses two musicians, Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton and Richard "Little Richard" Penniman, to add a focus on queerness and the sociopolitical climate of the Cold War to the historiography on race, politics, and rock 'n' roll music. Thornton and Penniman were gender-nonconforming black musicians who began their recording careers in the South in the early 1950s. Both demonstrate how queerness was an indelible part of the early rhythm and blues performances that influenced the development of rock 'n' roll. The backlash against queerness during the Cold War and the related focus on respectability during the civil rights movement, however, increasingly affected the ways that black artists could express gender nonconformity. While frank discussions of queerness had appeared in blues music of the 1920s and 1930s, the racialized sexual politics of the fifties led to backlash a generation later. Nevertheless, Thornton and Penniman found ways to subvert normative ideas about gender. These queer black musicians' gender nonconformity helped establish the rebellious nature of rock 'n' roll, which shows how black southern queer performance influenced the genre in the 1950s and beyond.