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BORN THIS WAY: HOW BLACK GAY MEN CHANGED POP MUSIC
(PART ONE)

It happened in the summer of ‘75, during one of New York City’s most popular afternoon drive-time shows. The DJ was “Chief Rocker” Frankie Crocker, dubbed “the radio equivalent of Muhammed Ali” by the New York Daily News. His guests that day on WBLS were the artist Valentino and business impresario Bunny Jones. They were, respectively, the performer and co-writer/producer of the funky gay anthem “I Was Born This Way.”  

Jones, a heterosexual Black woman, explained why she believed so strongly in the song, even enlisting friend Stevie Wonder to play drums on the track. As proprietor of several Harlem beauty salons, where many employees were gay, Jones expressed a sentiment she’d shared in other interviews but never in such a high-profile mainstream forum, “I began to feel that gays are more suppressed than Blacks… You hear of great designers or famous hairdressers, and that’s about as far as society will let gays go.”  

Jones’ heartfelt assertion might not have captured the complexity of intersectional oppression, i.e. the particular challenges of being both Black and gay, but it did, no doubt, provoke needed conversations about homophobia. And the song she was promoting, “I Was Born This Way,” which became a Top 15 Disco hit two years later when covered by Motown artist and former gospel singer Carl Bean, went on to have far more significance than anyone likely could have imagined in that brief on-air moment. Indeed, it became the foundation of one of the most zeitgeist-defining hits of the new millennium.  

On 5/23/21, Lady Gaga tweeted,“Born This Way, my song and album, were inspired by Carl Bean, a gay Black religious activist who preached, sang and wrote about being ‘Born This Way.’”

The fact that a white woman would find such inspiration in a song by a Black artist reflects the importance Black music has played in American culture since the days of enslavement, providing a way to express a longing for freedom. Historically, the musical expressions of gay Black men—dealing with racism and homophobia—have extended this desire to transcend constraints to the categories of gender and sexuality. This applies to the ferocious founding father of rock ‘n’ roll Little Richard, as well as to the glittery disco superstar Sylvester and the rapper and social-media charmer Saucy Santana, who sports a bearded “beat face” and was recently signed to RCA.  

The stories of these artists—and others like them—have long gone untold in the histories of pop music. This mirrors the larger marginalization of gay men in the Black community and Black men in the gay community. The impact of these men, however, is undeniable. It is best understood not as a continuous, chain-link narrative but similar to movements like feminism, as a series of waves. Sometimes, these rushes of influence overlap; other times, they wash away what came before. In every case, though, they clear creative pathways for artists seeking to break free of the societal ties that bind.

“Freakish Men” and the Blues

“How long, babe, how long/Has that evenin’ train been gone?/How long, how long?” So went the 1928 blues hit “How Long, How Long Blues” by the duo Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell. The song spoke to the loneliness experienced by millions of African Americans who migrated from the South to the North in the early 20th century and to those who stayed behind.  

When performed by Chicago singing sensation and female impersonator Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon in the 1930s, however, the tune took on an entirely different meaning; Jim Elledge writes in The Boys of Fairy Town that Jaxon flipped the script and turned the mournful song into “a meditation on the size of a man’s penis.”

On the surface, Jaxon’s lyrical twist might seem dismissive of the deep pain experienced by displaced people. But it actually limned the emotions of some Black people who fled the South as much as the original. As Angela Davis asserts in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, “For the first time in the history of the African presence in North America, masses of Black women and men were in a position to make autonomous decisions regarding the sexual partnerships in which they entered. Sexuality was one of the most tangible domains in which emancipation was acted upon.”

The blues provided the soundtrack to this emancipation. Black women like Mamie Smith—who, in 1920, made “Crazy Blues,” the first record created by African Americans for African Americans—were at the forefront of disseminating these erotically liberated sounds. But Black “sissies,” in the parlance of the time, such as Jaxon and fellow Chicagoan George Hannah, who recorded “Freakish Man Blues” in 1930, were also part of the movement. Together, these women and men created a lane that allowed future pop singers to candidly express sexual desires, whatever form they might take.

The Secret World of Gospel

In the early 1950s, Mahalia Jackson, the woman who popularized gospel music around the world, was behind the wheel of a car racing to a Chicago concert. Several male gospel singers were with her, including twentysomething Alex Bradford, who’d been singing for the Lord since he was 13. Suddenly, a policeman stopped the car for speeding.

Jackson pleaded with the cop to let her be on her way, “Officer, darlin’, would you please let Halie go to her program?”

“Your what?” asked the policeman. “You’re who?”

“Officer, darlin’, I’m Mahalia Jackson, the world’s greatest gospel singer, and I’m going to my concert.”

“But ma’am, if you’re such a great gospel singer, why are you in a car filled with men?”

Jackson chuckled, “Officer, darlin’, these ain’t men-—these sissies!”

This incident, detailed in Anthony Heilbut’s The Fan Who Knew Too Much, expresses both the central role Black gay men played in the creation of gospel and the prejudice they faced, ranging from Jackson’s condescending attitude to verbal attacks from the pulpit. Artists like Bradford—who’d retort, “Don’t rob a sissy of his dignity”—shaped a sound that would become synonymous with emotional authenticity in American popular music.

Called “one of gospel’s greatest innovators” by critic Robert Darden, Bradford wrote many songs that carry a profound double meaning when heard in the context of his being gay. In the religious community, “the world” generally refers to nonbelievers. But on Bradford’s “I Don’t Care What the World May Do,” the “world” might also be a way to critique the homophobia of society at large. On “He Leads Me Safely Through,” Bradford seems to readdress any judgment cast upon him because of whom he desires. With the kind of whoops, wails and hollers that would come to be associated with one of his artistic admirers, the self-proclaimed “architect of rock ’n’ roll,” Little Richard, Bradford sings, “God knows all about me/The good and bad I’ve done.”

Bradford left his stamp on many pop-music greats. Ray Charles’ #1 R&B hit “I Got a Woman” is essentially a secular reworking of Bradford’s “Can’t Trust Nobody.” A young Bob Marley covered Bradford’s “Let the Lord Be Seen in You” in 1964 (Marley did it as “Seen in Me”). And several rock musicians, including members of The Beatles, attended Bradford’s shows.  

The singer/songwriter, described by friend Heilbut as a “party man,” even boasted that his appeal to some rock artists extended beyond music; “He claimed he’d slept with Mick Jagger and a couple of The Kinks,” said a not-entirely-convinced Heilbut.  

In 1978, at age 58, Bradford died after suffering a stroke. Not surprisingly, he had written a song for the occasion. “Last Goodbye” finds him singing, “When you get the news that Bradford’s gone on home… I want you to know that my soul will be saying hello to the Lord.” It’s almost incomprehensible that someone lionized by so many iconic artists is virtually missing in action when it comes to the recorded history of popular music.  

All the Sad Young Men

Roberta Flack closed her debut album, 1969’s First Take, by crooning, “Sing a song of sad young men/Glasses full of rye/All the news is bad again/Kiss your dreams goodbye.” The song might’ve been intended to express empathy with socially marginalized gay men, but it is so downcast that it flirts with homophobia.  

Such were the times, when, as Richard Dyer writes in The Culture of Queers, “The stereotype of the sad young man is found in probably all representational media… in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.” Part of this stereotype involved, Dyer continues, “perceiving the city as a world of loneliness, loosened moral order [and] fleeting contact.” Many Black gay artists who established their careers during this period were represented in precisely this manner.

In Ebony’s 1957 profile of a then-22-year-old Johnny Mathis, “The Boy With the Golden Voice” [emphasis added], he was pictured walking alone down 125th Street in Harlem, unsmiling, his eyes turned away from the camera. This and other depictions so entrenched Mathis’ forlorn, hopelessly romantic persona that nothing he later did could seem to undo it. As Vincent Stephens recounts in Rocking the Closet, Mathis dished to the gay periodical The Advocate in 1976 that he “balled a lot of times” to his own music and told US Weekly in 1982 that “homosexuality is a way of life that I’ve grown accustomed to.” But none of these revelations changed the way he was viewed by the mainstream public—it was as if people pretended the sexual gay Mathis didn’t exist.

18-year-old Ronnie Dyson arrived on the landscape as one of the standout performers in the 1968 Broadway sensation Hair—the generational anthem “Aquarius” was written expressly for him. He made such yearning ballads as “Just Don’t Want to be Lonely” and “One Man Band (Plays All Alone),” co-written by Thom Bell and Linda Creed. (The team would later pen the touching, first-person account of gay city life, “Children of the Night,” recorded by The Stylistics, The Jones Girls, Cassandra Wilson and others.)  

And Dyson didn’t shy away from gay themes. He sang the moving theme to the 1971 prison drama Fortune and Men’s Eyes, a musical interpretation of Shakespeare’s 29th Sonnet, addressed to another man. In 1983, after being dropped by Columbia because of poor sales and on the verge of being let go by his new label, Cotillion, Dyson worked with producer Butch Ingram to create songs that spoke more directly to his life. “He needed to come out of the closet so he could be comfortable with himself,” said Ingram, who wrote such uptempo cuts for Dyson as “All Over Your Face,” an unsubtle bit of sexual innuendo, and “You Better Be Fierce,” referencing gay slang.

Dyson was unable to build on the creative freedom he found with Ingram, however. In November 1990, while recording new material, the longtime chain smoker had trouble catching his breath. Ingram rushed him to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with a lung infection. Dyson died within the week.

Coming up in Part Two: Disco-era provocateurs, keepers of the flame and hip-hop iconoclasts.

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